How to Deal With Difficult Parents

Finding ways to deal 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.

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 dealing 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 deal 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 deal 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 dealing with difficult family members 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. Dealing 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.

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 dealing with difficult parents, please comment below.

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10 Responses

  1. Laurie says:

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with difficult parents! It’s awesome that you want to strengthen your relationship with parents who are being overprotective – you sound like a very mature young person who wants to build bridges in your family.

    I can’t give advice, but here are a few questions to think about:

    What is the first step you can take towards strengthening your relationship with your parents?

    Who do you know in person, who can help you deal with your difficult parents?

    What can you change or control in your life?

    Take time to write down your answers to these questions. Sometimes it helps to get outside yourself and adopt an objective perspective. How would you advise your friends? If you write three tips for them on how to deal with difficult parents, you may gain insights into your own life.

    May you find peace and connection in your relationship with your parents, and may you see their positive qualities as well as their more challenging ones!


  2. noor says:

    hi laurie
    im just a 14 year old and i want to know whats the best way to strengthen your realatioship with parents who are overprotective.

  3. Rich says:

    Hi Laurie,

    My dad has been an alcoholic ever since I knew how to walk and talk up until today that I am already 27. When he’s drunk, he brings up past issues and speaks very ill towards my mom. and when us, children try to stop him from bad-mouthing our mom, he also bad-mouths us. not only that. when i was younger, he often throws everything in our bedroom window while swearing and calling us names. then in the morning, when he wakes up, he never recalls what shit he did to us last night.

    my dad becomes a monster when he’s drunk.

    and recently, he picked my mom and I from work. to our horror, he was drunk! so our car went swerving and swerving everywhere until it hit it’s dead end. we crashed into a parked car. Thank god we only got bruises. but right after that, he still managed to drive us home in top speed! i thought it was our death sentence. then came the next morning, he doesn’t remember that we were almost him!

    and now, we don’t talk to him, neither look at him because of disgust and anger to his wrongdoings. and no surprise at all, he doesn’t admit that he was wrong nor be humble enough to say sorry for giving us anxiety and stress. he even swears to God that he is not wrong.

    i’d like to move out of the house but i’m afraid for my mom and siblings who will be left behind. and besides, the house that we’re living in now is paid by my mom for 25 long years! and he has the guts to shoo her away from her house. the nerve, right?

    what should i do? thanks for reading my story.

  4. Laurie says:

    Dealing with difficult parents is never easy. My mom is moving to an adult group home in about a week, and it’s one of the most stressful things she’s ever had to face. I’m learning that the best way to deal with her and our difficult relationship is to accept her for who she is. She’s mentally ill, and I can’t change her. I’ve long ago given up hope that I could have a different mom, and I do feel happier and more peaceful.

    If it takes a miracle to deal with a difficult mom or dad, then let’s pray for a miracle.

  5. Mary says:

    Since as far back as I remember I have been dealing with very harsh and heartless parents. I used to get HIT,SCREAMED AT and PUNISHED f or things Idid and didnt do. My mother is HEARTLESS due to the fact that she lost both her parents at a very young age, and “let it out all on ME.” She has the personality of a dictator. I was even forced to study the subject that was chosen by my STINGY father, I worked for a very low income till I decided to quit and he has been giving me my pocket money since then. Please do NOT tell me to see a psyco-analist, psychiatrist etc: I DO NOT BELIEVE IN THEM. It seems that only a MIRACLE and a REAL MIRACLE will solve my issue sounds like….THE ISSUE OF THE MIDDLE EAST!

  6. Donna says:

    “A wooden coat hanger, and a broken hand later, we found out he had High Blood Pressure, so I truly have forgiven the coat hanger…”

    Um, high blood pressure doesn’t cause people to beat other people with coat hangers. An abusive personality causes people to do that.

  7. Laurie says:

    Hi Sandi,

    It sounds like you’ve been dealing with difficult parents and family problems for a long, long time! You’ve moved around alot, and there is so much history between you and your mom. Have you talked to a counselor or psychologist? I can’t offer any guidance or counseling about dealing with your parents or your past, because there are so many layers of complications and emotions.

    The best guidance I can offer is to to talk to a counselor or psychologist, and do your best to take her advice. You need to shake off those family ties and connections, and learn how to finally be free of your parents.

    I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. Talk to a counselor, and let me know how it goes.


  8. Laurie says:

    Dear Terri,

    It sounds like you’re having a lot of difficulty dealing with difficult parents, and I appreciate your sharing your experiences and emotions here. It also sounds like you trust God a great deal, and you’re trying to hand over your family problems to Him. That’s great! But, I think it’s important to take action as well.

    Pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on you. You mentioned wanting to move to a different state, to get away from your difficult parents. What is stopping you?

    Another thought is that maybe you need to change your expectations of your parents. That is, maybe you’ll never have the Brady Bunch family…and maybe if you stop hoping for and expecting that, maybe you won’t be disappointed all the time. What do you think?

