How to let go of a toxic relationship with your dad

Father's Day is a tough time for those who don't have a good relationship with their dad. Here's to let go of the toxicity and move forward. 

Unfortunately, not all parental relationships are loving and Father's Day can be particularly harsh if we have or had a strained relationship with a father who may have been abusive, cold or unloving.

Very often, a toxic parent doesn’t realise the emotional havoc they wreak and even as adults we can still crave love and acceptance from them or carry the weight of their rejection.

young girl emotional over father

It is so hard, but we cannot help but wonder why people do what they do or don’t behave how we think they should, and we can even experience the heavyweight of guilt and responsibility for the negative behaviour. We can be shocked by the intensity of our feelings and this can colour our whole life as we grieve for how differently we wish things could have been. And in the case of death or estrangement, there may be anger and anxiety in the realisation that it is now too late to repair the relationship. You grieve for the lost hopes you have for the relationship becoming better or happier in the future.

You cannot change what was, but you can change how you feel about it. 

"When we carry the scars of someone else’s cruelty, it’s like we are holding a piece of burning coal in our hand with the intention of throwing at the other person. But who gets burnt? You do"

Have an "honesty hour" reflecting on your relationship with your father, on your own with a box of tissues, a pen and paper. Write down the things that you remember having the biggest effect on you—both positive and negative. This can help to pinpoint where some of the difficulties lay in the relationship. You will learn about yourself and your triggers. You may also experience feelings that make you uncomfortable or that you begin to understand. You will also learn about your father and may start to see patterns emerge. And also you need to know that in reality, we can only be responsible for our half of any relationship. That is the only thing we can work on—our part.

woman doing the honesty hour exercise

Imagine if you could have one more conversation with your father. Write down everything you want to ask him and then everything you need to tell him. Be completely honest—nobody will be reading this letter unless you want to share it with someone. By writing and identifying the issues within the relationship you will get a sense of having communicated something important and can soften your pain.

When we carry the scars of someone else’s cruelty, it’s like we are holding a piece of burning coal in our hand with the intention of throwing at the other person. But who gets burnt? You do.

A toxic father often has no idea the depth of wounds he has caused. These people struggle to communicate, they have their own barbed wounds, which usually stem from their own childhood.

"You may find yourself mourning the father you wished you had"

Father’s Day can bring intense feelings of grief as you may find yourself mourning the father you wished you had. If you keep replaying the bad memories you will just hold yourself in a place of pain and that then becomes your identity. Take steps to let go and forgive. It’s important to know that forgiving your father does not mean that you condone or accept his behaviour. It means that you acknowledge that what happened, happened and now you are ready to let the pain and resentment go.

Concentrate on your own character and don’t let your father’s toxic behaviour define you. Use your father’s behaviour as a way to improve your own behaviours and reactions in your relationships, not just with your children but with all those in your life.

young man looking wistful

If you think you are a nice person but then act in a nasty way because of how your father treated you, you are actually letting his actions rule you. You are giving him power. Let it go. Put down that piece of coal and use his bad example to make you the best person you can be. Make what was wrong, right by your thoughts, words and deeds.

The great Roman Emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength. The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”

If your life is a car, you are in the driving seat. Don’t let anyone else steal your steering wheel! Think of what qualities you would choose in the best dad and then become them.


Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of the practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ

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