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What to do if an adult child calls you toxic

How Not to Be a Toxic Parent

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Are you being the best parent you can be?

While we may not expect any Parent of the Year awards for the decades we spent raising kids, most of us believe we did a good job. But sometimes our adult children feel differently, blaming their disappointments on what we did — or didn't do — as parents.

In extreme cases, some even label their parents "toxic" and cut off contact. The level of estrangement can range from bypassing family events to a total information blackout. One of the most traumatic situations is when adult kids won't allow parents to visit with grandchildren.

Some parents are left in the dark, unaware of their alleged shortcomings. Others are told quite explicitly of their sins: being controlling, opinionated, selfish, demanding, manipulative and so on. Millennial websites and blogs post listicles with headlines such as "9 Signs You Have a Toxic Parent."

"Boundaries" has become a favorite buzzword of millennials, says San Francisco psychologist Joshua Coleman, author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along. "Many parents are getting called toxic because they don't know what the boundaries are with their adult children," he says. That stems from parents wanting to be close friends with their offspring, which can bring both disappointment and conflict for both parties. Other reasons for estrangement include anger over divorce; parental disapproval of a lifestyle, career or partner; or a parent's emotional and mental problems.

But Coleman says parents may not be completely at fault. So what should you do if you become the dumping ground for a child's disappointments? His advice:

  • Try to understand, and avoid being defensive. Saying "I did the best I could" will fall on deaf ears. "They are telling you something important about their feelings or relationship with you or how you communicate to them," Coleman says. Listen without passing judgment.
  • Look for a kernel of truth. Realize that you and your child are recalling the same situation but from very different perspectives. "In today's culture, where parents are supposed to be everything, it's really easy for a child to say, 'You should have known that I needed to be pushed more or less, or was depressed or needed a tutor.'" Perhaps in hindsight, that's true.
  • Take your emotions out of the picture. When your child complains that you were always at work when they were growing up, for example, resist the temptation to lash back, pointing out that you worked hard to afford their education, for instance. Instead try, "Yes, I did end up missing a lot of things that were really important to you. I wish I could have been there. I can see how that might have impacted you."
  • Go slow. Ending an estrangement generally takes time and often therapy. Sometimes it's only when adult children experience the emotional vacuum of a life without parents that they will begin to consider reconciliation. Even then, Coleman recommends parents tread carefully. "If a kid is capable of estranging you once, he's capable of doing it again. There's a greater fragility in the connection."
  • Write an amends letter. When a child refuses contact over a period of time, Coleman suggests writing a letter, without sounding defensive, that tries to understand his or her complaints and why the break happened. If you don't receive a reply, follow up six weeks later and then maybe every few months. "Never give up," he says.

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at

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