Ask The Therapist: “My Father Disowned Half His Children..”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, or simply need advice about their problems, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained counsellor. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“I’m a young doctor and I graduated 2 years ago. Currently, I’m trying to work towards my residency in the US. 

My problems at home stem from my parents never actually liking each other. Age Gap. Educational gap. Mindset difference. Whatever the reasons may be, they dragged their marriage out, and us siblings had to suffer. It came to the point where they both started expecting us to pick sides with one of them. 

Two years ago we moving into a newly constructed house. That literally broke us as a family. Issues about finances and taking credit for building the house, and things like that started erupting between my dad and mom.They separated for a few months. 

My father disowned half of his children because we failed to take his side. He told me I’m dead to him because I started taking care of my mother during his time away. I also had to take care of the grocery shopping, and bills, and everything else. This is just one story out of many from all these years of suffering. I don’t even have the energy to explain or repeat them all.   

Hearing from my dad that I am dead to him, and then the burden of my own responsibilities altogether took a huge toll on me. As of right now, I’m 2 years late for my exam and I still feel like I can’t follow through with it. I have all the ambition it takes. I just don’t have the energy after having gone through so much. Help!

Haya’s Response

Dear Anonymous,

What you are going through can be categorically defined as emotional abuse via toxic parents. Before I move onto the ways you might be able to deal with your particular situation, here are the classic signs of toxic behaviour that you might be able to resonate with. 

1) Self Centred and Lacking Empathy: They always put their own needs before anyone elses, and don’t consider other peoples needs or feelings. They don’t think about how their behaviour impacts others, and they have a hard time understanding how other people feel.

2) Emotionally Reactive: Toxic parents often have difficulty controlling their emotions. They overreact, are ‘dramatic,’ or unpredictable.

3) Controlling: They want to tell you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Toxic parents always want to have the upper hand. Guilt and money are common ways they exert power and control.

4) Anger: They’re harsh and aggressive. Or they might be passive-aggressive – using the silent treatment, snide comments said under their breath, or intentionally forgetting things you have said.

5) Critical: Nothing you do is ever good enough for a toxic parent. They pick faults with everything.

6) Manipulative: They twist the truth to make themselves look good. They use guilt and denial to get what they want by redefining your view of things for you.

7) Blame: They don’t take responsibility for their own behaviour, won’t own their part in contributing to family dysfunction, and blame it all on you (or another scapegoat).

8) Demanding: They expect you to drop everything to tend to their needs. Again, they have no concern for you, your schedule, or your needs: it’s all about them and what you can do to serve them.

9) Lack Boundaries: They intrude into your personal space and don’t accept that you are a grown adult. They want to know about your personal life, and exert a sense of control and entitlement over you in all facets. 

10) Dependent: Your parents have an unhealthy reliance on you. 

And the last sign that you have toxic parents is about how you feel rather than what they do.

You feel bad when you talk to, spend time with, or think about them. You feel worse after an encounter with your parents. You dread talking to them. Even the thought of your toxic parents can cause your body to tense up and your stomach to churn. Painful memories may surface when you least expect them, which are almost always in some way associated to the behaviour of your parents. Their negative energy taints everything they touch. If you have toxic parents, you probably weren’t encouraged to have your own feelings, so you might not be used to noticing them change. Pay extra close attention to your feelings and notice whether your parents trigger feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, shame, or other negative emotions frequently. 

Sound familiar?

Growing up and seeing your parents not get along can be a traumatic experience for any child. Your parents making you choose sides isn’t fair, nor an easy decision to have to make. Moreover, your dad disowning you, in addition to him leaving, and you being told that you are ‘dead to him’ and  becoming tasked with bearing all the financial expenses for the household is an overwhelming amount to have to process and cope with in a short period of time.  

Traumatic childhoods breed wounds from abusive or dysfunctional parenting that we display as adults. When these wounds fail to heal, toxic parents can re-injure us in ways that make growth and recovery difficult. When we grow up with dysfunctional parenting, we often do not even recognise it as such.

