Dealing With Difficult Parents: 5 Effective Strategies to Keep Your Sanity
Difficult family members are like anuses - everyone has one. But when it's your own parent, keeping your sanity is particularly challenging.
It could be your biological or adoptive parents, or perhaps toxic in-laws, but the effect they have on you is the same: hurt feelings, confusion, anger and desire to withdraw.
This article will discuss how to deal with difficult parents, what strategies or states of mind are most beneficial, 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
Parental love is not a certainty. No relationship is perfect. And as Jim Morrison said, 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, blindly and unconsciously, 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 by 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.”
To children parents are omnipotent omniscient demigods. But as obviously childish and distorted as that perception is, some people never fully grow out of it, subconsciously, which makes them particularly vulnerable to any criticism or abuse they might experience.
Learn to see your difficult parents as people, people who have a lot of personal blockages and limitations regardless of their parental role. Learn to see their emotional immaturity as a type of disability. And if at all possible, try to forgive them.
Try to Forgive Them
Speaking of...forgiveness can be a powerful tool in your arsenal 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
Manipulative 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. Or, like in this real life scenario, you don't care about the family:
Mother: Can you come pick up the food and drop it off at grandma's house?
Son: Mom, I'm working.
Mother: But you're at home.
Son: Right, because I work from home. Can't you call someone else?
Mother: They're all at work/school.
Son: But so am I.
Mother: You know, you never help out. This is for the family dinner tomorrow.
Son: Mom, I'm working, I can't go.
Mother: You just don't care about the family. I wish you were more like your brother.
Son: Then call him!
Mother: I did. He's working.
Don't fall for it. If you're starting to 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 from anyone. Manipulators don't like being called out on their dirty tricks.
If they're continuing with the guilt trip, reiterate that you can't do what they're asking you to do this time, and that you need them to respect your decisions.
Another great 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.
Do you have a difficult parent you wish you could ship off to Antarctica?
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 though is letting your thoughts and feelings known, which can be incredibly 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 calm 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 a great deal of 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 Zakinov