How To Handle Father's Day When Your Dad Is Toxic

Photographed by Kara Birnbaum.
Ah, Father’s Day. Maybe you’ve already drafted your father-daughter Instagram post. Maybe you’re stressing out about sending a card in time. Or, maybe, you flat-out hate this stupid holiday. Maybe your father wasn’t there for you. Maybe he was abusive, neglectful, or just plain toxic.
This holiday hits home in an especially dreadful way for author Lane Moore, who writes in her book How To Be Alone, “I grew up a real-life Matilda: surrounded by biological family who, in constantly rotating ways, couldn’t be bothered.” She says the holiday takes a toll on her every year, and that toll echoes loud in her mind as it bounces off Facebook walls full of "my dad is great" posts.
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For people who grew up in a happy home where their dad read stories to them before bed, it’s not uncommon to overlook people who have a bad relationship with their dad on Father’s Day. These people might think to acknowledge people who’s parents have died, or people going through fertility struggles — but people with bad parents often go under the radar, and Moore says this can make people who are in the situation feel more alone.
But if this is something you’re going through on Father’s Day, you aren’t the only one. Here are a few coping strategies for handling this holiday if your dad is toxic.
Talk it out.
Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., creator of a mental health nonprofit called Give an Hour, says it can be a good idea to find a friend, therapist, or family member you trust and talk to them about the feelings Father’s Day is bringing up for you.
“It’s always a sign that something is still weighing on us or burdening us if we can’t talk about it,” she says. “Talking is a way of bringing it into the light. It doesn’t mean we have to go into great detail… But, at some point, try to find a place where you can lift that burden by sharing.”
She says when you pick this person, it's best to find someone who will just listen, and not try to give you advice. If you do get advice, take it with a grain of salt. No one knows your situation like you do. “Sometimes people who mean well will say things like, ‘you should reach out to him’ or ‘I’m sure he loves you,’” Van Dahlen says. “That’s a don’t do.” If you know that reaching out to your dad would put you back in a dangerous or draining situation, keep that in the back of your mind. Don’t let someone convince you to do something that you know could ultimately be bad for you.
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Stay away from social media.
“I often advise people stay off of social media,” Moore says. “People go on social and post about their parents. I’m sure it’s not that they’re meaning to brag, it’s just what people do these days. But they’re likely not thinking about people who’ve lost their parents, or especially people who have a bad relationship with their parents.”
If seeing this bugs you, consider that, and don’t put yourself in a situation that will upset you.
Know you’re not the only one.
Another thing that’s important to consider about social media: People are often only posting their highlight reels, and leaving out a lot of the negative parts of their lives — this includes their relationships with their parents.
On Father’s Day, everyone posts like they have the most amazing father, but it’s not always an accurate depiction, Moore says. “These social media posts, some of them are by friends who I know for a fact don’t have good relationships with dads,” she says. “Someone becomes a saint when they die, and on Father’s and Mothers Day. I have compassion for it. I know what it feels like to want to say, “I’m normal, I have a great dad.” But pushing the fact that the relationship isn’t great under the rug does a disservice. I wish we could be more honest.”
The fact that people pretend things are fine when they aren’t can lead to more people feeling like they’re alone in this, Moore says. But the fact is, the world is bigger and more complicated than what’s shown on Instagram. You’re not the only one who's ever been here and that your feelings are real, acceptable, and valid.
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