Family of Origin


Allen, David. Coping With Critical, Demanding, and Dysfunctional Parents: Powerful Strategies to Help Adult Children Maintain Boundaries and Stay Sane. New Harbinger, 2018.

            Some parents don’t fill their children’s emotional cups. Children grow up and become adults feeling unseen or unloved for they are, feeling judged, feeling too sensitive, or feeling like they are a failure in their parent’s eyes. Adult children still often inside somewhere hope for acceptance and closeness, and psychiatrist emeritus Dr. David Allen shares metacommunicative strategies based from family therapies to help adult children both hold boundaries and share their emotional truths while also seeking a more healthy relationship with parents. A more healthy relationship may never mean emotions between parent and adult child are fully discussed or validated. Instead, a more healthy relationship may look like sharing vulnerability, acknowledging parents’ ambivalence due to their own life circumstances and emotional development, and accepting where parents are at emotionally and having boundaries where needed. Core conflictual relationship themes (CCRTs) literally pull people in opposite directions psychologically. These themes circle around many topics, including gender roles, sexuality, responsibility, career success, emotional expression, curiosity about the world, spending money, and many more. Family culture from one’s own ancestors swirls around and in many cases competes against individual values and dreams. There is ambivalence inside of a person who must somehow uphold the family culture for connection and homeostasis while living authentically. Shame and desperate inner conflict creeps into both families and its individual members for dreams not realized, living against the family lessons (“Men are to be ambitious”, “women are to defer to men”), and watching people we love live within mental prisons. These inner conflicts manifest in criticism, blaming, guilt-tripping, advice-giving, gossip, and other behaviors. Usually, no one means to hurt another; these mechanisms are unconscious ways to avoid the inner conflict and manage the anxiety and pain brought about these CCRTs. These mechanisms come out in over involvement or under involvement in children’s career goals, love lives, moods, and more. Parents may entirely judge careers, parents may never acknowledge careers, parents may give their every opinion on partners and judge where partners are alike or different to the other parent, or parents may be very tied into or disengaged from moods. Adult children seek to understand and to communicate about communication in hope for more healthy relationships. Allen’s metacommunicative skills are to help adult children become more assertive about what they need and seeking more healthy relationships without infringing on parents’ rights and also not accepting abuse or unkindness (or just as important, being abusive or unkind). The goal Allen has is that adult children can use his metacommunicative strategies uniquely for each family member based on their unique sensitivities to CCRTs that will come out as specific countermoves. These countermoves are ways that parents will try to discount the messenger and avoid the emotional channel or discussion on the topic itself. Again, this is usually done out of self-preservation to avoid pain and hard conversations rather than being deliberately cruel. Allen discusses the countermoves, including how they manifest and why they are done, and how adult children can work with the countermoves to neither avoid, attack, or shut down the conversation. Some of the countermoves include switching the subject, nitpicking examples, outright denial, picking a fight, attacking the messenger, shifting the blame to the messenger, and walking out of the conversation (completely withdrawing). Adult children can acknowledge kernels of truth where parents have had reasons to act as they have even though the actions are hurtful to them, and be kind while ultimately asserting that the conversation is very important to them. Allen also helps adult children handle other relatives, such as siblings in multiple generations, who may also employ countermoves. The best route for adult children is to be open about the discussions with adult parents while also declining to avoid discussing despite pressure to do so. The ultimate goal is to help adult children have healthy boundaries and stand in their own truth while also shooting for a more peaceful relationship. The CCRTs, possibly acknowledged and validated consciously, may also become less emotionally powerful and both parent and adult child have better ways to interact that don’t involve thwarting self-actualization nor severely distancing. This is a helpful guidebook with plenty of information on CCRTs and adult child skills to respond to parent countermoves to addressing CCRTs. As Dr. Allen suggests, adult children should remain open to seeking help from systemically oriented therapists (particularly Bowen family therapy or Interpersonal Reconstructive Therapy) who are familiar with dynamics that trouble relationships between family members. Because these conversations are incredibly vulnerable as well as emotionally heightened by serious intra-personal conflicts that seep into interpersonal conflict, seeking professional help would make perfect sense.

