Everyone is different, which means that every family needs different advice on how to deal with difficult parents. My tips will help you heal and grow forward, without expecting your parents to change. These tips are for adult children who are ready to start moving past their unhappy or difficult childhoods.
I grew up in foster homes because my mom is schizophrenic. I didn’t meet my dad until I was almost 30 years old, when I went to Israel to find him. My childhood was painful in a way yours wasn’t! And your family is complicated in ways mine isn’t…which means there are no “one size fits all” tips on how to deal with difficult parents.
But, there are healthy ways to face a disappointing or even abusive childhood. There are ways to get healthy no matter what happened to you. If you do this – get spiritual, emotionally, and physically healthy – then you will find it much easier to deal with your difficult parents. Whether you’re coping with rejecting, distant, self-involved or controlling parents, you can find the strength and courage you need to move forward into a fresh new season of life.
Take time to read through some of the comments from readers below. You’ll learn that no matter what you’re going through – or how difficult your parents are – you are not alone.
One of my favorite quotes about coping with difficult parent is, “If it’s not one thing, it’s my mother.” 🙂 All parents make mistakes, all parents let themselves and their kids down. Some parents have serious mental or physical health issues, like my mom. Others are physically, mentally, or emotionally abusive. And still other parents are just plain mean, selfish and cold. They were wounded…and they wound the people around them.
The thing with parents is that they’re human. They’re flawed, weak, and often unprepared for the responsibility of parenthood. They care about and love us – their children – but sometimes they don’t know how to parent us properly. Now that I’m 48 years old, I know how to cut my mom some slack. I call her every Sunday, and every Sunday I want to hang up the phone in frustration and anger! But I remind myself that my mom was hurt as a child. She hurt me because she herself was hurt.
It took a long time, but I forgave my mom for not being the mother I needed and wanted. I found freedom and peace when I let go of my expectations and wishes. I still get frustrated and sometimes upset when I talk to her, but I’m not “dealing with a difficult mom” now. I’m just loving a broken, wounded woman who brought me into this world.
If it’s your in-laws who are causing problems, read How to Deal With a Mother-in-Law Who Hates You.
How to Deal With Difficult Parents
My tips are about healing your pain, not changing your mom or dad. You can’t change who they are or how they treat you…but you can heal the wounds they caused. These tips for dealing with difficult parents are powerful because they involve changing the only person in your life you have any power over: you.
If you’re looking for practical tips for dealing with parents who are making life difficult for your whole family, read 6 Ways to Handle Problems With Toxic Family Members.
My mom suffered from schizophrenia my whole life, so I know the pain and grief of having to deal with difficult parents. I love her now, but I hated her when I was growing up. You should read my diary; it’s full of rage and violence! Her illness was the reason I lived in foster homes growing up, was on welfare and eating from food banks when she wasn’t hospitalized, and constantly moved from school to school. She’s also the reason I wrote Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back.
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. And remember: even the worst, most damaging childhood can be a springboard to success – depending on your attitude and perspective. At some point, the choice is yours.
1. Tell someone the truth about your parents
Speaking the truth – being completely honest about your pain – is had. Your parents aren’t who you want them to be. Your mom may be more selfish than you realized; your dad may be more withdrawn or even unapproachable than you want. You thought your parents were different than they are…and realizing that they’re human can be a painful reality check.
Telling someone you trust the truth about your childhood and how you feel about your parents will help relieve the pain. Being honest is a healthy way to cope with your disappointment and grief. It’ll relieve the emotional pressure, which will help you deal with your parents – no matter how difficult they are. Ignoring or denying your feelings and not grieving your losses can lead to anxiety, depression, physical illnesses, and unhealthy intimate relationships. Unexpressed, unprocessed emotional pain can lead to angry outbursts, emotional meltdowns, and even serious depression. Find healthy ways to express your honest disappointment and grief.
“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 Woman’s Guide to Emotional Strength and Self-Esteem. “A repressed or suppressed emotion builds up power until it’s impossible to contain and, as a result, erupts destructively.”
Unresolved grief gets worse when we don’t work through painful feelings as they arise. Don’t deny the fact that it hurts to be searching for tips on how to deal with difficult parents when life could be so much more! Find healthy ways to work through your feelings, or they’ll create bigger problems in your life.
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. But in the long run, you’ll pay a steep price if you keep avoiding the pain you feel.
2. Find healthy ways to grieve your childhood
It’s not fair that you have to find ways to deal with difficult parents; it should be the other way around! The pain of not getting what you need and want – and deserve – as a child is so deep and damaging. Sometimes we can’t even express how much grief we feel because our parents can’t give us what we need and want.
A healthy way to deal with your parents is to take time to work through your grief and anger that they can’t give you the support or love you need. Resisting your feelings makes them stronger; accepting your feelings makes them manageable. When I was in high school my mother would wander through the hallways. She suffered from schizophrenia, had long messy hair and wore dirty, baggy, ragged clothing. I fought my humiliation and embarrassment for years.
When I couldn’t swallow my pain anymore (it leaked out in self-destructive ways), I finally let myself grieve my pain, loss, and despair. It was hard but slowly my feelings became less intense. My shame lifted and my heart healed. I also grew spiritually and emotionally stronger and healthier, and now call my mom weekly without minimal grief and anger.
3. Forgive and accept your parents; they did the best they could
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.
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 dealing with difficult parents need to know how to build good relationships with them anyway – even if we have a mother-in-law is determined to ruin marriage – or we suffer the consequences.
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 deal with difficult parents.
Help Coping With Difficult Parents
If you grew up with an emotionally immature, unavailable, or selfish mom or dad, you may have lingering feelings of anger, loneliness, betrayal, or abandonment. You may remember your childhood as a time when your emotional needs were not met, when your feelings were dismissed, or when you took on adult levels of responsibility in an effort to compensate for your parent’s behavior.
In Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal, Donna Jackson Nakazawa describes how the emotional trauma we suffer as children not only shapes our emotional lives as adults, but it also affects our physical health, longevity, and overall wellbeing.
Scientists now know on a bio-chemical level exactly how parents’ chronic fights, divorce, death in the family, being bullied or hazed, and growing up with a hypercritical, alcoholic, or mentally ill parent can leave permanent, physical “fingerprints” on our brains.
It’s not just about dealing with difficult parents…when you as a child encountered adversity, the stress hormones caused powerful changes in your body and changed your body’s chemistry. Your developing immune system and brain reacted to this chemical barrage by permanently resetting children’s stress response to “high,” which in turn can have a devastating impact on your mental and physical health as they grow up. In Childhood Disrupted, Nakazawa shares stories from people who have recognized and overcome their adverse experiences, shows why some children are more immune to stress than others, and explains why women are at particular risk.
In Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents, Lindsay C. Gibson describes how to handle the destructive nature of parents who are emotionally immature or unavailable.
She describes the four types of difficult parents:
- The emotional parent instills feelings of instability and anxiety
- The driven parent stays busy trying to perfect everything and everyone
- The passive parent avoids dealing with anything upsetting
- The rejecting parent is withdrawn, dismissive, and derogatory
You will see how these difficult types of parents create a sense of neglect, and discover ways to heal from the pain and confusion caused by your childhood. By freeing yourself from your parents’ emotional immaturity, you can recover your true nature, control how you react to them, and avoid disappointment.
May you find healthy ways to deal with your difficult parents, and remain close to them – and may you find peace and joy in your adult life.
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