Taking care of your parents when the relationship is bad

There is nothing about being an adult child that means you want to take care of your parents. There is nothing about the situation that says you even know how to.

You didn’t enter into this relationship voluntarily. Nobody asked you if you wanted to be the child of these people, and nobody asked you if you wanted to take care of them as they got older.

Just because they raised you doesn’t mean you are obliged.

What if they did a poor job of raising you? What if they were abusive? What are your obligations and responsibilities then?

Sure, there is social pressure and Christian guilt to deal with. Society expects you to drop everything and take care of these people. Forget the fact that you barely have enough time money or energy to take care of yourself.

Getting married is a legal commitment. You swear before your friends and family and a witness that you will take care of each other, no matter what happens. You make no such commitment to your parents. It is all passive. You are born into this family. You have no choice, and you haven’t promised anybody anything.

But yet you are expected to drive them around when they can’t anymore, to cook for them, to spend the night at their house when they are afraid…the list goes on and on.

Taking care of your parents is like taking care of children, but in reverse. As they grow older, they grow more needy and less able to care for themselves. As they grow older, they grow less independent and more dependent.

The really big problem is that unlike children, they remember being independent, and they don’t know how to receive help. They certainly don’t want to get help from their children, regardless of their age. They feel that something is wrong with this situation, and that they are losing control and power. That only makes the situation more difficult.

Another problem is that nobody trains you, the adult child, how to take over responsibility. Nobody tells you that now you are the parent and they are the child. So it is hard for you and for your parents.

If there is a history of abuse or neglect it is even harder.

People who had a great relationship with their parents cannot understand this.

Get me away.

It is very hard for me to be any part of the madness going on with my husband’s family right now. I write about compassion and serving people like they are Jesus. I also write about boundaries and dysfunctional families.

These two things don’t go together very well sometimes.

Dealing with them is like dealing with alcoholics. It is as if I have a friend who is a drunk. I say “Don’t drink and drive, because you might have a wreck” and they think they know better, so they drink, and drive, and total their car. And then they say “Hey, I don’t have a car anymore, can you drive me around? Or lend me money for a new car?”

They aren’t drunks. They are just needy, and manipulative, and making bad decisions. They want things done for them that we don’t have the time, energy, or money for. They want things done that I told them we would not provide, yet they are getting them anyway.

The only trips they took my husband and his brother on were of the guilt variety. Lots of abuse – physical, verbal, emotional. It is hard to muster up the desire to take care of someone who harmed someone I love. It is hard to want to help them when they have not admitted to or apologized for the damage they did. They continue to manipulate and control, even now.

And I just have to get away from all of this. It doesn’t require the skill of a prophet to see where all of this is headed.

I told them not to get a house with a yard when they moved up here. I pushed for them getting an apartment. They are both old and not as able to take care of themselves, much less a house with a yard. Plus, when they die or have to move into assisted living, that house will have to be dealt with. That mortgage will still have to be paid.

By us.

I told them that my husband barely has time to take care of our yard and house, and they said that they wanted a yard because she wanted to garden, and he needed the exercise. Neither has happened. They call my husband or his brother over to work on their yard and to maintain their house. Electrical switches, plumbing issues, hedges trimmed. So work doesn’t get done at our house.

A year ago my mother in law finally started to admit to herself that her cancer diagnosis was terminal. In the meantime, my father in law’s Parkinson’s has gotten worse, and he’s starting to get dementia.

I said they need to move into assisted living, ASAP. Nobody listened to me. They are toughing it out at their house –their house which is too big for them. That house is impressive, a show. It isn’t practical. It is bigger than they need. This is normal for them, always having to impress people, always having to have the best.

She’s in rehab right now. She passed out, hit her head, got a concussion, and broke her leg. Rehab, to teach someone how to walk again – someone who will be dead in probably three months because the cancer has spread to her lungs.

They are not thinking ahead. They are about to leave a big mess for us to have to clean up.

See? They didn’t listen, wrecked the car, and we are having to pay for it.

I’m trying to be Christ-like in this. What would Jesus do? What should I do?

But then I remember that Jesus didn’t have to deal with his parents in law, or even his parents. Jesus never got married, and died before his parents did. He raised people from the dead. He didn’t have to watch them die or bury them or sell their stuff. And he certainly didn’t have to do any of that while working a full-time job.

I finally realized that my parents-in-law or my husband or his brother, or even his wife – none of them have been the caregivers for a dying person. I’m the only one who has. I’m the only one who has also handled an estate. I’m giving advice on what to do next because I’ve been there, and they are ignoring me. They think they know better. They are pretending like this will all go away.

Meanwhile, everything that I said was going to happen has happened. I can see the train on the tracks, headed right for us.