See Also: In-Laws


Engel, Beverly. It Wasn’t Your Fault: FreeingYourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion. New Harbinger, 2015.

Abuse, neglect, addictions stem from corrosive shame which poisons love, kindness, and authenticity. Self-compassion eradicates shame by reversing entrenched patterns of self-judgment and self-loathing that harm a person on an internal level and also possibly relationally in close relationships, school, and work environments. Rather than live with the horror that a significant other is abusive or dangerous and the child is trapped in a helpless situation, the child will internalize blame and responsibility for early adverse abuse or neglect. Feelings of unworthiness follow that child into adulthood where the rage and pain is projected either outward (bullying to others), inward (struggles with depression and anxiety), or some combination of the two.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMF) Everly developed the Compassionate Cure program to help clients struggling with debilitating shame. Her interest in the field was based both on seeking to help people and her own personal experiences. Much of her work is based on the ground-breaking research on self-compassion of Kristin Neff. Everly spends the first third of the book discussing why shame is so negatively pervasive and how compassion functions as the antidote. The second part explains the Compassion Cure program lays the background explaining how hard it is  (and why) for people who feel shame to feel self-compassion and accept compassion from others. There are five stages to self-compassion in part three: self-understanding, self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, self-kindness, and self-encouragement. Realistic and well-explained exercises pepper each stage to get readers more compassionate toward themselves. Readers learn grounding, identifying with parents and the inner critic, developing a more self-compassionate and encouraging inner voice, utilizing phrases of self-kindness, and develop ritualistic ways to encourage oneself.

One thing to keep in mind is while Everly heavily cites herself and the aforementioned Kristin Neff through the actual text of the book. She does, however, provide a list of references at the book’s end where readers can go for more information.  It is also important to note that while Everly uses the term cure, many experiences shape who people are and are impossible to completely forget, so coping and self-growth may be a more appropriate term to keep in mind while following Beverly’s program.

See Also Trauma


Forward, Susan. Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. Bantam Books, 1989.

                Those who have experienced hurtful parents (controlling, abusive, neglectful, or incestuous) may be upset and anxious recalling dynamics outlined in Toxic Parents. Where painful recall surfaces so will stories and coping strategies that are normalizing, concrete, and simple (if not easy) to execute. Forward spends the first half of her book demystifying parents who act in certain kinds of ways by chapter. Emotionally neglectful parents turn the child into the caregiver, Controlling parents dominate and stifle children’s independence, alcoholism devastates families, and verbal abusers chip away at their children’s self-esteem brokering lifetime emotional wounds. Physical and sexual abusers are also profiled. The last chapter in the first half explains the unhealthy family system as a place where rules (both spoken and unspoken) are to be followed and illuminates other unhealthy behaviors families sometimes use to cope with problems. Forward rotates the stories of composite clients through the second half of the book as well. Devoted to helping readers cope with the toxic behaviors, self-definition, setting boundaries, choosing to forgive or not while moving forward, and how to confront parents with past hurts and injustices. Seeking from a therapist, especially for incest, is highly encouraged by Forward while working through the emotions brought up by recall and exercises. Confronting parents is about speaking one’s truth and standing firm in it with parents rather than necessarily expecting an apology or changed behavior. While toxic is a severe word, Forward uses it to illuminate just how damaging parenting by people who are not psychologically healthy can be. The final chapter offers a window inside breaking the cycle of intergenerational unhealthy systems. With intention and support, parents can vanquish unhealthy coping patterns to the past. If people have been raised in an environment where negativity, judgment, criticism, or other harm was the most dominant theme, this book will give insight into the past and hope for the future.


Gibson, Lindsay C. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents. New Harbinger, 2015.

