How to deal with toxic parents (Hint: learn the SAGA cycle)

How to deal with toxic parents (Hint: learn the SAGA cycle)

Learning how to deal with toxic parents can feel pretty daunting, especially because not all toxic parents are created equal.

(By the way, if you’re not exactly sure if you’ve got a toxic parent, check out my Toxic Parent Quiz. It’ll help you quickly assess your parent’s level of toxicity.)

But even though not all toxic parents are the same, I find that there’s a super common cycle that shows up in almost all toxic parent relationships, no matter what type of toxic parent you’ve got.

As cycles go, this one can be extremely exhausting when you find yourself stuck in it. And in most cases, the longer the cycle goes on, the more likely it is to generate feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as harmful self-beliefs, like “I’ll never be good enough.”

I call it the SAGA cycle.      

And there’s a simple reason I like to share this cycle with people: once you know the cycle, it becomes a lot easier to break.   

In other words, learning the SAGA cycle is one of the most effective ways of learning how to deal with toxic parents.

So, what is the SAGA cycle?

Well, SAGA is the acronym I use for the 4 stages of the cycle, which are: Stress, Agitation, Guilt, Absolve.    

(Technically, there are 5 stages when you include engage. But let’s face it, E-SAGA just doesn’t sound as cool.)

Here it is in a nutshell…

Let’s take a closer look at how the cycle works.

1. Engage

The SAGA cycle always begins as with an engagement.

This engagement can be almost anything. Spending time together in person. A phone call. Even a text exchange.

Each engagement, no matter what form it takes—and no matter who initiates it—holds the potential for you to experience your parent’s toxicity.  

And this, too, can take many forms.

It can be your parent making critical remarks. It can be your mom or dad doing or saying things that make you feel insignificant. And it can be a lot of other toxic behaviors, too, some of which can be super subtle and hard to spot.  

(In fact, if you haven’t seen my video on the 10 easy-to-miss signs of toxic parenting, you may want to check that out first.)

2. Stress

The next stage of the cycle is stress.

When engagements with your parent result in you being exposed to his or her toxic behaviors, those engagements elicit stress.

Maybe you experience the stress in your physical body as a tight chest, a pit in your stomach, an increased heart rate or some other form of physical tension.  

Perhaps the stress manifests as feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness.

Or maybe it shows up in the form of negative self-beliefs, like “I’m such a weak person.”

Chances are, the stress you experience involves aspects of all of these.

And all this stress eventually leads to the next stage in the SAGA cycle: agitation.

3. Agitation

Inevitably, when our parents—or anyone for that matter—causes us so much stress, we begin to feel agitated.  

This can include emotions like anger, frustration or resentment toward our parent.

And the thing about feelings of agitation is that they’re really hard to bottle up, at least entirely. So, we find ways to release them.

For some of us, releasing our agitation tends to look like venting to a partner or friends.

For others of us, it might look more like giving it back to our parent in some way, perhaps telling them off or going incommunicado for a period of time.

4. Guilt

The ‘G’ stands for guilt.

No matter how we release our feelings of agitation—and no matter how cathartic it feels to get our anger and frustration out—sooner or later, guilt sets in.  

This is the part of the SAGA cycle I observe so often as a therapist. One moment someone will be telling me about how their parent makes them angry as hell every time they [fill in the blank]; the next moment they’ll be consumed with guilt and shame.

This is usually when we start leaning into all those “shoulds.”  

I should be more appreciative of my mom.

I shouldn’t have said that about my dad.

I should be a better son or daughter.

I should remember that they had a tough childhood—certainly harder than mine.  

It’s these feelings of guilt that lead us into the final stage of the SAGA cycle—absolve.    

5. Absolve

When we feel guilty for what we said or did to our parent—or in some cases, even how we thought or felt about an interaction we had with them—we seek to absolve ourselves, to free ourselves from the guilt we feel.