  9. Sandi says:

    I need to get help. I’m a 53 year old woman, and have just recently found out a few very (in my view) really horrific things about my: self, mother, children. 1) My mother suffered a severe depression when she was carrying me. She was treated as was normal, in 1960, with shock treatments, and “vitamins”. I’m pretty sure the “vitamins” were meth amphetamine, or cocaine, or both, based. This I’ve been told by several MDs. My mother was very heavy handed, and the beatings came often, and hard. I was a constant disappointment, in every way, and was told repeatedly how stupid, worthless, ect. I was, and would always be. I was called every name you can think of, my hair was cut as punishment, (the DIY, with paper cutting scissors, not by a professional, I can remember being afraid of her since I was about 3, maybe 4. My Dad, is a sweet man, but has absolutely no spine, and was gone most of the time. My friends, in later years, were always shocked to find out I had a father. He’d join in on the beatings, but never really would have started them, except for once. A wooden coat hanger, and a broken hand later, we found out he had High Blood Pressure, so I truly have forgiven the coat hanger…(Freaked me out when I saw the Joan Crawford movie…many years later). I was a smart kid, with I think maybe a learning problem. I could read by 5, Nancy Drew, and Hard Boys were my favorites, but had real difficulty in actual class. I just couldn’t seem to get what was being taught, and would read, instead of trying to really pay attention. Again, huge disappointment to Mom, more hair cutting, more beatings, more punishments. No TV, no books, no playing, no birthday parties…Anything and everything that I would miss, was taken away, with no termination date. Just up to Mom. I was able to convince a Dr, of some sort, I’m sorry, I don’t remember what kind.

    Phsyc…something, after I showed him bite marks, that were fading, but still visible, to help me go live with my favorite Auntie, in France. He later told me, that no kid would have bitten themselves, a week in advance, to be able to show (or bs) someone who would be able to help. This was the early 70s, so I was so lucky to have him, as a Dr. I had tried to get the vice principal of my Jr. High to believe me, he called and told my Mom, so, guess who got it really good, thank you Mr. Brown. She never just had the one nighter, it would continue on for a couple of days, once a whole week. When as a Freshman, (9th grade, I was almost 14, having skipped a grade, (they thought I was smarter than I was) I was sent to the Dean of Girls, for refusing to undress in Gym class. I showed her my bruises, she called my Mom, and they decided I did it to myself, because I was trying to cause trouble. Bruises on my back, those were the hard ones to give myself. I had to be really limber…Texas in the 60s and 70s…I think a lot of kids got it good. Plus, my mother is (at 91, even) a charming, beautiful woman, with a French accent, and smart as a whip. No one would, or could equate this lovely, well bred woman, with the story I was telling, or more importantly, what the marks on my body should have been able to tell.

    Anyways, Dr. Abrams, convinced that I would be in real danger, if my Mom was confronted, was able to convince her, that I’d be better off, with a large family around me…Off to France I went, at 14. I was never happier, or safer. I stayed until 18, did pretty well in school, considering I was an American, going to a French school, and just learning the language. I never got high, once, the whole time I lived there. Just pot, at home, and didn’t really like it, just wanted to be like my friends. No alcohol, no sex, home at least 5 minutes before I was supposed to, not really a bad kid, now that I’m a mom, and grandma, and have seen, the bad kids. I was actually pretty good.

    So, France for 4 years, hated it when she’d come for the “see what a good Mom I am” yearly 2 week visit. I used to wish my Auntie was my Mom, that my parents who some how lost me as a baby, would find me, anything but her. Life was good, only really bad time, was when she slapped me in front of my entire family, because it came out that my oldest cousin’s ex-wife, a severe alcoholic, told my Aunt, that I was no longer a Virgin, and slept around. Problem was, I was, and didn’t. She was from Denmark, and refused to believe that a 14 year old female was not sexually active. So, she lied, to diminish me in my Aunt’s eyes. My Aunt and I adored each other, I was the daughter she never had, she’d had 5 boys, no girls. My mother, takes me, at 14, to a strange doctor down the block, and has him examine me. I was so humiliated, having a strange man, put hands on me, at 14, it was the worst day of my life. He told her, that I was absolutely still intact, and that she, by doing this, had probably insured that I wouldn’t be for long. He was wrong, I married for the first time at 18, my husband, and father of my son, and oldest daughter was my first. He also, bless his heart, told my Mother, she should beg my forgiveness, for putting me through an adult female exam. The French are pretty open, I was not, and I think he could tell, before the exam, that I was mortified, and scared to death. I had a boyfriend, a couple by then, but making out was my limit. Heard my guy friends talk about the girls who did fool around, in such trashy ways, I never wanted them to talk about me like that. No apology ever came. I was in trouble, because if I had insisted to the drunk, she would have never lied. My fault. My Aunt had never told me, or I could have reassured her, she wasn’t sure what to believe, Americans are totally wild to the Europeans, especially before the 80s, and social media came along.

