For most of us, our parents are our very first relationship. The way they care for us (or don’t) when we’re babies and toddlers shapes how we interact with the rest of the world. The way they care for us (or don’t) when we’re adults doesn’t have such an impact anymore, but dealing with them can still be a frustrating mix of joy and torment.
Whether your parents are simply annoying in their lack of boundaries or they have a clinically defined personality disorder, there is good news: With a little help, like the tips we’ve gathered from three expert psychologists here, you can change the dynamics of your relationship for the better.
Are your parents clinically awful or just annoying?
In her book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, psychologist Lindsay Gibson, PsyD, says there are four different types of emotionally immature parents: emotional parents who instill feelings of instability and anxiety in their children, driven parents who try to make everyone perfect, passive parents who avoid anything too upsetting, and rejecting parents who are withdrawn and mean.
When emotionally immature parenting comes to mind, I think of the parent who over-parents the child, says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills-based family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “There are messages the parent sends that it’s the child who should be concerned about caretaking, caregiving, and worrying about the parent’s well-being.”
A narcissistic parent might behave in any of the above ways, but if you want to go by the DSM V definition, they would also lack empathy, have a constant need for admiration, maintain only superficial relationships with others, and express feelings of grandiosity and entitlement.
On the milder spectrum of issues, your parent might simply not respect boundaries or recognize that you’re an independent adult. There may be a completely different issue you have with your parent —they are human, after all—but some of the advice that follows can still apply to how you can deal with them.
Knowing Is Half the Battle
Psychologist Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., says patients come to her with romantic or work relationship problems, and it isn’t until after talking things through that they uncover their parents as the root of their issues. The good news is that this realization alone helps a lot—especially if you have some support.
“I think that self-awareness is the best escape hatch,” Dorfman says. “The more aware we are, the better equipped we are to make conscious choices about the way we want to interact or behave in relationships. A lot of times, working through and processing the feelings with a professional can be very helpful because you’re not acting from an emotional place, but from an intellectual place.”
Not only does this knowledge help your other relationships, but it can also reset your expectations for interactions with your parents.
“Once you know what the forces were in your life, you’re no longer shaped by them,” she says. “If you don’t realize your parent is narcissistic, you’re going to keep going back to them thinking that they are going to be empathic or kind or listen to you. But once you make that realization, you’re free.”
Find Your Own Happiness
Being able to reflect back on how your parents’ emotional instability or neediness affected you might also shed light on the choices you’ve made in adulthood. Did you inadvertently choose a career that would make your mother proud but doesn’t make you happy?
“A lot of kids of emotionally immature parents go to great effort to become high achievers, to perform well to please the parent,” Walfish says. “Or they try to entertain the parents with singing, dancing, humor, athletics, gymnastics, drama… all those things.”
If you’re dissatisfied in your career or some other path you’ve chosen to please your parents, it’s not too late to change.
“Get yourself in therapy with a supportive, warmly attuned, clear professional who can help you find your own vision, find your own voice, and pursue your own dreams,” Walfish says.
Put Limits on Your Difficult Parents
None of this is a green light to go confront your mom or dad now. What’s probably more productive is if you keep your new revelations in mind the next time you interact with them.
“The beauty of being an adult is you’re no longer reliant or dependent on your parents for survival,” Dorfman says. “You can delineate the boundaries that work for you.”
When a parent is visiting your home, Dorfman suggests that you delicately set rules for them (“In my house, I would prefer if we didn’t debate politics.”) When you’re visiting them, give yourself a predetermined time limit and consider announcing it at the beginning of your time there (“We’ve got to leave at noon for a friend’s lunch!”).
Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University, says her patients who are children of narcissists do this even for their phone calls. She has other guidelines for those conversations as well: “Don’t tell them about your vulnerabilities, because they’re likely to criticize them or mock them. Stick to neutral topics—the weather, a movie you saw. Don’t take the bait: If they draw you into a fight, say, ‘Yeah, right, I agree.’ That really messes with their heads. Now they’ve lost their little sport.”
It also helps to have some tools you can use, such as breathing exercises or mantras, to keep yourself calm and steady as you deal with emotionally immature parents. Dorfman says you can say these in your head when things get rough: “Her intention is not to hurt me.” “This is the best that she can do.” “He is limited.”
When Money Is Involved
Like it or not, we still sometimes get entangled with our parents financially—whether they’re the ones who float you a loan for grad school or a down payment or they need your help paying bills as they get older.
“If money can be given with no strings attached, then I don’t think it’s problematic, but if money is used in any way as a control, the recipient has to be well aware of what implicit strings are attached and what the expectations are,” Dorfman says. When the child is the one giving financial help, “knowing one’s limits is critical because if you overextend yourself, you’re only going to feel resentful.”
Getting an explicit verbal or written agreement about what is expected in return for a loan or gift can help avoid resentment and misunderstandings. (There are online templates to help you with this.)
Form Healthy Relationships With Others
If you have difficult parents, as an adult, you are free to love them without necessarily liking them, and you can turn to other people to fill in the emotional needs that went unmet in your childhood.
“It can be incredibly helpful to develop relationships with peers or mentors or older people who can satisfy the specific need that you have,” Dorfman says.
She cautions against burdening just one person with that responsibility, however. “Sometimes we have an unrealistic fantasy that one person will correct all of the ills from our earlier life, when, in fact, having different people in your life who can satisfy certain needs and are happy to do so is great.”
You can look to older adults, such as friends’ parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, or religious leaders, for some of the mentorship you feel you never had. For your emotional needs, think about telling your closer friends and partner what you’ve gone through with your parents and how you feel it’s affected you.
“When you develop trusting relationships with other people, you’re able to identify what your specific triggers, issues, sensitivities, and soft spots are,” Dorfman says. “Then your partner or close friend can sometimes even provide a corrective experience of sorts.”
Sabrina Rojas Weiss lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by her fellow freelance writers and competitive stroller-pushers. Follow her on Twitter @shalapitcher.