Emotional maturity is quite distinct from chronological age. Adults can be grown up and emotionally immature, and younger adults can end up with the lonely, longing experiencing of wanting more emotionally than their parents are able to give. Children need their attachment figures, their guidance and support, and when the support is lacking, rather than be able to recognize the adult is not emotionally mature, the child concludes that something is wrong in themselves. The idea that the parent is emotionally immature is too complex and too heartbreaking for young children to face. Children handle this pain in two distinct ways: externalizing (that is, looking to others to blame and regulate their own emotional states) or internalizing (that is, over-extending one’s own ability and responsibility to fix relationship problems and be able to handle problems all of their own). Internalizing keeps us self-growing, doing our part to heal relationships (and sometimes more). Externalizing looks outward for emotional regulation, it sticks up for the self, it seeks to look outside for solutions. Both ways have their place, and either extreme is bad, but externalizing tends to be tougher on relationships. Sweetened balance on neither end of the extreme sounds like secure attachment: responsible to our partner, ability to emphasize while also not swept up in taking all the blame, not avoiding nor getting bogged down in emotions. Dr. Gibson provides concrete ways to find that sweet spot of assertive interdependence (without calling it that). Gibson clearly lays out the felt experience of adult children of emotionally immature parents, the profiles and general functioning of emotionally immature parents, how children handle the emotionally immature parent (internalizing and externalizing), and how critical junctures adult children’s lives allow the adult child to ultimate have a shot at healing and develop emotionally healthy relationships with those who are emotionally mature. The content of this book is instructive and freeing. It offers readers a gateway into normalizing the experience of being raised by emotionally immature parents and an understanding that the parents are (often through their own rejected and abandoned experiences) quite uncomfortable and unable to go into the emotional world. Gibson offers realistic techniques for readers to stay acknowledging of their emotions (hurt, anger) in being denied emotional validation with their parents while also practicing mindful observing of them. Gibson advises that the emotions are there, they hurt, but they also can be sidekicks rather than overwhelming, guiding signals to claim our right of deep emotional connection with those who are emotionally mature. Giving up hope of emotional closeness is a complex, nuanced on a case-by-case basis. On one hand, people absolutely can’t force others into therapy or to self-examine. On the other hand, one person in a relationship can bring about changes to a relationship and new ways of relating that feel more settled. Recommended for couples where one or both partners grew up feeling lonely and not close to their parents and suspects emotional immaturity may have been the culprit.

See Also: In-Laws


Gibson, Lindsay C. Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents: Practical Tools to Establish Boundaries & Reclaim Emotional Autonomy. New Harbinger, 2019.

            Whereas Dr. Gibson’s first book (Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, 2017) spent significant time in the theory of emotional immaturity and what it looks like and how it affects adult children, Recovering moves swiftly into practical behaviors that adult children can use to protect their energy and peace while interacting with their emotionally immature parents (and emotionally immature people in general). Much of these techniques revolve around grasping onto a mindful observer mentality. It’s a paradigm shift seeing the emotionally immature person within the framework of emotional immaturity rather than in vivo pulled into longing or furious anger or fast emotion. No one is ever going to be able to do this perfectly as no one is not human. However, insight does help the pain pull a bit less, and it does hold open a slight space between the emotionally immature person’s behavior and how a person ultimately responds. It doesn’t mean there is no pain, no wish for a different bond, or no longing; it just means you meet the person where they are without going past your own limits that buttress your own emotional balance. Gibson walks readers through how to recognize emotional takeovers (displaced responsibility, urgency, guilt for noncompliance), why we fear not colluding with the emotional takeover (fear of punishment, guilt to say no), and how to slow down the attempted interaction (questioning the urgency and the plan and declining or giving non-committal answers). Gibson also suggests leading the interacting with the mentality that it will be lopsided, and you can choose how to engage the emotionally immature person (topics of conversations by asking them questions, etc). Beyond avoiding emotional takeovers, with emotionally immature persons, people must develop skills to strengthen and defend their own emotional world. Emotional armor protects your emotional world when another is hostile to your emotional world. Defending your own emotional world involves multiple techniques that Gibson discusses that can be tailored to your situation: claiming your right to ignore, suggesting other ways of connection, use questions to challenge and make them spell out the unkind things they say, deflecting, rolling past subtle digs, defending your right to be a sensitive person, your right to think things through, be upset, the legitimacy of your problems, and your right to your own feelings. Gibson spends the last few chapters infusing ways to nurture the self-relationship as well as how to engage in “mental clearing”; that is, carefully evaluating internalized messages on the basis of if they are self-loving and in alignment with living your own truths and values, or if they are inherited thoughts automatically taken on that facilitate you criticizing and betraying yourself. Mental clearing also includes the rights and self-acceptance to our own emotions and thoughts, not just those that view parents or other emotionally mature persons in certain lights. and She also discusses how to update your self-concept. Often in unhealthy family systems, we’re made to feel not enough when we may have been discounted by emotionally immature people who had incentive to see as a not enough or too sensitive to keep their own pain at bay. One of the biggest gems is at the end in the form of an emotional bill of rights. Some of the rights are the right to set limits, to maintain emotional autonomy, the right to equal importance and respect, and the right to choose your own way to live. These could be wonderful affirmations for your or your partner (and could even be used in a therapeutic context). While both her 2017 and 2019 books are valuable, it would have been good for Dr. Gibson to re-emphasize in Recovering about the grief inherent in healing from emotionally immature parents. Highly recommended for if you or your partner are seeking healing from emotionally immature family.