    I had to come home, at 18, but was to go back, after a visit. I ended up meeting my 1st husband, getting married at 18, 3 months after we met. Mom was exstatic. Good family, not as wealthy as us, but the father was actually a rocket scientist. We had 2 wonderful kids, and I realized I had married my mother. A physical control freak…added bonus, he drank. I didn’t. Omg. I haven’t even hit my 20s yet, and I’ve written a novel. It gets worse, so, I believe I’ll stop here.

    I now know, my mother systematically worked to be my children’s mom, to get them to love her, and it worked, mostly with the oldest 2, until she tried living with him, and his wife, and my granddaughter. He called me, and for the first time told me how sorry he was, how he believes me about the beatings, and understands why, I self medicated like I did. Why I worked 15+ hours a day, and was amazed at the fact that I cleaned up, for my family, and worked so hard for them to forgive my stupidity. I was the worst kind of addict, the kind that functions very, very well. At work, though, not at home. My kids have since told me so many horrific things, that my mother propagated about me to them, as she was doing the same about them to me, we would have never been able to heal. My guilt at not being a better Mom, and daughter, blinded me, fr 15 years now, to the facts I knew as a kid. She’s evil, and dangerous, because she’s so skilled at hiding it. I actually forgot, so much, and took my being “punished” by my oldest 2, and my Mom, as deserved.

    My youngest daughter, had the benefit of a great step dad, 16 years married, happily, and a clean 16 years as well, mom. She’s a stoner, and drinks, like her sperm doner, but no other drugs. I now have literal nightmares, am remembering too many things, and am pissed. Really pissed. I lost almost 50 lbs., when my folks went to the East Coast to try to live with my son. I thought I had Cancer, again, and she left, without even finding out. I changed then, but as soon as they came home, I was the doormat once again. I have been their caretaker, and literally saved her life, 3 times now. Dad is 95, in April, she’s just turned 91. She is trying to turn me against my kids, now that brother and sister have united, and tries to use the inheritance to that end. I’ve never cared about the money, I even told them to give whatever my share would be to my son, if he was to care for my folks, until they pass. He would have earned every penny.

    Now, that I’m remembering, and see her, as I did before, without the guilt, of my own failures, I’m becoming obsessed. I know, I will never have any kind of closure, nor, even a reckoning. What’s the point, she’s 91, she will never admit to any wrong doing, apologize for any thing she did. Not the ripping us off for over 20K, making me repay borrowed money back, twice. Not that she’s proud, that I never hit my kids, or cleaned up, by myself, and stayed clean. Not I’m sorry, you have a shot back, (surgery didn’t help)but because you have honor, you had to work, full time, to pay money you didn’t really owe. Half of my earnings, every month, for 6 years. 8 Percs a day, to get through. And, yes, I’m under Dr. care, for pain, and now only have to take 3, unless it’s really bad. I’ll never even know if she loved me, ever, or if I’m all she has, and believe me, she uses me up. I’m really sorry, I know this is way more than a comment, but I’m losing it. I have to take care of my folks, and I’m so bitter, and angry, it’s starting to show. I need help, I can’t let her destroy any more of my life. I just have no idea how to go about getting any.

    I’m really sorry, about the novel, but, at least we avoided my 20s, 30s and most of my 40s…

    Thank you for any guidance you can offer. :)

  10. Terri says:

    My childhood was ruff but we had good times as well both my parents did drugs but as kids we never knew bc we still had a somewhat normal life we never went with out and we always almost got everything we wanted untill my oldest brother was killed and i felt like my father didnt love us anymore and he left us then my mom got addicted really bad . ive always been a little hustla so i did lil odd jobs to make my own money and my mom and her friends would get high run out of money and either steal it from me or mulnipulate me out of it as i got older and realized what was going on i started to dislike my mom even becamed rebellious towards her a few yrs later she changed but i still felf restentment towards both my parents more so towards my mom bc she would always preach on how much a child is more so a mothers responsibility than a fathers and how much a mother plays a big role in a child lifes and ect ect ect but she didnt pratice what she preached . but over the years she stayed cleaned but never sat down and actually apologized hole heartly for the tumor she placed upon me or my silblings i really just wanted that talk and i never got it .

    As i grew old its like the reentment for both of my parents got deeper and deeper it just wont heal i pray and talk with god all the time ab it iread the bible and although god says obey your parents i do but sometimes i just want to forgive them and not deal with them at all i love them but i feel as if my parents and other family members arent any good for my life . They always take from me bad talk me use me but whenever i need a helping hand they give with strings attached and its always bad talk behind it i love having that brady bunch feeling of having a larger family but i cant keep taking the hurt the pain and tumor that comes along with it . im just so scared that god will punish me for cutting them off . i want so desprately to just pack up move to a different state and start over just me and my kid i want peace love happiness and no stress in life … but i will keep praying until something happens

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