Adult Children of Difficult Parents


Mom. Dad.  Mother.  Father.  Mommy.  Daddy.

These names can evoke a myriad of feelings for most of us.  Love.  Warmth.  Caring.  Affection.  Fear.  Sadness.  Anger.  Yet more times than not, it seems that at least one of these names dredges up some difficult or unpleasant memories, or perhaps ever-present current challenges.  Aging parents present more challenges as well.

All of us want to feel we are/were loved by parents.

I’m sorry if you’ve been disappointed by your family. It is hurtful and difficult.

What I’m about to say may seem completely counter-intuitive if you have a difficult relationship with your parents:

Keep praying for them.  

We are to pray for our enemies, love our enemies. Not that you necessarily consider family as enemies, but we are just called to pray for everyone to know Christ, and we are to be Christ’s love in action. Our actions are not conditional on what we get in return. God will determine the how and when of it, not us.

And yes, I believe there are times when we need to cut persistently toxic people out of our lives.  Disrespect and abuse are not acceptable or healthy.  But still, we pray for them. We ensure to the best of our powers they are clothed, fed, and sheltered.

If you are one of the lucky ones who has not been disappointed or hurt by your family, you are blessed.  Sometimes the worst hurt in life comes from those we love and to whom we are or were the closest, those whose approval and love mean so much to us.  Any family that escapes this dysfunction is a blessed one indeed.

Dad lost Mother 6 years ago.  He never was one to tell anyone what a wonderful woman she was, especially not to her face, until after her death.  Frequently she was belittled, mocked, and verbally bullied.  She was a saint.  Her smile rarely tipped, she loved abundantly, she served her husband selflessly, put him first, brought honor to him, and was well loved by friends, children, and grandchildren for her sweet kindness and love.  She was a model Proverbs 31 wife, absent the Proverbs 31 husband (who praises her).  After her death, of course Dad realized what he lost, and he’s been inconsolable, and even more unhappy than when he had her to boss around.  Mother was grace under fire, love unconditional, and at times I disliked how much she allowed herself to be mistreated and disrespected.

Dad was no less acerbic with me and my sibling.  I made all the typical small mistakes and gaffs of a young person.  Rather than youthful follies, these classified me as irredeemable in his eyes.  I had opinions and was smart, and headstrong; these attitudes earned me mockery and scorn and put-downs.  No matter what I did, I never could meet his approval or feel loved and acceptable.  The better my life became (in contrast to his clear message that I could never measure up, be lovable, or accepted–or indeed reach the pegs he constantly was moving), the more I had to learn to read between the lines of his bullying attitudes.  I had to adopt the loving eyes of Jesus and see beyond the hurting man who happened to be my father.  Mind you, it took nearly 5 decades of life for me to get here. I had to appreciate what he did: he supported me, and paid for my education–that’s more than what many get. Compliments from dad always were back-handed; he couldn’t bear the vulnerability to show he was proud or touched.  Mother always had been his “translator” and she’d assure me how proud of me he was.  I learned he bragged about me incessantly to friends, to my great surprise.  Probably by reason of his own Great Depression and WW2 era upbringing by a stoic German mom, Dad came from the school of, “you don’t tell people you love them or that you approve of them, it’ll make them weak and dependent.”  By the grace of God, I did not usually respond with anger and harsh words, or equal amounts of open disdain. For a time I needed to put distance between us, and indeed at a fairly young age I had to leave my father’s home, so contentious was the strife. I have struggled and learned to give honor to the best of my ability (even if only surface and not in my heart).

As I’ve grown up, I see more clearly.  My father doesn’t know what he wants sometimes. He wants to control what his offspring think and do, but he hates if anyone seems to expect things from him. He wants help but he doesn’t want to give up control. He wants unconditional love and respect but doesn’t give it.  He fears his emotions, his soft-spot, and his tears, so he does not ever want to go to a tender place that causes him to “lose it” and seem weak.  He wants his kids to succeed and to be smart, but not so much that we’re smarter or more successful. He’s a contradiction, and a huge collection of insecurities (no doubt fed by guilt) that cause him to strike out like a bully, to isolate, and hold grudges.  Overall, he’s the sad, lonely old person I never want to be.  The lesson I take away is I need to strive to be so much different.

With difficult family members, I have chosen to forgive. Not necessarily forget, or tolerate abuse and continued disrespect, but to forgive, every morning; and to choose love. It’s more for my peace, to not hold heart-eroding grudges or anger inside my heart.

The 5th commandment tells me I am to honor my parents; I can do it from love and devotion; or I can do it from a sense of duty (clearly the former is most excellent, but not always possible). I call once a week; listen to him newly embellish the same old stories,and dwell on the negatives; tell him I love him; try to be responsive when he might need help (he despises asking). Every now and then he asks about us or his grands. He loves old fashioned letters so I try to send them as do our kids. Once in a while I send a care package with cookies or treats; his favorite ham for Christmas and birthday.   I just try to be the daughter he needs now.  I cannot make my father be happy; but I can be a happy spirit in his presence.

But I’m so over yearning for him to “accept me for who I am” because I have a Heavenly Father who does that!  I am who God says I am!

I was later to realize that my fear of losing control and trusting my own husband (and indeed all men in my life) had not so much to do that my mother submitted and surrendered to her husband; it was that she did so to an often self-seeking, unkind, and unappreciative man who didn’t love her selflessly.  I thank God I married a completely different kind of man, who embodies the Fruit of the Spirit.

My life lessons helped me to learn to practice the fruit of the spirit in my own life, with my husband, my children, and all whom I love, even those difficult to love.

“The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.”  Galatians 5:22-23 (the MSG translates that last bit: “legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way.  Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.”)

A very helpful and insightful book I’ve read is Coping With Your Difficult Older Parent. I highly recommend it.

I am sorry if you are hurting from an unloving parent.  You have choices.  You can continue to allow it to hurt you, or you can choose to break free from it.  The latter ensures you get to become the loving person they couldn’t be.

How do you deal with a difficult older parent?

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2 Responses to Adult Children of Difficult Parents

  1. jenn66 says:

    I wish I had known of these books two years ago before my father passed. It was only with his dementia that he became kind. Growing up he never said a kind word to me, but when his mind went he would thank me for visiting and taking care of him.


    • Wow. Isn’t that amazing? I am so glad that the final days helped him to shed his gruffness. Reminds me that God works all things for good– even dementia (as difficult as that is for all concerned). Do you see it as a blessing now, that it perhaps allowed him to show appreciation? God certainly was smiling down upon your selflessness to care for him. Thank you for sharing. God bless!


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