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Difficult and Immature Parents

This blog post is based off a fictional character; Sally.

“You’ve never cared about me.”

“All you do is spend time with your friends.”

“You’re so ungrateful for all I’ve done for you.”

“I brought you into this world, I can take you out.”

These are not uncommon phrases you might’ve heard in your home growing up. To hear these words from a parent, is to hear the pain of someone who probably feels deeply unloved, uncared for and unappreciated. But is that a “you” problem?

When we talk about “difficult” parents, we often are talking about emotionally immature parents. Parents who maybe stopped maturing after the age of 12, 15 or 18. They may be 45, own a home, drive a nice car and have a 401k, but that’s where the comparison stops. Children who grow up to be emotionally immature parents, were often overlooked. Let’s look at an example. 

Sally lives at home with two parents who identify themselves as mom and dad. Sally’s dad works out of the home, as does mom. Dad is always home by the time Sally gets home from school. Dad often greets Sally with, “chores before dinner,” and “we don’t want your mom to see the state of this house.” When mom gets home, Sally hears, “wow, you’re all so tired. Maybe we can’t watch a movie together tonight.”

As time goes on, Sally hears arguments escalate between parents. The usual phrases of, “you’re so ungrateful,” “you never even thank me,” and “I should just leave” surface. Sally learns that to make your needs known, you must be loud. You must make statements that are all, or nothing. You must be so extreme, that the other person has no choice but to back down and potentially soothe your own feelings. 

As a partner, Sally employs this in her adult life. When Sally feels confronted with something she did wrong, she reverts to what she heard and saw growing up. To be extreme. When Sally’s partner says, “I didn’t like the way you spoke to me earlier today, it really hurt my feelings,” Sally hears, “you’re horrible, I can’t believe you did that.” In response, Sally has an extreme emotional reaction; “I would NEVER hurt you, and I don’t know what you want from me. I don’t know how to change, this is just who i am.”

Emotionally immature parents and adults are often stuck in this “fight” mode. When confronted with something they did wrong, they take it as a personal critique and criticism of them, rather than a loved one expressing their own feelings. Every behavior, comment and experience is internalized and made to be about them. Sound familiar? This is how young children process the world around them; “how would it feel if so and so hit you the way you just hit them?” Emotionally immature parents and adults live in this feeling and state of being perpetually critiqued, and corrected. 


But how do you manage a relationship with a parent like this? Boundaries. Boundaries. Boundaries. Many people will create a boundary in their mind, and leave it at that. When the parent crosses that line, THEN you verbalize it and create walls. That, is a reaction. Not a boundary. 

What would it be like to think about the boundaries you’d like to enforce with the person you’re thinking of? What would change for you?

The Understory Group welcomes you to check out our clinicians, Nat Adey, LSW and Em Evans, LSW. Both clinicians are open for individual sessions. Nat runs a virtual group for young adults on Thursdays. Reach out for more info.

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