The behaviour you’ve described by your father indicates a sense of entitlement he feels over you. Your individuality is not valued, making you feel like you are not good enough. All of this has take a toll on your mental health and may have made you feel like you are at fault. It might have put you in a cycle of low self esteem and self blame / doubt. This has naturally had an impact on the other areas of your life, like your career and relationships. Despite being ambitious and possessing all the tools you need to give your exam, it is the self doubt about abilities, and your low esteem that is preventing you from giving your exam. The key to overcoming this is to build your confidence and self esteem back up again from scratch — it’s hard, but not impossible. 

As an adult, you now need to take certain steps for yourself. You have to choose your own beliefs, attitudes, values, rules and roles for yourself as an adult. This is where you have the chance to throw out the burden of your parents choices. You are your own individual person as of now, and should only have to deal with the benefits and repercussions of the decisions you have made for yourself. 

To begin with, you have to be assertive and set boundaries. Sometimes it’s impossible to hold on to healthy behaviour patterns when you’re around toxic behaviour. Boundaries are learned through the institute of the family, after all. You need to be able to create a space for yourself where you feel you are respected. Have you tried expressing to them how this is really making you feel, Tried to reason with them, or communicate with them, only for all of it to fall on deaf ears? You need to realize that you owe nothing to your toxic parents. You owe everything to the wonderful future you have the complete freedom to create ahead of you. The people you allow into your personal space are the ones that support you and empower you. Don’t wait for anyones permission to be happy, to make your own decisions, or to validate you.

It’s imperative that you detach from your toxic parents. Detaching is an emotional concept and has nothing to do with physical proximity. It means not reacting, not taking things personally, and not feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings, wants, and needs. Our parents can easily push our buttons. That’s because they’re the ones that put them there! It’s harder to not react to our parents than it is to our friends and partners, with whom we’re on more equal footing. Even if you move as far away as you can, emotionally you may still react and have trouble detaching from a parental figure or family member.

I understand that relationships with toxic parents can be hard to walk away from. You may need distance from your parents to create the boundaries that you’re unable to make verbally. Breaking ties with a toxic presence can reduce emotional tension, but the underlying problems remain and can affect your other relationships from flourishing. The ideal way to become independent from your family is to work on yourself in therapy. Then visit your parents and practice what you’ve learned. It’s far better for your growth to learn how to respond to abuse rather than to suffer it silently.

Pay attention to unspoken rules, boundary patterns, and communication patterns. Try behaving in a way that’s different from the role you played growing up. Ask yourself, 

What am I afraid of?’ 

Remember that although you may suddenly feel like a child when you are around your parents, you aren’t one. You are a powerful adult. You can leave — an option that was closed off to you as a child. 

Healing a relationship begins with you — your feelings and attitudes. Sometimes working on yourself is all it takes. That doesn’t imply that your parents will change, but that you should. You should always work on evolving, growing, and reflecting. Sometimes forgiveness is necessary, or a conversation is required. Here are some things to think about when it comes to your family.

  • Your parents don’t have to heal for you to get better.
  • Cutting them off isn’t always the answer.
  • You are not your parents.
  • You’re not the abusive things they say about you.
  • You don’t have to like your parents, but you might still be attached, and love them.
  • You can’t change or rescue family members.
  • Indifference, not hatred or anger, is the opposite of love.
  • Hating someone obstructs loving yourself.
  • Unresolved anger and resentment will only hurt you.

Please remember that it’s not your fault. Recognizing that your parents have significant problems, and are unlikely to change, paves the way to acceptance. And when we accept people as they are, we free ourselves from the struggle of trying to change them. We can move on to grieving the loss of the ideal parent-child relationship we always wished for. Acceptance is very helpful in restoring your peace of mind.

PS – good luck with taking that exam! You know your own potential — don’t limit it! The answer is within you, you just need to seek it. Give yourself credit for making it this far. You deserve it. Appreciate yourself and acknowledge yourself for all that you do. Remember, you will need to be the hero of the life you have dreamed of. 

We at Mashion realize the sensitivity and widespread nature of issues like this and have a committed interest in bringing more awareness and exposure to topics and stories like these. Haya Malik is a certified Humanistic Integrative Counsellor and psychotherapist. She will be answering mental health questions weekly on Mashion, to send in your questions, email support@mashion.pk. All questions will remain anonymous. 

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