See Also: In-Laws


Isidro-Clancy, Leticia. Exploring the Roots of Your Marriage: Understanding the Influence of the Family of Origin. Stonewall Press, 2018.

Most of the information found in this book is reader-generated. Isidro-Clancy organizes a series of questions, checklists, genograms, and writing prompts for readers to explore how their family of origin assists in molding their personality, habits, responses, and comfortability relying on other people for intimacy. Examining early attachments and family dynamics for strengthening a relationships bristles against the long-held dream of true love as an effortless merging of two halves into a whole. However, shunning looking at these early life influences runs the risk of blind intergenerational repeat without understanding how dynamics become entrenched and how new co-created patterns can emerge in marriage that are miserable and painful for both members of the couple. Between questions and writing space, some Isidro-Clancy provides brief bullet points of behavior for a smoother relationship such as diffusing conflict. The introspection gained belies the slimness of the publication. More sources unshrouding the influence of family of origin on relationships are provided.


Lerner, Harriet. The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships. Harper Collins, 1985.

                Too much assertion and expression of anger results in women being disavowed, written off, judged, character maligned. Backing down and showing softer emotions of vulnerability in critical settings may lighten the anxiety that comes along at the start of true change and a shift in relational dynamics, but backing down easily bucks lasting change. As a person attempts to change a relational pattern, countermoves by the other person begins. Countermoves derive from protest driven by anxiety about the familiar patterns no longer remaining the same, and they attempt to get the person asking for change to drop the attempt – that is, to restore relationship homeostasis. Readers get a lot of real life illustration of these patterns in action, and she also discusses triangulations that further complicate relationships in a family system. While there may be two people in direct conflict at least to start, there are always other people circling and interacting with both members of the dyad. Other chapters are devoted to becoming interdependent from our family of origin and considering where our responsibility to sooth, problem-solve and offer advice begins (and ends!). Other than a few triangulation illustrations, the book is entirely text. Readers will find endnotes and an index rounding out the book. Lerner demonstrates that using anger as a tool for change and growth is sometimes not only the healthiest course of action, but also the most vulnerable. This book is a great choice for couples and especially women in a partnership navigating anger with their spouse and extended family members.

** See Also For Better…For Worse, In-Laws


Lerner, Harriet Goldhor. The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships. 1989. Perennial Library, 1990.

