Parents Who Drive You Crazy: Four Steps for Handling Emotionally Immature Parents

Do you ever feel like the mature one in your relationship with your parents? If so, you are like countless others who are hurt and frustrated by their emotionally immature parents. It is difficult to deal with parents who have not developed enough empathy to care sufficiently about the feelings of others. These immature parents focus on their own interests to the point where they make their children feel inadequate, unseen, and chronically guilty.

While the emotionally immature parent may act like a normal adult in the outside world, their self-involved and controlling behavior comes out full force at home. They ignore their children’s emotional needs because they are focused on their own consuming desires for attention and control. As a result, their children end up feeling insignificant and emotionally alone.

Like small children, emotionally immature parents are fixated on their immediate demands. They expect others to anticipate their needs first. They undermine their children’s confidence and self-esteem by acting like the child can never do enough to make them happy. Their children become anxiously vigilant as they try to avoid the emotional backlash that comes if they don’t guess correctly what their parent wants.

It is much more useful and accurate to think of these parents as emotionally immature rather than through the lens of a clinical diagnosis, such as narcissism. Their emotional immaturity can take different forms — not all of which are diagnosable categories — but all the types cause emotional pain and deprivation in their children. Once you get the idea that these are psychologically underdeveloped personalities, it is much easier to handle them rather than thinking about them diagnostically.

Most of us instinctively know how to handle upset toddlers, but we don’t think to apply that to our gray-haired parents. Few of us would expect a preschooler to consider our needs or react sensibly if we ask them to do something they dislike. Yet with immature parents, we expect a reasonableness and empathy they don’t possess and never will. As a result, we are repeatedly confused and shocked by their lack of cooperation or sensitivity. Why must they make everything so hard? Why can’t they think about us for a change?

Dealing with difficult parents is especially hard on the emotionally sensitive child who can’t help but notice other people’s feelings. The immaturity of the parent means that these children develop the heavy responsibility of worrying about other people’s needs. These more emotionally perceptive children often over-perform as the go-to person in the family who cares about other people’s problems.

Unfortunately, these conscientious children usually keep trying to win their parent’s approval throughout their lives, but their immature parent will neither listen nor open up emotionally. If the sensitive child tries to tell the parents how he or she feels, the parents will clam up, mock, dismiss, or turn the tables with self-pity or blame. They are terrified of sincere feelings, and simply do not deal with anything emotionally intimate.

It works better to deal with emotionally immature parents using a four-step method that I call the Maturity Awareness Approach.

1. Use Your Observer Mind
Rather than trying to engage these parents, emotional detachment is much safer. Use your thinking function rather than your emotional reactivity, and you will no longer be their emotional victim. By objectively observing their self-preoccupation and control maneuvers, you gain freedom from the need for their approval.

2. Express and Then Let Go
One of the hardest things to realize is that trying to get a satisfying response from your parent won’t work. It is far more effective to say what you need to say using clear, intimate communication, while releasing any expectation that they will change. By practicing speaking up in a calm way, you strengthen yourself whether they respond positively or not.

3. Focus on the Outcome, Not the Relationship
You can’t expect empathy or fairness from an emotionally immature parent. Instead, think about the specific outcome you want, rather than trying to improve the relationship. Remember, anything emotionally intimate scares these parents. Decide what specific outcome you are aiming for, and keep going for it. For instance, you can ask for an apology, but you can’t ask for a change of heart.

4. Manage, Don’t Engage
Manage the conversation instead of reacting to what the parent says. Make explicit goals for topic and duration, and guide things toward where you want to end up. By managing toward the outcome you want, you avoid the frustration of having all conversations hijacked by your parent’s self-preoccupations. If you let them set the pace, you will end up drained and resentful. Instead of engaging with you, these parents will dominate with their most pressing interests, their pet beef, or their unmet needs. Don’t be sidetracked by their complaining or criticisms. Your job is to move things along toward the outcome you want.

Emotionally immature parents will drive you crazy if you mistake their physical age for psychological maturity. Acknowledge that you may have surpassed them developmentally a long time ago, and their insensitivities will begin to hurt a little less. Remember, they are just too young to think of you much at all.

Lindsay C. Gibson, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in personal growth and individual psychotherapy for adults. She has taught psychology graduate students as a past Adjunct Assistant Professor for The College of William and Mary and Old Dominion University.