Setting boundaries with toxic parents

boundaries with toxic parents

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Someone recently wrote to me asking the following question. I have changed this person’s name to protect their privacy:

When you’re an adult and one of your parents have always made decisions that corrupt the whole circle of the family, and they continue to make the same choices, when is it okay to walk away? I know honor your mother and father is important, but where’s the line when their actions are bad, not just for me but my family? I have found truth in knowing I will never have the daddy I’ve always wanted, but his actions are so bad and downright obnoxious. Signed — Gale

Hi Gale, thanks for writing, and for a great blog post idea. I feel like I have a fairly clear grasp of your question, except for what you mean by “walk away.” Are you talking about cutting off all contact with your father forever, or just choosing not to go over to his house anymore? It is just your father, or is a mom or step-mom involved too? This is a boundaries issue, but the severity of the action you take is, of course, determined by the severity with which his/their choices have affected you and your family.

You can, and should, protect yourself and your family from toxic choices made by others.

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God’s Love, prt. 3


God's Love w/ Pencils

Image courtesy of Stephen Cuyos, licensed under Creative Commons

Remember, Jesus himself invited the comparison of God’s love to the love of human parents for our children. If you extend your love to your children constantly, every second, for a specified number of years, are you then justified in killing or torturing them for having not responded? Could you even desire to? If you were capable of doing that , wouldn’t that mean — by obvious definition — that you never really loved them to begin with? Wasn’t Jesus example on the cross saying that love transcends death — that it pays the ultimate price, that it goes to hell and back again, that there is nothing that can come between us and God? Wasn’t Paul saying that in Romans 8? If so, doesn’t that sound to you very much like the love we human parents know for our own children, even though our love is so imperfect?

It’s hard enough that our humanity prevents us from loving fully. It does not help  matters that we don’t allow ourselves theologically to integrate what we already know about love as parents with what we believe about God’s love for us. If God’s love for me ultimately will allow him to do something horrible to me, then as far as I’m concerned God doesn’t love me at all. As a parent, I will love my girls forever and ever, no matter what they do, whether they ever respond or not. No matter how badly they would ever treat me, my dying breath would be a wish for their well-being. Don’t you love your kids that way? If you do, it is heroic or kindly of you? Of course not. Good parents just can’t help loving our kids that way. There’s nothing we can do about it. They are ours, and we are forever in their corner no matter what. Every decent parent on earth knows that. Are we supposed to deny this natural knowledge of love in order to lower the standard for God? Jesus seemed to be saying God’s love is superior to, greater than, ours. I believe it.

Let’s face it. As parents the only reason many of us can tolerate those terrible doctor trips to get vaccinations is because we keep reminding ourselves it’s for a greater good. We innately understand this to be the only possible justification for allowing or inflicting suffering, except where God’s love is concerned, in which case we seem okay holding God to that lower standard I referred to. In our teaching, the God who was enfleshed, lived, and died specifically to redeem us somehow transforms into a God whose redemption was limited to the briefest span of our lives — that being our lives on this planet in these bodies. (Sidebar: One of the best contributions of the idea of purgatory is that human suffering in the next life at least has redemptive purposes. In fact if one believes God consigns humans to hell, it is perhaps only the idea of purgatory that makes it rational in any sense.) If I have to believe God will dish out wanton and unredemptive suffering to me or anyone I love, then God would be my enemy. That is a realistic thing to consider. Perhaps God is an enemy of his creation. Perhaps there is no God at all. I do not believe either of these two ideas and, along with rejecting them, I also reject the notion that God’s love does or ever will inflict or allow the infliction of non-redemptive suffering. If I am wrong, then in the final analysis, God either does not desire my well-being, or does not ultimately have the power to secure it. If either is the case, I cannot trust him.

However, if I believe God is love, and all that must be true in order for that to be the case, I am quite secure. So are you. You wanna know the really awesome thing? If I’m right, you are secure whether this is the God you believe in or not.



God’s Love, prt. 2

love is eternal

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[Start at the beginning of this series]

Jesus invited us to understand God’s love by thinking of our love for our own children. He did this mainly in two places. One is the parable of the prodigal son. The other is when he said, “If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (Luke 11:9-13). In this passage, Jesus is saying that God’s love as a heavenly Father far exceeds our love as the parents of our children. This means God must love in a far different way than how the church often teaches it. The church tends to teach God’s love as a contingency.

God loves you if…
God loves you, but because of his justice he will still…
God loves you infinitely, but that doesn’t mean he won’t…
God loves you, but you better…

Vast parts of the church simply will not face the fact of contingency. It amounts to teaching love without actually teaching love at all. If we assume that Jesus modeled love on the cross, and if we assume that Paul wrote accurately about love in 1st Cor. 13, then God cannot love in any of the ways above and still have it be the love Jesus modeled and the love Paul wrote about. It is because the church teaches love as a contingency that so many basically good and loving Christians could have prioritized politics over love in last week’s Chick-Fil-A event, saying, “This isn’t about love, it’s about politics.” Only when we have learned about a world where some things are about love and others aren’t (e.g., God’s behavior toward us and love for us before our deaths versus after our deaths) could we even think this distinction makes sense.  