This isn’t always an explicit apology, but it almost always means re-engaging with our parent in some way—a phone call or text to smooth things over or even a drop-in visit just to “check in.”

And of course, we’re right back at engagement, and from there, the cycle continues…on and on and on.   

But it doesn’t have to.

How To Break The SAGA Cycle

What I like to help people who are stuck in the SAGA cycle see is that there are opportunities to break the cycle at literally every stage.  

The problem is, when we lack awareness of this cycle, particularly as it’s happening, we usually end up responding in ways that wind up refueling the cycle. When we’re not aware of the cycle, our emotions (whether it’s anger, frustration, guilt or other similar emotions) tend to drive our actions, pulling us ever further into the cycle even as we’re trying to escape it.

This means that, before we can work on breaking the cycle, we first have to work on becoming aware of the cycle when it’s happening. Being mindful and “just noticing” the cycle in this way can be a game-changer all by itself.

And here’s why: once you’re able to notice the cycle as it’s taking place—and anticipate where it’s going—you can respond more strategically.  

Let’s look at some examples of what I mean here:

Establish healthy boundaries

At the engage stage of the cycle, we can set more effective boundaries.

This can be something simple. For example, you can set a boundary to not communicate with your parent at the end of a workday, or at least until you’ve had a chance to get home and recharge.

By putting this boundary in place and making it a point not to communicate with your parent when you’re tired, you’ll probably be far less likely to lose your cool with them when you do talk.   

Set realistic expectations

Learning our parent’s patterns and setting more realistic expectations are helpful strategies at the stress and agitation stages of the SAGA cycle.

Start by taking some time to observe your parent’s behavioral patterns. After a month or so, what do you notice? Whatever the pattern is, work on simply noticing it when it happens, and then develop more realistic expectations.

For example, let’s say you notice that whenever you talk to your mom about your dating life, she becomes harshly critical. Or, whenever you share your opinions with your dad, he responds dismissively or insults your intelligence.  

Recognizing these patterns allows you to move away from unrealistic expectations, like “This time mom will respond in a loving way” or “This time dad will really hear me out and value my opinions.” Instead, you can set more realistic expectations that can go a long way toward helping you manage difficult feelings of stress and agitation.

Get curious about guilt

Finally, at the guilt and absolve stages of the SAGA cycle, we can learn ways to manage our feelings of guilt effectively.

Often, feelings of guilt and shame have an adaptive role to play when we’re younger. This is especially true for those of us who grew up in toxic family environments.

A simple example here is the young boy whose parent regularly invalidates his emotions, downplaying feelings of sadness, for example, or perhaps even mocking those emotions.  

By learning to feel guilty or ashamed whenever he feels sadness or other so-called “weak” emotions, this child develops a highly effective way to avoid his parent’s hurtful invalidations.

The problem is that, although guilt and shame can be helpful to us in this way when we’re younger and unable to advocate for ourselves, this protective strategy almost always outlives its usefulness. As adults, we often continue to internalize feelings of guilt and shame even when we are the ones being wronged or mistreated.  

Fortunately, this is a pattern we can change. As with the SAGA cycle, I encourage people to work on just noticing times when they’re experiencing feelings of guilt. Then, when you do notice yourself feeling guilty, take a moment to give attention to the part of yourself that uses guilt as a protective strategy.

There are a lot of different ways to reassure these guilty parts of ourselves. One of my favorites is to place a hand wherever you experience guilt in your body. Thank the part for its hard work, then let it know that, since you’re an adult now, it no longer needs to employ feelings of guilt and shame to keep you safe.      

Need some other ways to deal with toxic parents?

Learning how to deal with toxic parents takes time.

If you grow up with a toxic parent, getting into therapy is one of the best steps you can take. It helps to find a therapist with some expertise in the area of childhood trauma.

At Modern Era Counseling, we specialize in helping adults work through trauma associated with toxic parenting. Contact us today to schedule a session or simply learn more about how we can help.

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