Jun 302008

Finding ways to cope with difficult parents will help you settle into peace and happiness – for perhaps the first time in your life. These tips are for adult children who want to move past their unhappy childhoods.

dealing with difficult parents

Toxic Parents

Are your difficult parents toxic and hurtful? Are they causing you extreme amounts of pain? Read Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Dr Susan Forward.

One of my favorite quotes about coping with difficult parent is, “If it’s not one thing, it’s my mother.” Another is: “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy,” said Robert A. Heinlein. Easy childhoods can set you up to falter in adulthood because you haven’t learned the necessary life skills. But, having difficult parents can certainly set you back, too.

And here are three ways to move past an unhappy childhood, based on my experience with my parents.

3 Tips for Accepting Your Difficult Parents

Note that these tips are more psychological than practical. If you’re looking for practical tips for caring with parents with age-related memory loss or health issues, read 10 Tips for Caring for Parents With Dementia.

Some moms are more apt to boil rabbits and stalk married men (like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction) than balance a successful white-collar job with a nurturing home life (like Claire Huxtable). Adult children of difficult parents need to know how to build good relationships with them anyway — even if we have a mother-in-law who doesn’t accept us — or we suffer the consequences.

I know firsthand what it’s like to cope with difficult parents; I’ve learned to love my mother, who has struggled with schizophrenia for most of my life (which made for a very unhappy childhood for me). If you’re the adult child of an alcoholic, mentally ill, or toxic parent – these suggestions may help you connect with them and and help you move past your own unhappy childhood.

Remember: even the most unorthodox childhood can be a springboard to success – depending on your attitude and perspective!

Become Aware of Your Feelings. “When we’re not aware of what we’re feeling, the feeling becomes the master,” writes Sue Patton Thoele in The Courage to be Yourself. “A repressed or suppressed emotion builds up power until it’s impossible to contain and, as a result, erupts destructively.”

Take resentment, for instance. Maybe you feel rejected because your mother smothers you or keeps “lending” thousands of dollars to your brother. Maybe your mom nags you to lose weight, get married, clean your house, or get your hair out of your eyes (oh, to have a normal mother!). Avoiding your feelings of anger or resentment does pay off – otherwise you wouldn’t do it. Avoiding your feelings is easier, less painful, and requires less energy — in the short run.

In the long run, however, swallowing your feelings about your unhappy childhood or you’re struggles to cope with difficult parents can lead to anxiety, depression, physical illnesses, and unhealthy relationships. Violent eruptions become more likely, such as emotional meltdowns over computer glitches and screaming fits over lost keys. If you’re coping with controlling parents as an adult child, you need to find healthy ways to express your feelings.

Accept Your Feelings. Knowing and accepting your feelings brings freedom and a stronger connection with difficult parents. As an adult child, simply saying out loud, “It aggravates me when mom tells me how to discipline my kids!” can be liberating.

Resisting your feelings makes them stronger; accepting your feelings makes them manageable. Talk about difficult parents: when I was in high school my mother regularly visited me at lunch – she had long scraggly hair and wore dirty, baggy street-person clothes. I fought my humiliation and embarrassment for years and those feelings grew, just like compound interest.

When I couldn’t swallow my pain anymore (it was leaking out in self-destructive ways), I finally let myself simply feel my despair. And it was bad, but then the feelings became less strong. Now, it’s easier to connect with my difficult mom because…

It is what it is.

difficult parentsPractice Forgiveness. Oprah recently said that forgiveness is releasing the hope that things could have been different. True forgiveness is realizing the gift in a bad childhood – and learning from it. Every experience you’ve had makes you who you are and makes you more yourself. Your unique personality and spirit wouldn’t be yours if you had different parents or siblings – even if you got a bad deal. Coping with difficult parents is easier when you accept and let go of the past. Sometimes that means letting go of someone you love.

Forgiveness is easier when you accept that your parents did the best they could. You need to accept them for who they are, and remember that you can’t change them. The only person you can change is yourself. Sometimes, accepting this can be a great way to cope with difficult parents.

Being a caregiver for your parents puts a whole different spin on things! Read Caring for Elderly Parents? 10 Ways to Stay Energized.

If you have thoughts on coping with difficult parents, please comment below.

  215 Responses to “How to Cope With Difficult Parents – For Adult Children”

  1. I enjoyed your article. I’m 40 and my mom drives me crazy. If I go out of town she tells me not to leave the hotel because the city I am living in is dangerous. The city where we both live has more crime per capita than the cities I travel. I could have moved to a different city and been a lot happier but she started acting hysterical. She’s a hypocrite as she and my dad live in different cities from my grandparents. I could leave but she will throw such a stink and she need help with some financial and tax matters. She can’t explain it well so I have to see the documents she is talking about.

    Everytime I see she calls it makes me angry and hearing her voice makes me angry. I know I have to release what could have been but its hard sometimes. I’m glad I moved out a long time ago and at least have separation from her. I could forgive her for the past if she still didn’t everyone like a child. My older sister won’t even have contact with her. My brother is 43 and lives with her. He’s a nice guy but she’s crippled his confidence as she is so overprotective. I had to get pretty angry and stern with her when I left home. Even when she phones I will limit the calls to less than 30 seconds.
    I know its wrong to feel this way and I pray to god for strength until he opens up new opportunities. I have conflicting feelings as she is my mother and my dad died about 10 years ago but I also resent her quite a bit. Its hard not to wonder on what could have been if she was somewhat normal.

