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: Family of Origin

Apter, Terri. What Do You Want From Me?: Learning to Get Along with In-Laws. W.W. Norton, 2009.

            There can be love and communion and certainly plenty of familiarity with in-law relationships, and often by the nuances of their very design, according to Dr. Terri Apter, fraught with misattunment and conflict. Full disclosure that this book is cisgender and heteronormative. That being said, it highlights a lot for cisgender and heteronormative couples. This book is based off of her interviews with 49 couples and their respective in-laws both from the United States and the United Kingdom. Her interviewees were from multiple races from both sides of the Atlantic. She read transcripts of the interviews for themes and theories to make sense out of the interviews into some cohesive element now published. Plenty of identity-protected interviewees share their experiences, leading to a spark of possibly recognition and hopefully some empathy (both as the older in-laws or as a the younger one).  No matter which generation you’re in, becoming an in-law is not easy. Problems arise in insider-outsider dynamics, core conflictual relational themes (CCRTs), such as the intersection of work and gender, and loyalty binds of a spouse between the spouse and their family of origin. Women, socialized to perceive and respond to emotional worlds, end up being more perceptive of and participatory in the emotional climate between in-laws. This can veer into hurt feelings and misattunements easily when no ill will was intended. Men who are both husbands and sons may have a hard time taking double-perspectives and seeing his family of origin’s behavior as “just the way it is”. Caught in a double-bind whether they empathize with their spouse or react with anger or dismissiveness to their spouse’s unhappiness, men may try to stay out of all of it all together which is comfortable short-term but long-term corrodes relationships more. Apter provides some useful exercises that flow around assertiveness and also empathy, how sons can learn to advocate for their spouse as much as their parents and take on double-perspectives of each, how couples can discuss the navigation of in-laws including accepting financial gifts, and how new in-laws can reality-check things said by another in-law: Do I have accuracy in what was meant, or am I triggered from my own past? Do I have to take this criticism on? How can I challenge in-law stereotypes and be kind and interested and accepting? That being said, this focuses more on qualitative normalization through narration rather than a robust how-to. Citations and a bibliography are provided, but the internet URLs may be dated.  

Chapman, Gary. In-Law Relationships: The Chapman Guide to Becoming Friends with your In-Laws. Tyndale House, 2008.

Much of in-law material written for the general public involves tightening boundaries and dealing with toxicity, or it’s somewhat skewed toward mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. This book is a more measured general take for anyone who has in-laws. A big caveat: Tyndale is a Christian publisher, and so the book does orient itself with that outlook. It quotes the Bible and references God. If you are not of the Christian faith, bear with this book even so, as it does do a good job explaining and illustrating key components of forming health relationships based on respect, soft start-ups (sharing needs in a kind and gentle “I” statement rather than in an accusatory, demanding manner) understanding, kindness, and privacy from an in-law standpoint. At the end of each chapter, there are either discussion prompts or self-reflection questions based on the topic at hand. At the book’s end, before the endnotes, there is short section of bulleted main points from the book itself.

Forward, Susan, Ph.D., with Donna Frazier. Toxic In-Laws: Loving Strategies for Protecting your Marriage. HarperCollins, 2001.

Marrying into families brings together two sets of cultures and habits, and these unions are often collisions in at least some areas instead of smooth mergers. Dr. Forward outlines the common in-law pitfalls, why and how they occur, and most importantly, how to rectify and at the very least better cope with these conflicts. Loyalty confusions often surround problems, and universal events (the wedding, the birth of children) heighten the emotional stakes for all parties. Dr. Forward spends the first part of her book explaining the categories of toxic in-laws (the Engulfers, The Rejectors, the Controllers, etc.) with psychological origins and illustrations of behaviors and tactics practiced (not always consciously) by those in-laws. Part two is devoted to not only about how to effectively open your heart to your spouse to the hurt, but also how to talk with in-laws and set better limits in pro-active ways (such as specific, behavior-oriented requests and ownership of feelings) that protect the marriage as much as possible. Most valuable, Dr. Forward emphasizes the relational nature of these dynamics. The in-law who is stressed by his in-laws still has some culpability for the relationship even if his in-laws behave unhealthily. Frustrated in-laws have the right to their feelings and to a level of basic respect, and they also have responsibilities to treat others with a basic respect and civility (and Dr. Forward eloquently, emphatically, and successfully  argues that one can be civil and still enforce critical boundaries for self-esteem and health). If readers are hurt in relationships with their in-laws, or if they see potential areas of contention brewing, this is one to read carefully!

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). 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. 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). 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: Family of Origin

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: Family of Origin

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 Family of Origin, For Better… For Worse


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

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.,

Wilson, Todd. “Want a Stronger Marriage? Be Sure You Agree about the In-Laws.” Adelphi University, 11 June 2021,

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