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

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

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


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

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