Author and NHS psychologist ELISABETH LINLEY advises how to navigate unhealthy family dynamics

11 mins read


Many of us know the struggle of dealing with difficult parents. 

And with the festive season fast approaching, the prospect of spending days or weeks with them might be looming large in your mind. 

Speaking to FEMAIL, author and NHS psychologist Elisabeth Linley explained the key to resolving this complex and sometimes unhealthy family dynamics is to first identify which exist within your home. 

There are four main types: The Overcritical/Disapproving Parent, The Aloof Parent, The Hot and Cold Parent and The Overcontrolling Parent/The Martyr

Potential tension can surface when family dynamics established in childhood are left unresolved, and continue to affect people long after they left their parents’ homes.

Here, Elisabeth, whose debut novel Lanesbrough Hall deals with trans-generational trauma, shared her advice on how to improve relations for an easier home life. 

Author and NHS psychologist Elisabeth Linley shares advice on how to identify and handle difficult parent relationships. Stock photo used

Author and NHS psychologist Elisabeth Linley shares advice on how to identify and handle difficult parent relationships. Stock photo used 

As we all know, parenting does not come with a handbook, and like everything else in life, some people are better at parenting than others. 

Sometimes, it is not so much about our actual parenting style as about our compatibility with our children, after all, we are all people who have different personalities and interests. 

In other cases, it might be a parenting style isn’t suited to a particular developmental stage.

As you’ve probably started to realise, this is a very complex and multi-faceted subject and it would be impossible to do it justice in one article. 

The fact is that our childhood and upbringing, and more importantly, our own parenting influences our beliefs about ourselves and others, and those perceptions become the filters through which we interpret every encounter and experience in our adulthood.

I will address some of the common types of ‘difficult parents’ but no-one fits neatly into a box. 

Often a parent can display a combination of several of these characteristics, depending on their personality.

The FOUR types of difficult parents (and how to spot them) 

THE OVERCRITICAL, DISAPPROVING PARENT 

Do you feel that whatever you do, it’s never good enough? You are not good enough? Loveable enough? Smart enough? Successful enough? Pretty enough? 

The list is long, and I suspect that you always felt that way, so tried harder, tried to appease and please your parent in the hope that you’d get their love and approval. 

THE ALOOF PARENT 

This type is the opposite to the overcontrolling parent. You feel as though they are never present, emotionally and/or physically unavailable. 

They are wrapped up in their own life and have little or no interest in you, nor what you do nor your life. 

When you try to share anything with them they give you a one-sentence answer, don’t ask you any questions and yet quite happily hold an hour-long conversation about themselves. 

You come away feeling yet again not interesting or important enough to get your parent’s attention.

You can’t help feeling hurt, resentful, frustrated and angry with them and yourself for being a constant disappointment. 

Alternatively, you may have decided there was no point in trying and at every turn fulfil their negative expectations of you – and yet it doesn’t make you feel good about yourself.

THE OVERCONTROLLING PARENT / THE MARTYR

Do you feel that whenever it comes to any differences in opinion, you are the one to give in? There is no compromise. It’s as if your wants and needs are irrelevant. 

If you dare to argue, you are shut down by being reminded that you are ungrateful because they’ve done everything for you, they sacrificed their life so that you could…’.

They guilt-trip you, chip away at you, manipulate and have tried to mould you and the situation for so long, until you give up the fight and do what they want. 

It is as though they own you and your sole purpose is to make them happy, which becomes a never-ending quest. You don’t exist in your own right.

THE HOT AND COLD PARENT

You feel confused as to whether your parent loves you or hates you. Every time you have any dealings with them, you feel on edge, anxious and hypervigilant.

You have to tread on eggshells, watch everything you do, and say, not knowing whether you will be dealing with Jekyll or Hyde. 

You come away, feeling angry, berating yourself for having said the wrong thing and preparing yourself for the silent-treatment – until you can’t bear it any longer and end-up apologising.

How to handle a difficult parent 

You think to yourself – may even tell your parent- for Goodness’ sake, I am an adult, not a child anymore. You have to realise these patterns of interaction have been likely repeated many times every day for at least 18 years until you became an adult.

Furthermore, the relationship with our parents becomes the blueprint for our adult relationships. We have to bear in mind that whatever way our parents make us feel now, as adults, has been conditioned and hardwired in us since our childhood. But that does not mean that we are doomed for the rest of our lives.

The trouble is that very few people consciously review their relationship with their parents or have therapy to understand and learn how they might change these patterns. So here are some of the ways you can stop playing the same frustrating and futile game over and over.

1. Understand that your parent is a person whose personality has been formed by their experiences and their own parenting

They are not likely to change because you would like them to. They are unlikely to even contemplate that they are doing anything wrong. If they had, they would be acting differently.

2. Get rid of the ideal image of a parent in your head

They will never match that picture.

3. Do not try to convince them they are wrong

No-one has ever improved by being criticised.

4. Take responsibility for yourself

Yes, you have been conditioned all your life to react in a particular way – but you now have a choice. Stop the reacting – because then you have reverted to being that young, helpless, unloved, and angry child who was at the mercy of your parent.

5. Be the adult that you are

Take a moment and ask yourself how do I want to deal with this person (who happens to be my parent) in this situation?

6. If you struggle to come up with an answer, ask yourself how you would be dealing with such a person if they were not your parent?

Or if, in general, you struggle with being assertive, then remind yourself of how you would like to handle them.

7. Draw firm boundaries

That is, declare your position clearly. This doesn’t mean you have to get into an argument or conflict every time. It means that you stay you and let the other person be. 

Use responses like, ‘that’s interesting’; ‘I haven’t thought about that’; ‘thank you for your advice, I’ll see what happens’; ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine’; ‘I’ll think about it’. Then change the subject or let them carry on talking. 

It doesn’t matter what they say, as long as you know what it is that you want, and you stay true to yourself.

8. Stop seeking love and validation

But in order to do that, you must first put away the begging bowl that you’ve been holding out, in the hope that one day, it will be filled with love and validation

You must also put aside your fear of rejection.

9. Make different choices and don’t respond in the same way you always have

Basically, you’d be saying ‘I am not going to play this game anymore’. Once you have achieved that, you have managed to break the old patterns that became the default setting for you and your parent. You have created a new game, with new rules, and if your parent wants to interact with you, they too, will have to play this new game.

10. Have patience and be consistent in your approach

Remember these patterns are well engrained and will take time and effort to change. But with every step, you get closer to becoming your own person and an adult who is in control of their life and relationships.

Elisabeth Linley is the author of Lanesbrough Hall

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