I’m trying to stay out of it. I can’t handle any of this madness.
I hate it.
I’m angry and sad and tired.

I want to do the right thing. I also don’t want to be seen as a hypocrite – someone who talks about Jesus and compassion and service and then bails when the going gets rough, when things get real.

But there is also codependency and enabling to consider too.

If I rescue them, if I essentially say that it is OK for them to screw up their lives and drag us down with them, that isn’t being very loving.

Sometimes there aren’t any easy answers. Sometimes there aren’t any answers at all. Sometimes there isn’t a happy ending. Sometimes it just sucks.

Grieving the parents that never were. On death, and healing when your experience doesn’t match up with the self-help books.

So many self-help books tell you how to deal with your parent’s death if it was a good relationship. What if it wasn’t good? What if it was terrible?

If your parents were less than ideal, you aren’t alone. Parents are people, and people aren’t perfect. But when a self-help book assumes you are sad and distraught because your “pillar of the family” of “chief cheerleader” dies, you may be feeling even more lost. Your feelings don’t match up with what it says in the book.

Sometimes your grief comes from the fact that you are now doubly missing a parent. The person who gave birth to you is now no longer physically present, while they never were emotionally present. When an emotionally distant or abusive parent dies there is no longer any hope of having a healthy relationship with her or him. All bets are off, all chances are over.

Some books say that you can create a healthy relationship with the person even after the person has died, but this honestly makes no sense. It takes two to have a conversation and work on a relationship. The only thing left to fix is yourself and your understanding of the relationship. Do you let this bad start stop you from going any further? Or do you learn from it and go on?

There are a lot of conflicting emotions when your parents die, and it is made even worse when the self-help books make it worse by making you feel like something is wrong. Worse, it is not only that something is wrong, but something is wrong with you in particular. It is like opening up an instruction manual on how to put together a piece of furniture and the box is missing the bag of nuts and bolts. You don’t have everything necessary to make it work. The instruction booklet assumes you do. The booklet plunges right in, assuming you have all the parts. You read along, trying to make it work, trying to learn how to heal this rift, this grief, all the meantime you didn’t start out on the same ground that it assumes you did. When you get to the end, the picture of the finished product looks nothing like your result.

It can’t. You are missing some important parts that hold things together.

I’m not sure how to tell you how to find those nuts and bolts. I’m just trying to honor where you are coming from, because it is where I am coming from. I think a lot of us had less than ideal relationships with our parents.

I think it is totally normal to be sad that your parents died because now you will never have them as the kind of parents you need. That relationship has ended. They weren’t there for you, and now they never will be.

I also think it is totally normal to be relieved that your parents have died if the household was abusive. I know that there is a sense of guilt for feeling this. I think that is because society assumes you should be sad, when really you can’t be sad. I think to be sad that you are free of an unhealthy relationship is insane.

I think it is healthy to feel however you feel you need to feel, without regard to what people think you should feel. It think it is very healthy to get these feelings out – don’t bottle them in, and don’t deny them. If you stuff them down they will come out in ugly ways later. Trust me on this.

There are a few ways I’ve learned to deal with these feelings. Pick a couple. Try them out. If it doesn’t work, try something else. This is by no means an all-encompassing list.

Talk to a therapist or a counselor or a faith leader or a compassionate friend. Go for a walk or a run. Punch a pillow. Cry, sing, wail. Jump up and down. Dance. Journal – write it out. It doesn’t matter if you are good writer or not – you don’t even have to use sentences. Create – use non-word activities to get it out. Sometimes words fail us. Draw, paint, garden, make jewelry – anything where you can get your feelings out.

Most importantly, have patience with yourself. This work of grief, especially grief concerning a broken relationship, is hard, and it takes a long time. Know that what you are going through is normal. You aren’t alone. It is hard work, and it is important work.

What the books don’t tell you is that this isn’t the end. Just because your biological parent wasn’t up to snuff doesn’t mean you can’t find new role models. You can have second third and fourth parents. You get to pick your parents this way.

You can have one friend teach you how to cook. Another can teach you how to sew. Another can teach you everything you want to know about fly fishing. You can take a class too, or read a book, or watch a video. You aren’t stuck with just one set of parents. There are hundreds of people who are able and happy to teach you whatever skills you need to know.


My husband and I are nurturing our inner children. We both had difficult childhoods. It may seem strange but it is never too late to reinvent yourself.

There is nothing about being a parent that means you are competent at it. Often you just continue doing the same stupid thoughtless things that were done to you. You don’t stop being selfish or needy or controlling. So you raise children who are broken because you were broken.

It wasn’t all bad. There were trips to cultural events. Education was encouraged. But how to be human? How to deal with emotions? That was too hard. They didn’t know how to do that.

