9 Signs You Might Have a Toxic Father, from Playing the Victim to Comparing You and Your Siblings

toxic father cat

Toxic patterns vary from person to person, but there are a few textbook characteristics to look out for, therapist Irina Firstein tells us. “Toxic behavior is behavior toward other people that makes them feel bad about their life and themselves,” she says. “It is characterized by criticism, control, manipulation and guilt.” For example, if your dad constantly criticizes your life choices (like badmouthing your spouse or rolling his eyes at your career path), and if this has been an ongoing pattern for as long as you can remember, you might be dealing with a toxic father. Here, nine signs you’re dealing with one, from constantly playing the victim to comparing you to your siblings.

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9 Signs You Have Toxic Father

1. He compares you to your siblings

You and your older sister are two completely different people. But because she’s a doctor with three kids and you’re a single teacher, your dad loves to try to pit the two of you against each other. Your sister takes the high road, but your dad’s constant teasing still makes you feel insecure and attacked.

2. He doesn’t respect boundaries

You love your dad, but he’s always had a hard time knowing his place. He’s made a habit of showing up at your house, unannounced, expecting to be able to stay for dinner. Because you love him, you give in, but even after asking him to stop popping in without calling, he continues to do it.

3. He insists on being right

Your dad has hated every person you’ve ever dated, and it’s starting to feel like no one is going to be good enough. He has similar opinions about your career goals, friends and pretty much everything else. If you’ve articulated that you’re happy with your life and the people in it and he still won’t stay out of your business, then your relationship with your dad could be verging on (if not already) toxic.

4. You feel exhausted after spending time or speaking with him

Do you feel totally spent every time you interact with your dad? We’re not talking about feeling like you need to be by yourself for a little while—something that can happen even with people we love being around. Interacting with a toxic person can leave you feeling defeated since their dramatic, needy and high-maintenance tendencies can suck the energy right out of you.

5. He consistently plays the victim

Sometimes, parents can’t help but guilt trip their kids. (“What do you mean, you aren’t coming home for Thanksgiving?”) But there’s a difference between expressing disappointment and creating a toxic environment by blaming everyone else for their feelings. If your dad refuses to talk to you for a week because you’ve decided to spend next Thanksgiving with friends, you could be in toxic territory.

6. He tries to compete with you

Every time you call your dad to talk about a promotion at work or a potty-training breakthrough with your kid, he inevitably steers the conversation to be about his illustrious career or his methods of raising you. Any healthy relationship should be a two-way street, and if your dad is incapable of celebrating your wins—big or small—it’s a sign that there’s an issue.

7. Everything is about him

You just got off a 45-minute phone call with your dad only to realize that he didn’t ask you a single question about your life or how you’re doing. If he was dealing with an important issue or had some exciting news, that’s one thing. But if this happens pretty much every time you talk, then this relationship could be toxic.

8. There are always strings attached

Sure, dad will pick up the grandkids from school, but you’ll never hear the end of how lucky you are to have his help…followed by an immediate request to reorganize his basement. We’re not suggesting our parents should do every little thing for us, but you should be able to ask for a favor without having him hold it over your head or immediately ask for something unreasonable in return.  

9. He’s impossible to please

You’re constantly bending over backward to please everyone in your life—your dad included. Most people are thankful for your flexibility and help, but your dad seems to always want more. If you consistently feel like you’re coming up short in his eyes, it’s not an issue with how you’re doing things, it’s on him.

4 Ways to Improve Your Relationship with Your Dad

1. Set realistic expectations

In a perfect world, we would all have strong relationships with everyone in our lives, including with our parents. But the thing is, the world isn’t perfect. Some parent-child duos will be the best of friends, while others will merely tolerate each other. If you’re looking to improve your relationship, be realistic about it. Maybe you’re not meant to be best friends—that’s OK. What can be a bummer is getting your hopes up for something that’s never going to happen and being disappointed when it inevitably doesn’t.

2. Pick your battles

Sometimes it’s worth agreeing to disagree. Fathers and daughters (and sons), though often similar in many ways, have to remember that they were raised in different eras and have lived different experiences. You and your dad might have totally different ideas about careers, relationships and parenting, and that’s fine. It’s important to identify the areas where neither of you is likely to change your mind and agree to respect the other’s opinion without judgement or hostility.

3. Learn to forgive

Hanging on to feelings of resentment is bad for you—literally. Studies have shown holding grudges increases blood pressure, heart rate and nervous system activity. Alternatively, embracing forgiveness can improve overall health by reducing stress levels. Beyond physical health, letting go can improve one’s mental health, relationships and career trajectory. Healthline reports built-up anger directed at one party can bleed over into other relationships. Resenting your dad or judging your relationship with your dad could manifest in you yelling at your own kids at the drop of a hat. From changing your perspective to downloading a meditation app, here are eight unique exercises to help you let go of resentment.

4. Recognize if your relationship is beyond repair

Every parent-child duo has the occasional argument. But if you’ve always felt like you become your worst self when you’re back at home, your family could be treading on toxic territory. “Toxic people are draining; encounters leave you emotionally wiped out," says Abigail Brenner, M.D. "Time with them is about taking care of their business, which will leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, if not angry. Don’t allow yourself to become depleted as a result of giving and giving and getting nothing in return." Sound familiar? While it can be incredibly difficult to cut a toxic parent out of your life, there’s no shame in doing so—especially if it feels like you’ve tried everything.

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sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...