Dear Therapist:

My parents are very controlling, critical, self-centered and emotionally unstable (they may possibly have personality disorders).

One of my sisters recently started disconnecting by minimizing her interactions with my parents. My parents are very hurt and angry and are trying many tactics to change my sister's behaviors (which includes badmouthing her...).

I come from a large family and all of the children are married. We have all managed to figure out a way to deal with my parents to minimize the flare-ups (even though it can be a strain on us and not always in our families’ best interest...Secondly, we all feel that it's important for our children to be connected with their grandparents. Could it possibly be damaging to our children? (My children have been the victims of their grandparents’ negative behaviors, sometimes even publicly, but I explain to my children that they are just ill.)

Lastly, what position should my siblings and I take towards my sister who is distancing herself from us as well? Is it possible that having different approaches in dealing with our parents is causing it?

Can you shed some light on this area for me? Thank you so much!



It sounds like your siblings and you all have trouble communicating with your parents. Although the exact nature of these issues is unclear, it’s obvious that you’re all adversely affected to one extent or another.

Relationships with controlling, critical, unstable people can be very difficult to maintain. At the very least, it is unpleasant to feel judged and controlled. In the instance of a casual relationship, most people will avoid those who make them feel this way.  In a situation where this is not possible (like with a co-worker), this can be more difficult to do. Nonetheless, we can usually limit our contact with these people, or guide conversations away from any negativity. We can also recognize the other person’s limitations, allowing us to regulate our emotional responses.

When one of our parents engenders our negative emotions, however, it can be rather more complicated. For various reasons (including those that you mentioned), we may not be willing to significantly adjust our relationships with our parents. Sometimes, the desire to respect our parents can be in direct conflict with our need to protect ourselves. Some people will have a problematic relationship with only one parent. This can leave them feeling torn between a decision to restrict their contact with both parents and their wish to maintain their bond with one.

Feelings of insecurity and other childhood emotions can be triggered by numerous events in our lives. For many of us, however, feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and the like are especially strongly triggered through interactions with our parents. This affects different people in different ways. Each family member has their own triggers, insecurities, and relationship histories. Other factors, like personality, age, position in the family, and living situation can also affect the way in which each person will handle various situations.

We cannot possibly fully understand our own motivations—with the accompanying and causal unconscious needs and emotions. We certainly can’t expect to understand other’s motivations. We are not in the position to judge others. Regardless of what we think we understand of others’ feelings, thoughts, and actions, we should not make assumptions. Your decision with regard to your sister should be based solely on what is best for your family.

As far as your children are concerned, there is no way to generalize how they might be adversely affected by your parents or what your response should be. This would depend on many factors, like their age, maturity, nature, and level of closeness to your parents. Remember not to project your own feelings onto your children. Your emotional reaction to something that your father does may be radically different from that of your children. The way in which you approach any perceived problem will depend on these factors, as well as the way in which each child reacts to each situation.

Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317