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God’s Love, prt. 1


Image courtesy of Jennuine Captures, licensed under Creative Commons

Today I am beginning a four-part series explaining my theology, which is based on God’s unconditional and never-ending love for us. This is theology, so it uses a lot of scripture passages, and I realize there are many passages I do not use that create questions of interpretation. This is always the case in any theology. My intention with using scriptures is merely to show that my theology has deep Biblical roots. Then I will use other analogies, comparisons, illustrations, and arguments to show that it is compelling, common-sense, and — further — the only theology that will not leave us practicing love in a confused and half-hearted way.

I believe God is love.Scripture is clear on this point, and Jesus was clearer on this point than almost anything else he said. That is where I begin. It is not that the rest of scripture is irrelevant to me, it’s just that — if God is indeed a God of love — the rest of the Bible must be interpreted in the light of God’s love. Of course one may ask, “Why do you choose the parts of scripture that mention God’s love over all the other parts? What about the God’s wrath, anger, and vengeance?” My reply to that question is worked out in the rest of this post. This is my theology of love.

My theology of love is very much centered in what we can already know about love as parents. If you were to say to your children, “Repent, for your mother/father is near,” what would this mean? Would your love be dependent on their repentance? Would you love them any less if they did NOT repent? Of course not. Your love is the constant in this equation. You ask them to repent so they can know, experience, and live in this love connection with you. I believe that spiritual repentance is the same — God asks us to repent so we can know, experience, and live in this love connection between God and us. As I sat next to my daughter in the hospital last summer after her attempted suicide, the greatest source of pain in all of it was the chaos and pain she had been living in, despite how deeply loved she was. Her lack of understanding of this love had nearly catastrophic consequences in her life, and ours too.

The Almost-Suicide of My Daughter, prt. 7

The journey continues. That I have been able to write nearly all of these posts without a tear shows how far we have come.  Thank you for your time in reading and commenting on the posts in this series. I want to leave you with a few closing thoughts.

1. If this can happen in my family it can happen in any family. I’m not saying my family is perfect. But there is genuine love and connection between us.

2. In light of this fact, don’t spend your life worrying about it. If you or your teen are feeling sad more days than not, having sleep problems, losing interesting in things you used to enjoy, and other typical symptoms of depression, see a doctor right away. As I hope you have seen here, depression is dangerous.

3. If you do not have open lines of communication with your child, that is not good. Anna has always had extremely open lines of communication with Christy and me, and yet she chose not to tell us. That is the worst possible scenario. Generally if the lines are open, kids will come to their parents with this stuff. Make every effort to open those lines. If your child doesn’t communicate with you, consider that it may be related to your response when he/she tries. Do you find yourself feeling threatened or fearful, or frequently getting angry? This is your issue and if it’s getting in between you and your child, deal with it. Get help.

4. Know your child’s friends. Again in our case, Anna had/has amazing and beautiful friends, but often a child moving towards suicidal depression will ditch his/her old peer group and either remain alone or get new friends that you may have second thoughts about. When Anna started to receive visitors in the hospital, she called her best friend Sarah. Sarah came to the hospital (an intimidating thing even for an adult to do in this situation) walked into a room filled with people, sat down on Anna’ s bed and said, “You’re so stupid. I love you.” Every kid needs a friend like that, and Sarah is like one of our own. Many of Anna’s friends have been so gracious to her and have played a key part in her recovery.

5. Know that Anna’s case is not typical. Most people give hints or show signs. It is not often that people keep this secret 100% to themselves as Anna did. If you know what to watch for, chances are good you will be able to find something if something is there to find.

6. Take depression with the deadly seriousness it deserves. Do not ignore it, do not keep telling your child over and over to “cheer up,” and do not accuse him/her of simply acting this way to get attention. That is a risk you do not want to take. Have them evaluated by a doctor.

7. Be a force for goodness and love in the life of your child that he/she will have to contend with. Yes, my daughter attempted suicide and yes I have grieved and questioned myself a million times. But I have always been a force for goodness and love in Anna’s life that she had to contend with. When I saw Anna getting mixed up with someone that I thought was bad for her, I told her. She got grounded a few times. Sometimes I got angry, but I always told her it was because I love her so much and want the best for her. This is common sense for most people, but I needed to write it down.

8. Last and most important — you will be much more likely to miss your child’s darkness if you are lost in darkness of your own. Do anything and everything it takes to learn to live your life in the light. Read books about parenting, about being a better human being. Deal with issues of depression, anxiety, social isolation, repressed grief, denial, etc., that may be in your own life. Model good mental and emotional health. Your child is unique and no  matter how healthy you are he/she will still face their own challenges, but the more educated you are and the more healthy and whole you are, the more likely you will be able to raise a healthy and whole child. Or, in the nightmare scenario that we faced where a child attempts anyway, that you will have some idea how to help them find the light.

I don’t understand why our school system teaches reading, writing, math, and science, yet does not address 1) relationships; 2) parenting; 3) money, the three of which will have a far greater effect on our lives — and society — than anything else.

And with that, I bid you adieu. Please get these posts to everyone you can. Anna’s attempt was not preventable, but most are, if we have the right relationship with our child, and the right information. Peace to you.