5 Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Parents
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.
1. 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 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 with personal blockages and limitations regardless of their parental role. People who make mistakes and who are terrified of being judged by their children.
Learn to see your difficult parent as just human. Learn to see their emotional immaturity as a type of disability.
2. Keep Expectations Low
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 dictate how we feel.
You need to let go of your expectations and accept your parent(s) for 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.
3. Don't Fall Into the Guilt Trap
Difficult parents love making you feel like you've 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 they're setting 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 to harass you, reiterate that you can't do what they're asking you to do this time, and you need them to respect that. 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?
4. 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.
5. 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"
A parent isn't someone you can easily cut out of your life. But 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.
In some cases it's the only logical recourse. A parent who is fundamentally incapable of showing love and support, who is 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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
You say, "If they're setting a guilt trap, calmly tell them that you don't appreciate being emotionally manipulated, and you won't tolerate it anymore." I would like to know how that goes over, especially if they continue the guilt with "I guess I'm just a bad or horrible mother"?
Good one! Stay the course, don’t take the bait. Calmly answer, “I didn’t say that. All I’m saying is that I don’t appreciate being emotionally manipulated.” The key is staying calm no matter what and repeating your boundary like a mantra until they have nothing more to say.Helpful 42
My mother is overbearing and hypercritical of my life. She alienated my friends and restricts my life. How can I cope?
Her hypercriticism is a reflection of who she is, not who you are. Try to remember that whenever you feel hurt by something she says. Before you know it, you’ll be old enough to live your life however you want.Helpful 61
I am in high school, and I am not confident at all in what I do. Since childhood, I have always been criticized by my parents for being dumb. This made me more and more insecure and always makes me question myself before any action, even before speaking due to fear of being judged. This still continues and day by day I feel more useless and fear my future. And now i have become hopeless and stopped trying to put efforts. I feel like dying. What should I do?
High school is a difficult time for most people. This is not an indication of how the rest of your life is going to be at all. Don't lose hope! It's gonna get better. In the meantime, maybe talk to your school counselor about your feelings. Know that when someone calls you dumb, it's a reflection of how they feel about themselves deep down. It isn't about you. Hang in there!Helpful 40
I only have my mom and loved her until, when I was either twelve or thirteen, she sat me down and told me that none of my family were interested in a relationship after I left for University. Since then her manner with me has remained the same, but she has gotten EXTREMELY close with my boyfriend. What do I do? I know if I cut contact he will not understand and think I'm horrible. I don’t want to lose him, but I can’t keep this up with her.Helpful 6
How would you deal with a father that wants to choose what you are going to do in life? I want to be a fashion designer and go to NYU, but he wants me to be a pro golfer and attend a golf program. What should I do?
I can relate. Really examine yourself and your goals. If fashion design is your passion and you can’t imagine doing anything else, show it to your father, prove it to him. He may be a hard ass, but I bet he wants you to be happy.Helpful 16
© 2016 Lana Adler