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5 Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Parents

Updated on August 11, 2017
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Lana has a BA in Psychology, an MA in International Affairs, and other useless degrees.

It could be your biological parent, or perhaps toxic in-laws, but the effect they have on you is the same: hurt, confusion, disappointment, anger and desire to withdraw.

This article will discuss how to deal with difficult parents, and when to let go.


Put Things in Perspective

“The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.” ― Jim Morrison

Even the most loving parents damage their children. They just do. With the best intentions - to protect them, to guide them, to better them. In most cases, by imprinting their own fears and prejudices on them.

The point is, parents are just people. People with flaws, struggles and impaired judgement. People with emotional or intellectual handicaps. People who make mistakes and who are terrified of being judged by their children. Oscar Wilde said with his usual poignant wit:

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”

Learn to see your difficult parents as just people; people who have personal blockages and limitations regardless of their parental role. Learn to see their emotional immaturity as a type of disability.

Accept and Forgive Them

Forgiveness can be a powerful tool when dealing with a difficult parent.

In many ways the effect a difficult parent has on us is fueled by our feelings of injustice (being wronged) and the belief that things could be different, or should be different. In other words, our expectations of the situation dictate how we feel about it.

Forgiveness turns that dynamic upside down. It allows you to let go of your expectations and accept your parent(s) for who they are.

Because people are who they are. You can't expect someone with, say, a narcissistic personality disorder to act with empathy and kindness. No more than you can expect a scorpion not to sting.

Difficult parents are waaaaay easier to deal with when you accept that they won't change. So don't expect of them more than they are capable of, and you won't be disappointed or hurt.

Don't Fall Into the Guilt Trap

Difficult parents love making you feel like you've done or said something that hurt them. Or, in a different scenario, you're a bad person if you don't do something they ask.

Don't fall for it. If you feel like you're being lured into a guilt trap, calmly tell them that you don't appreciate being emotionally manipulated, and you won't tolerate it anymore. Manipulators don't like being called out on their dirty tricks.

If they continue with the guilt trip, reiterate that you can't do what they're asking you to do this time, and you need them to respect that.

Another approach is the use of mental aikido.* Step One: Agree with the person. Step Two: State your purpose. Step Three: Repeat as needed. Example:

Mother: Can you come over and help me clean out the garage?

Daughter: I would, but I have plans today.

Mother: But I'm your mother and you should do what I say.

Daughter: Yes, you are my mother. But I have plans today.

Mother: But you've promised you'd help.

Daughter: Yes, I did promise. But today I have plans.

Mother: I thought helping your mother was important to you.

Daughter: Helping my mother is important to me. But I'm not going to change my plans today.

The trick is agreeing with everything they're saying (how can they argue when you agree with them?) and re-stating your decision over and over again.

Working a guilt/shame angle is a tell-tale of a manipulator. Don't fall for it!
Working a guilt/shame angle is a tell-tale of a manipulator. Don't fall for it! | Source

Do you have a difficult parent you wish you could ship off to Antarctica?

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Be Direct and Assertive When Confronting a Difficult Parent

When confronting a difficult parent, be direct and calm without expecting a specific response. That's the part you can't control.

The part that is up to you is letting your thoughts and feelings known, which is empowering.

Stick to the facts and use "I" statements (i.e., "I feel like my words don't matter to you when you constantly interrupt me" or "We appreciate your concern and all your help but we won't be needing you to move in with us after the baby is born").

Remember that manipulative parents are not known for their empathy. They will try to confuse you, go on the offensive, or assume the role of a victim - something they do a lot.

Don't let them bully you into submission by invoking guilt or pity. State your case in a calm and polite manner, and stay cool regardless of their response. Your goal is to be honest about your feelings, and to make it clear that you won't tolerate certain behaviors.

Consider Forgoing the Relationship That's Too Harmful

“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.” ― Jane Austen, "Pride and Prejudice"

If all else fails and your difficult parent continues to cause you psychological harm, consider forgoing a relationship altogether, at least for the foreseeable future.

It might sound harsh or even impossible - unlike a spouse or friend, a parent isn't someone you can easily cut out of your life - but in some cases that is the only logical recourse. A parent who is fundamentally incapable of accepting you for who you are, unable to see the error of their ways after numerous attempts to communicate how their behavior or words affect you, someone who is consistently abusive, demeaning or critical - that parent is a destructive force that will continue to tear you down until you put a stop to it.

It's not an easy feat - the parent-child bond is hard-wired into our brains, which means children get attached to even the most awful parents. But consider the cost of having that toxic relationship in your life - stress, anxiety, depression, internalized feelings of inadequacy, failed personal relationships, not to mention thousands of dollars worth of therapy.

Maybe one day they will change. Right after Jesus descends unto Earth in a golden chariot, riding a couple of unicorns. Anything's possible. But until then, consider all options, including cutting them loose.

© 2016 Lana ZK


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    • profile image

      Claire Conlon 5 months ago

      Super helpful

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana ZK 16 months ago from California

      Larry, you have my sympathies lol. I can barely handle the set I was born to, and the one I married into. You are a brave soul!

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana ZK 16 months ago from California

      Thank you Mel! I'm sure motherhood will allow me to have more compassion for my parents, and all parents. But for now, I'll continue to judge them from a morally superior vantage point :) And I'm glad my profile gave you a chuckle, thanks for always showing your support with comments and kind words, you are a gem!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 16 months ago from Oklahoma

      Effective tips. Now imagine being a teacher and dealing with lots of parents, lol.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 16 months ago from San Diego California

      Being a parent helps you accept, and sometimes even appreciate your parents. I'm not going to win any father of the year awards, and now I am more willing to tolerate the past sins of my own father. Fortunately, neither Mom or Dad try to manipulate me emotionally, so I can't comment on that. I'm just waiting for Jesus to ride in on the unicorns to make it all better.

      I chuckled at your author's profile comment about your useless degrees. While I am certain they are not useless, the sure sign of an honest writer is when they poke fun at themselves. Great work, happy babying.