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Domestic Drama: Prickly Pére

How to handle a problem parent. What are your obligations to a parent who's smothering or abusive?

As a child, Michael Levine yearned to please his mother, but her drinking gave rise to mood swings so extreme that living at home felt like performing a high-wire act. "You didn't know what was going to happen from one day to the next," says Levine, now a Los Angeles public relations executive. "Monday you might be told you were God Almighty, and Tuesday you might have things thrown at you."

We each owe our existence to our parents, and in many cases, we'll never fully appreciate their sacrifices on our behalf. But prospective parents don't have to pass mental-health tests to procreate, and parents with difficult personalities come in as many flavors as emotionally challenged suitors. Some are "helicopter parents," always hovering, anxious and overprotective; some neglect their children's needs out of selfishness or mild depression; others seethe with anger, unhappiness, or jealousy, lashing out at their offspring—physically or verbally—on a regular basis. But such parents can nevertheless come across to outsiders as involved and loving, so children receive little independent confirmation that something is wrong with the way they're being treated.

Many people born into difficult families spend their childhoods looking forward to leaving their parents' orbit. But when they do, the parameters that define the relationship must be redrawn: How can adult children strike a balance between maintaining a healthy measure of personal freedom and keeping difficult parents satisfied? Are they obligated to keep communication lines open as a gesture of filial loyalty? Can anything positive be salvaged from the relationship? Regardless of parents' past wrongs, the duty to "honor thy father and mother" exerts a strong pull.

Parents with toxic personalities can feel threatened by their grown children's independence, making this balancing act treacherous. Other parents make drastic impositions on their adult children's lives in an effort to reassert closeness.

We want so badly to believe that our parents are perfect, and we resist the idea that they need to change. We tend to hope that with enough love from us, they'll smooth out the rough edges of their personalities. But ironically, their confidence in our unconditional support can make them feel like changing is unnecessary. "Most parents continue the behavior that has always 'worked' for them, since it gets them what they want," says syndicated advice columnist Amy Alkon. The best way to sustain a relationship with a troubled parent is to set clear boundaries for your interactions with them. Allowing parents unlimited access to your time and resources might seem like the most selfless option, but it can backfire: You'll rack up so much resentment that you lose sight of your parents' positive qualities, and what's left of the relationship shrivels.

The best way to negotiate these boundaries varies depending on the type and severity of a parent's problems, says Barbara Kane, a psychologist who specializes in family issues. One basic rule of thumb, though, is to take a calm but uncompromising stand against unreasonable demands, vicious put-downs, and other bad behaviors. If your mother insists that you drive an hour and a half just to fix her thermostat and fires off a volley like "You're a horrible daughter for not wanting to help me," or even "I'll kill myself if you don't come," stand your ground while still acknowledging your parent's feelings—which communicates a message of caring. "Try saying something like 'I understand you're disappointed I can't do this right now,'" says Kane.

"You can't change a parent," emphasizes Karen Shore, a Santa Monica, California, clinical psychologist. "What you can do is change how you react to them. Anger will push you back into the old, unbalanced parent-child dynamic."

To cultivate empathy for your parents, it helps to view them objectively, says psychologist Cheryl Dellasega, author of Forced to Be Family. If Dad is verbally abusive, or Mom seems forever in need of affirmation, think about what might have made them that way. As children, were they neglected? Mistreated? Bullied? Did they grow up in households where screaming fits were the primary mode of communication? Life experiences don't excuse rotten behavior, but understanding what's shaped someone can help you come up with more compassionate and appropriate responses to inappropriate behavior. When your investment-banker dad ridicules your job as a day-care instructor, try "I realize your priorities in life are different from mine." When your mother begs you to stay overnight with her at the assisted-living center, try "You know I'm never going to abandon you, Mom."

Interacting with an unpleasant parent on a day-to-day basis is only half the battle; adult children must also tackle the broader question of what exactly they "owe" the person who gave them life—but now makes them miserable. Some children opt to love and stand by their difficult parents no matter what, treasuring the sense of self-worth that comes from honoring the relationship.

Other offspring embrace the possibility—however disconcerting—that filial closeness is best found outside the family they were born into. "Some parents think, Ha, ha, you're stuck with me, I can do anything I want," says Alkon. "But to me, family are people who really treat you like family. People shouldn't focus so much on DNA." Shore agrees: "We should not judge children who decide to distance themselves from their parents. To the outside world, it looks callous, but if a parent has really destroyed a child's life, it can be the healthiest thing."

For children who resolve to stick it out with problem parents, the struggle is not without reward. Levine worked hard at maintaining regular contact with his mother in the years before she died. The decision to stay in touch wasn't easy—each time he visited her, the pain and bad memories came flooding back—but he doesn't regret it. "You need to be able to put the past in some kind of bracketed perspective," he says. "Opportunities to truly resolve all your issues with a parent are few and far between, but I feel a little bit more peaceful knowing that I made the effort." --Elizabeth Svoboda

Taming the Toxic Parent

Problem Parents can dominate your life. Here's how to manage them without sacrificing happiness or autonomy.

  • Set firm boundaries for approaching a difficult parent. If your parent is smothering or narcissistic, opt for shorter or less frequent visits.
  • If your parent is verbally abusive, walk away when insults start to fly.
  • Stop trying to "fix" your troubled parent. Recognize that you're not to blame for his or her shortcomings.
  • Don't let past infractions poison your relations now. Forgiving doesn't mean forgetting, but be open to healthy new developments in the relationship.
  • Avoid situations that trigger underlying conflict. If your parents act toxic at large family gatherings, try suggesting a park outing or a play.
  • Think about what the relationship means to you and whether it's worth saving even if he or she never changes. Your parents aren't total monsters: They influence your life in positive ways as well as negative ones—so think hard before deciding to cut them off.