They did the best they could with what they had. They didn’t know there was more to being an adult than paying the mortgage and cooking dinner. They weren’t intentionally neglectful or abusive. But the damage was still done. And it still has to be undone.

I’m grateful that we both were aware enough of our weaknesses to decide to never have children. We didn’t want to continue the cycle. Slowly we are learning ways to heal ourselves.

We have teddy bears. They have names and stories. We drink tea every Sunday evening with the bears, and afterwards we read a children’s story. This may not be what adults usually do, but it is healing. I’m starting to think that everybody should keep their teddy bears. More bears, less drug abuse. We all need something to hold on to when times get difficult.

There is a lot that is hard about being an adult who never had a healthy childhood. There aren’t a lot of instructions on how to heal your inner child. There is a lot of shame involved. It is hard to admit that you need help. You have to learn how to grow up backwards. I think there are a lot of people who have to do this. Maybe we should start a club so we don’t feel alone.

Maybe we should also start a 12 step program for people who have escaped from church, for the same reasons.

Survival Books

These are survival books. They won’t tell you how to make a solar still to distill water, or how to start a fire with a piece of flint. They will tell you how to survive a terrible childhood. Many of us were raised in dysfunctional families. Sadly, “dysfunctional” is the new “normal.” We spend a lot of our adult lives trying to undo all the damage that was done to us. These books can help you on your journey. If you can’t find these at your local library, ask them to order these via Inter-Library Loan.

These are all books that I’ve read and found very helpful.

CALL # 616.8522 N9743y.
AUTHOR NurrieStearns, Mary.
TITLE Yoga for anxiety : meditations and practices for calming the body and mind / Mary NurrieStearns, Rick NurrieStearns.
IMPRINT Oakland, CA : New Harbinger Publications, c2010.
DESCRIPT viii, 218 p. : ill. ; 23 cm.
ISBN/ISSN 9781572246515 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN/ISSN 1572246510 (pbk. : alk. paper)

CALL # 152.47 S472a.
AUTHOR Semmelroth, Carl.
TITLE The anger habit in relationships : a communication handbook for relationships, marriages and partnerships / Carl Semmelroth.
IMPRINT Naperville, Ill. : Sourcebooks, c2005.
DESCRIPT 146 p. ; 21 cm..
ISBN/ISSN 1402203578 (alk. paper)

CALL # 291.44 T651p.
AUTHOR Tolle, Eckhart, 1948-
TITLE The power of now : a guide to spiritual enlightenment / Eckhart Tolle.
IMPRINT Novato, Calif. : New World Library, 1999.
DESCRIPT xxiii, 193 p. ; 24 cm.
ISBN/ISSN 1577314808 (pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 9781577314806 (pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 1577311523 (alk. paper)

CALL # 301.11 P88w.
AUTHOR Powell, John Joseph, 1925-
TITLE Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? : insights on self- awareness, personal growth and interpersonal communication / by John Powell.
IMPRINT Chicago : Argus Communications, [c1969]
DESCRIPT 167 p. : ill. (part col.) ; 19 cm.
SERIES Peacock books.
ISBN/ISSN 0913592021.

CALL # 362.82 F7459t 1990.
AUTHOR Forward, Susan.
TITLE Toxic parents : overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life / Susan Forward with Craig Buck.
EDITION Bantam paperback ed.
IMPRINT New York : Bantam Books, 1990, c1989.
DESCRIPT 324 p. ; 18 cm.
NOTE Includes bibliographical references (p. 324)
SUBJECT Dysfunctional families — United States.
SUBJECT Adult child abuse victims — United States.
SUBJECT Codependency — United States.
SUBJECT Abusive parents — United States.
ALT AUTHOR Buck, Craig.
ISBN/ISSN 0553381407 (pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 0553284347 (pbk.)

CALL # 616.869 B3696c 1992.
AUTHOR Beattie, Melody.
TITLE Codependent no more : how to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself / Melody Beattie.
EDITION 2nd ed.
IMPRINT [Center City, MN] : Hazelden, 1992.
DESCRIPT 250 p. ; 21 cm.
ISBN/ISSN 0894864025 (pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 9780874864025 (pbk.)

CALL # 362.29 F9117a.
AUTHOR Friel, John C., 1947-
TITLE An adult child’s guide to what is “normal” / John C. Friel, Linda D. Friel.
IMPRINT Deerfield Beach, Fla. : Health Communications, c1990.
DESCRIPT xiv, 245 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.
SUBJECT Adult children of alcoholics — Rehabilitation.
SUBJECT Adult children of narcotic addicts — Rehabilitation.
SUBJECT Adult children of dysfunctional families — Rehabilitation.
SUBJECT Alcoholics rehabilitation.
ALT AUTHOR Friel, Linda D.
ADD TITLE Dysfunctional families.
ISBN/ISSN 1558740902.

