The Lord commands children to honor their parents. Believers can honor toxic parents by forgiving them, being kind, and praying for them but they must act in wisdom, with boundaries in place, and out of the way of further abuse.
The Lord calls His followers to love. This can be confusing for children of toxic parents—how do you love and respect someone who is abusive, neglectful, or manipulative? What does God expect? Is it dishonoring to limit interaction or even avoid your parents altogether?
Let’s take a closer look at God’s Word so you can approach toxic parents with biblical wisdom, confidence and peace.
What is a Toxic Parent?
A toxic parent is physically or emotionally abusive, neglectful, unavailable, or manipulative. Typical characteristics include self-centeredness, being overly critical, and ignoring boundaries. There are varying degrees of toxic parents and varying degrees of abuse and its consequences.
While the Bible doesn’t use the term “toxic,’’ it is full of wisdom about unhealthy relationships and God’s intent for parents to love their children, and children to honor their parents. A toxic parent probably isn’t one who abandons a child, but one who remains close in an unhealthy way. Perhaps a toxic parent might spank out of anger and frustration.
Toxic Relationships in the Bible
Let’s consider some biblical principles to help us view toxic parents in light of the truth of God’s Word.
If you feel like your relationship with your parents is toxic, perhaps more importantly than mending your relationship with them is to clear up your relationship with your Heavenly Father, who is the perfection of your earthly father, not a reflection of him.
Toxic Parents are Unfaithful
The Lord expects the heads of families to care for those in their care—put their faith in action. In context, the verse below refers mainly to physical needs (shelter, clothing, food) but we also know that God calls parents to lovingly train and nurture their children (Eph 6:4) which requires consideration, quality time, and emotional availability.
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.1 Timothy 5:8 (ESV)
Toxic Parents are Accountable to God
While the Bible encourages us to speak the truth in love (1 Cor 13:6), toxic parents are seldom open to hearing or receiving the truth. You can’t “fix” your parents. Only God can change their hearts—you’ll exasperate yourself trying! He also promises to deal with their sin and unfaithfulness His way. You can leave it in His capable hands.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”Romans 12:19 (ESV)
Boundaries are Wise
The Bible makes it clear that God does not call us to invest in relationships with people who draw us away from God and His love. Ministering is a different realm, but when it comes to meaningful relationships, we are to “walk with the wise.” It is not wise to invest your time and energy building relationships with toxic people—even if they are your parents, it could become a snare (Prov 22:25)!
Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.Proverbs 13:20 (ESV)
How to Honor Toxic Parents
If the Lord asks believers to bless those who persecute them (Rom 12:14), we can be sure He wants us to honor (respect and esteem) our parents—even if they’re toxic! That does NOT mean exposing yourself to abuse or giving in to manipulation though.
These passages highlight Biblical ways to honor your parents while maintaining boundaries (and even limiting contact, if necessary).
- Exodus 20:12 (ESV): Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
- Ephesians 4:31-32 (ESV): Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
- Matthew 7:12 (ESV): So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
Avoid slandering them
Choose not to slander your parents. Of course, it is wise to seek counseling (Prov 11:14) and share with trusted close friends or a professional as you recover from years of abuse—that is not the same as slander! Avoid it, even if you feel offended.
Forgive your parents
When we live in light of the forgiveness we’ve received at the cross, God strengthens us to forgive others—we can’t do this on our own. There is freedom and peace for you on the other side of true forgiveness. Toxic parents seldom seek forgiveness but forgive them anyway.
Pray for your parents
Praying for someone who has wronged you is not easy but God calls us to do this (Matt 5:44). It is a powerful way to honor and love your toxic parents without being subject to their abuse. Not to mention, if you feel your parents are toxic, they may not be the most respectful husbands or respectful wives either. They need your prayers for many reasons – but their marriage may be one of them.
If you are able to show kindness to a stranger (which most people are), you can decide to be kind to your toxic parents. These deeds of kindness (which might be rejected) are seen by your Father in Heaven. Do them for Him (1 Cor 10:31). Remember, He loved you while you were His enemy (Rom 5:10).
Rejoice in Your Loving Heavenly Father, the Perfect Parent
Remember that God, your loving Heavenly Father, has the ultimate authority in your life—not your parents! He gave your earthly parents the responsibility of loving and training you when you were a child, but you are His and He calls you to listen to Him. He is not toxic and He will not betray you. He loves you with a love you cannot understand—a love that cost Him everything!
Psalm 27:10 (ESV) For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in.
As hurtful as toxic parents might be, you can honor the Lord in your heart by walking in His ways. He will strengthen you to obey Him and love them, He will be your comfort—He might even use your grace and kindness to lead them to salvation!
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (ESV)