  2. Dear Sara,

    It sounds like this will be a very difficult decision for you – to put distance between you and your mom. It’ll also affect your son, and your other family relationships. I can’t give advice on this, because I’m not a counselor and I don’t know your or your full story. I encourage you to think about talking with a professional counselor, and getting guidance as you seek to detach from your mom in a healthy way.

    Have you read any books on coping with difficult parents, and learning how healthy boundaries work? If you haven’t read any of the Boundaries books, I encourage you to pick one up. They are awesome, especially for people who need help coping with difficult parents after years and even decades of problems.

    I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. My prayer for you is that you find wisdom and strength within yourself, and that you lean on God for faith and energy. May you nurture your own emotional and spiritual health so you can stay strong for your son and fiance, and may you learn how to set and maintain healthy boundaries with your mom. I also pray that you find the right resources and people to help you navigate your relationship with your family thoughtfully and carefully.


  3. Hi Laurie,

    I read your article today and it was very helpful. I have a family with multiple toxic members. Unfortunately one of this is my mother. I have been able to distance myself from everyone by making a move to a different state. Since I never told any of them it was to get distance from all the negativity most were “ok” with the move. Over the 8 years I have been “separated” yet still in contact, (holidays, phone calls with mum and sis mostly) my mother was diagnosed with MS. I have tried many times to help her in the struggle of MS, but as a person with negative outlook on life and unwillingness to do much but complain, it has been extremely hard to help. And it seems now that the illness is being used as a tool in shaming, verbal abuse, and negativity. Any help I have tried to give never seems to be good enough.
    She has an extremely large attachment to my 13 year old son. This was never a problem for me, because unlike with me and everyone else in the family she has always been very loving and positive to him. He seems to be the only person she trusts or thinks is good enough. However this also means she shares details about my life, and very adult things not about my life that she shouldn’t be sharing. Allows him to watch movies and do things he shouldn’t etc. I have been telling myself for about two years that this was a problem I could control because we live so far away and my son only visits a few times in the year. But since a recent extended visit to our home of hers I have realized I cannot control it and she isn’t a good influence. While she was visiting she managed to convince my son that I was keeping him away from his family and that the only way to be close is to live close. She also told him he didn’t have to go to his school if he didn’t want to. And kept feeding him lines like Are you sure you want to be here? Is your school in the city too hard for you? Don’t you miss your family? My son is a happy friendly boy, who happened to work very hard and was accepted into Boston Latin Academy. Its the kind of education a parent dreams to be able to provide. It has been a little tough, but mostly in that 7th grade just started and yes your teachers do expect you to turn your homework in kind of a way. We talk about the school often and he seems happy. I don’t understand why she feels the need to confuse him.
    As far as the MS goes I have even recently moved into a bigger apartment with my son and fiancé to make sure we have an extra room so she can stay. Massachusetts has better healthcare and doctors than where she lives in FL. She won’t come stay, and won’t stop badgering me for being here, and refuses to see why I would stay in a big city. I stay because I have excellent job, my son has a great home and school, and opportunities every day he would not have anywhere else.

    My original move was to put some distance between those in my family who are set out to destroy themselves and others around, gossip, belittle, and spew negativity while popping Xanax as if that makes it ok. Now I stay where I am because it is the best thing for my family. Over the weekend she almost didn’t put my son on the plane home from Florida. That was a straw for me. I now feel the best thing to do is really distance myself from the toxic family scene. How do I explain this to my son who especially loves my mother? My sister lives with her, which means I also can no longer see her, and honestly she buys into what my mom always says, so not talking to my mom anymore will also mean not seeing my sister, or my nephew.

    Any thoughts people out there?


    She and my sister live together. My sister is not toxic but seemingly starting to really buy into the guilt, lies, shame, gossip, and negativity put out by my mother and aunts and uncles. I have realized that the best thing for me to do is

  4. My parents raised their family in the greatest era of prosperity this country has ever seen, the years after WW11. This was when the power of the dollar was at it’s peak. They built 4 new houses for themselves, bought new cars every year & inherited houses & 10’s of thousands of dollars from their parents, along with living in a most prosperous era. They made our lives miserable with their violent & oppressive ways & didn’t leave us a dime when they died. We were very good children & took care of them in their old age etc, etc. I feel cheated, and our lives, my brother & sister & mine were ruined by their craziness. We still suffer from their abuse. What greedy thoughtless parents. Then they had the gall to put Parents of so & so on their tombstone. I feel like chiseling my name off their tombstone since we were treated like possessions & abused. They have NO right to advertise my name on their tombstone continuing their ownership of me. I am heartbroken & extremely pissed off to have had such oppressive, greedy parents. They used to brag about spending our inheritance & they did just that.

  5. Dear Elyse,

    Thank you for being here, and for sharing about how you’re coping with your mom. I recently spent a week with some family members who remind me of your mom, and it is difficult. I was so ready to come home — it’s so difficult to spend time with people who have such different expectations and views of other people!

    I encourage you to talk to someone – a counsellor, perhaps – about how to cope with your mom without losing yourself or avoiding going home. Even a regular support group where you can share how you feel and find ways to cope would be a great idea! Connect with other women in your situation — you’ll find such comfort and hope when you commiserate and share ideas.

    I also encourage you to find ways to make your home a sanctuary even if your mom lives there. I don’t know how to do this – it’s just a thought – but I do know that it’s awful not wanting to be at home.

    Also – on a related note – what about a pet? I wonder if having a dog or cat would change the feeling at your place? Maybe your mom would brighten up if she had a furry baby to take care of :-)

    You are welcome to come here anytime, and let me know how you are.

    Blessings – stay true to you,