CALL # 158.2 S877d.
AUTHOR Stone, Douglas.
TITLE Difficult conversations : how to discuss what matters most / Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen.
IMPRINT New York : Viking, 1999.
DESCRIPT 250 p. ; 24 cm.
SUBJECT Interpersonal communication.
ALT AUTHOR Patton, Bruce.
ALT AUTHOR Heen, Sheila.
ISBN/ISSN 014028852X (Penguin pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 0670883395.

CALL # 248.4 C6471b.
AUTHOR Cloud, Henry.
TITLE Boundaries : when to say yes, when to say no to take control of your life / Henry Cloud, John Townsend.
IMPRINT Grand Rapids, Mich. : Zondervan Pub. House, c1992.
DESCRIPT 304 p. ; 24 cm.
NOTE Includes bibliographical references (p. 297-298) and index.
SUBJECT Conduct of life.
SUBJECT Christian life.
SUBJECT Interpersonal relations — Religious aspects — Christianity.
ALT AUTHOR Townsend, John Sims, 1952-
ISBN/ISSN 9780310247456 (trade pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 0310247454 (trade pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 0310585902.

Remember, it isn’t your fault that your family was crazy. That was their choice. What they did to you wasn’t right. You have a way out of this place where you feel stuck.

These are other books on the same subject that look interesting, but I haven’t read yet.

CALL # 158.1 T341i.
AUTHOR Tessina, Tina B.
TITLE It ends with you : grow up and out of dysfunction / by Tina B. Tessina.
IMPRINT Franklin Lakes, NJ : New Page Books, c2003.
DESCRIPT 224 p. ; 24 cm.
NOTE Includes bibliographical references (p. 209) and index.
ISBN/ISSN 1564146499 (cloth)

CALL # 248.86 W7532r.
AUTHOR Wilson, Sandra D., 1938-
TITLE Released from shame : recovery for adult children of dysfunctional families / Sandra D. Wilson.
IMPRINT Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, c1990.
DESCRIPT 201 p. ; 21 cm.
SERIES People helper books.
NOTE Includes bibliographical references (p. [197]-201)
SUBJECT Adult children of dysfunctional families — United States —
Religious life.
SUBJECT Adult children of dysfunctional families — United States —
Pastoral counseling of.
SUBJECT Christian life.
ISBN/ISSN 0830816011 (pbk.) :

CALL # 362.292 B398.
TITLE Becoming your own parent : the solution for adult children of alcoholic and other dysfunctional families / [edited by] Dennis
EDITION 1st ed.
IMPRINT New York : Doubleday, 1988.
DESCRIPT 285 p. ; 25 cm.
ALT AUTHOR Wholey, Dennis, 1937-

CALL # 616.85822 F2343a.
AUTHOR Farmer, Steven.
TITLE Adult children of abusive parents : a healing program for those who have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused / Steven Farmer.
EDITION 1st Ballantine Books ed.
IMPRINT New York : Ballantine, 1990, c1989.
DESCRIPT xvi, 207 p. ; 24 cm.
NOTE Include bibliographical references (p. [195]-1960 and index.
NOTE Includes index.
SUBJECT Adult child abuse victims — Mental health.
ADD TITLE Abusive parents.
ISBN/ISSN 0345363884 (pbk.)
ISBN/ISSN 9780345363886 (pbk.)

CALL # 158.1 L21t.
AUTHOR LaMar, Donna F.
TITLE Transcending turmoil : survivors of dysfunctional families / Donna F. LaMar.
IMPRINT New York : Plenum Press, c1992.
DESCRIPT xiv, 299 p. ; 22 cm.

NOTE “Insight books.”
NOTE Includes bibliographical references (p. 267-289) and index.

CALL # 158 W86r.
AUTHOR Wolin, Steven J.
TITLE The resilient self : how survivors of troubled families rise above adversity / Steven J. Wolin and Sybil Wolin.
EDITION 1st ed.
IMPRINT New York : Villard Books, 1992.
DESCRIPT xiv, 238 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
NOTE Pain and opportunity — The challenge of the troubled family —
To name the damage is to conquer it — Reframing: how to resist
the victim’s trap — Seven resiliencies — Insight: forewarned
is forearmed — Independence: a delicate negotiation —
Relationships: the search for love — Initiative: the pleasure
in problems — Creativity: nothing into something — Humor:
something into nothing — Morality: holiness in an unholy

Want more? Look up the subjects of “dysfunctional families”, “codependency,” “adult children of dysfunctional families”, “adult child abuse victims” “Adult children of dysfunctional families – Rehabilitation”