Ageing parents are hard. Whether it’s the nonstop requests for IT support, the invasive questions about your love life, or the unasked-for speculations about your health, the relationship between an adult child and their parent can fraught. This is especially true if you have a relationship that is reversed, with the parents acting more like children than adults.
“Emotionally immature people, like two-year-olds, can be self-centered, they can be impulsive, they can be tuned out — but they’re not two years old, they’re the people [who] are supposed to be the parents,” said Dan Neuharth, a psychologist and author of the Psychology Today blog Narcissism Demystified.
Whether they don’t treat you as an autonomous being, reject you for arbitrary reasons, or simply can’t be bothered, dealing with an emotionally immature parent is exhausting and bewildering. As an adult child of one of them, life becomes an endless struggle to find ways to navigating a fraught relationship in an emotionally healthy way. Here are some suggestions for how to make the journey easier.
The four types of emotionally immature parents
Emotionally immature parents tend to fall into four main types: controlling parents, emotional parents, rejecting parents, and passive parents. “Some kids with emotionally immature parents can feel pressured or controlled in inappropriate ways, where others can feel completely ignored or rejected…[they’re] are different ends of the spectrum, but both are the results of an immature parent,” Neuharth said.
Controlling parents tend to set unrealistic standards for their children, and can be punitive when they don’t measure up. Emotional parents tend to have very volatile mood swings, vacillating from one extreme to another. Rejecting parents tend to push their children away, while passive parents tend to avoid confrontation at all costs — even to the point of neglecting their children’s needs.
Although it helps to define emotionally immature parents by type, “it can really be a mixture,” said Molly Alvord, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks. Whatever their immaturity looks like, for their adult children, it becomes about breaking the old patterns of dysfunctional behaviour.
Establish internal and external boundaries
One of the hard parts about dealing with emotionally immature parents is establishing healthy boundaries, which can help break unhealthy patterns from your childhood. Boundaries need to be both external, dictating the behavioural standards you expect from your parents; and internal, identifying the behaviours you can and cannot personally tolerate.
“Internal boundaries are just as important,” Neuharth said. Internal boundaries include establishing your own expectations as to what you can and cannot get from your parents. According to Neuharth, “part of setting boundaries with emotionally immature parents is to grieve what you didn’t have. If you don’t, there’s always some part of you, deep down, that is still hoping they will change, and then you tolerate behaviour that isn’t good for them or for you.”
As Alvord often suggests to her patients, when a conversation is starting to repeat unhealthy childhood patterns, reinforce your boundaries by shutting it down immediately, before you get pulled into a negative conversation. Say something like, “that’s not an appropriate way to talk to me, I am going to end this conversation, and we’re going to try this some other time.”
As Alvord noted, the phrase, “that’s not an appropriate way to talk to me” is often an effective way to shut down a conversation. However, if you do use this strategy, expect your parents to continue to push your limits, she added, because they may be too emotionally immature to understand the importance of respecting your boundaries.
Neuharth also finds it helpful to use the J-A-D-E strategy, as in: you need not justify your boundaries, argue with your parents about why you are establishing them, defend your decisions, or even explain why you are establishing boundaries in the first place. If you are dealing with an emotionally immature parent, they are going to push back, they are going to keep trying to get their way, no matter what — which means that you do have to find a way to shut it down, even when it’s difficult.
Find a way to get what you need elsewhere
Part of establishing healthy boundaries is grieving what you can’t expect from your parents. “We all want to feel that someday our parent is going to come to us, and say, ‘I am so sorry, I had some challenges when I was growing up, and I didn’t do a great job, and made you think you were the problem, where they take responsibility,’” Neuharth said. Unfortunately, it’s rare that will happen with an emotionally immature parent, who likely has trouble looking outside of their own needs to realise the damage they’ve inflicted — and are still inflicting — on you.
Instead, “people have to give up that dream, and find it elsewhere,” Neuharth said. Often, this can be through relationships with mentors, the friends of parents, or other family members, whether it’s your chosen family or your extended family. By doing this, you can start to undo some of the old patterns that you grew up with. “Being able to break the pattern with your adult parents can help you break the patterns in your own life,” Alvord said.
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