Like life on earth, intimacy requires a delicate balance of conditions just right within a relatively narrow margin to sustain itself. Instead of the presence of water and neither too hot nor too cold in temperature, Lerner is discussing the we and the me. Both, the individuals and the third-entity we, exist. Too much of me, and the resentment pools and the we collapses without nurturance of acting in consideration and on behalf of another. Too much we, and dreams and needs are denied at the expense of me, and without two functioning me’s that can both assert their power as well as think of another, intimacy won’t flourish. Because of family systems of underfunctioning/overfunctioning, power differentials, and very stereotypical gender messaging (women nurture relationships; men don’t), true intimacy is hard to come by and maintain. Often, it requires deep change, and individuals who make up relationships are rarely on the same “change plane”; that is, the same level of readiness for change. Fear, comfort with the status quo by both (or multiple parties within a family system), and anxiety preclude change toward intimacy.
That individuals collectively maintain a status quo together is a prominent idea in family systems theory. To keep the status quo, families unconsciously develop dynamics like triangulation, which diffuses the stress in a two-person dynamic by placing interaction patterns onto a third person. To avoid feeling the anxiety of uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings, family members can also pull together tightly (enmeshment) or pull away too much into severe distance. The status quo protects against the anxiety of change, the strong emotions, and the work change requires. However, balancing the MEs with the WEs can ultimately make relationships healthier and more intimate. Some of the status quo results from gender differences and who has traditionally held power in our society. Traditionally, the dominant (male) culture does not pay as much attention to the subordinate (female) culture of nurturing, and this is the intersection where women need to learn to assert the changes in their reactions and responses to the status quo.
Lerner guides readers into creating more agency of the self while preserving and blossoming healthy connection. Mostly heterosexual romantic relationships and family relations are featured, but there is one person who is illustrated using Lerner’s principals in coming out to her family. It is a valuable book, one that would do well to be updated (with this original still keeping its place and value) with dynamics and issues pertinent to LGBTQ and mixed-race relationships in mind.

See Also: For Better….For Worse


Richo, David. When the Past is Present: Healing the Emotional Wounds that Sabotage Our Relationships. Shambhala Publications, 2008.

                Transference replicates the experience and feelings of earlier relationships on to new individuals in our lives who somehow mirror a former attachment figure, usually a parent but could also be someone like a former romantic partner “seen” in a new partner. Transference is both a bad and a good thing: negative transference can create distressing, confrontational patterns of blocked intimacy. When awareness of transference is present, the transference itself provides data and analysis to actually provide the chance to deepen self-growth, self-kindness, and stronger relationships where real intimacy (“into you I see”) lives and loves. Richo delves deeply into what transference is and how we can become self-aware of it and use it to fuel our relational growth. Richo covers a lot of psychological ground: somatic experiences of pain, understanding of transference, grief work, Buddhist acceptance and non-attachment, mindfulness, and loving kindness are all logically linked together in the quest to harness the power of transference as a data source holding the key to more equal and intimate relationships. When we can utilize the skills Richo offers to be more in tune with ourselves and stand in our own right, without projecting as much onto others of our strength and experience, we enrich our ability to live an authentic and connected lives both with ourselves and others. This book is both good for individual work and could also be used for couples to discuss and understand how they transfer earlier experiences onto one another and how they can truly see one another and relate to one another more authentically.

See Also: Prepare for the Long Haul


Most of these articles are going to be free online. If the article is not freely available, I will indicate that. In that case, check with your local librarians! Please first ask your librarian at your local library before buying online – many times you can get an article at no cost through one of your library’s databases or interlibrary loan.

Aletta, Elvira. “What Makes a Family Functional vs. Dysfunctional?” Psych Central, 15 Dec. 2009,

Cikanavicius, Darius. “How a Lack of Love in Childhood Robs Us of Love in Adulthood.” PsychCentral, 30 Sep. 2019,

Clark-Jones, Terry. “Qualities of a Healthy Family.” Michigan State University, 2 April 2018,

Colier, Nancy. “Why It’s So Hard to Build Healthy Relationships After Growing Up in Chaos.” Psychology Today, 24 July 2019,

Dermendzhiyska, Elitsa. “How You Attach to People May Explain A Lot About Your Inner World.” The Guardian, 10 Jan. 2020,

Epstein, Sarah, “Is Your Family Dysfunctional? Your Partner Sees It.” Psychology Today, 30 Oct. 2019,

“Functional vs. Dysfunctional Families.” Brown University, adapted from UIUC, n.d.,

Summers, Dyhan. “How to Recognize and Overcome Childhood Emotional Neglect.” Good Therapy, 18 Feb. 2016,

Whitebourne, Susan Krauss. “What Makes People Want to Break Up with Their Family?” Psychology Today, 14 Jan. 2020,

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