By the time Angela Levin was three years old, she knew she had a cruel, difficult mother. She remembers packing up her teddy and a dress, climbing a chair to reach the handle of the front door, then going to ask a neighbor if she could live with her, instead.
"At some point I went home, but I knew she was not a nice mother, " says Levin, now a journalist and author. Her mother used to tell her that she should have named her "Devil," she says, and forbade Levin from reading books at the age of eight after discovering she enjoyed reading. She bought her daughter a puppy for her birthday, which Levin "absolutely adored." Six weeks later, the puppy disappeared, its absence blamed on Levin for not taking better care of the dog, despite her walking the dog before and after school.
"She set things up and then deliberately knocked them down," Levin says.
Even so, for most of her life Levin rarely spoke about her mother's punishing nature, only going as far as calling her "difficult" because, she says, admitting to having cruel parents is one of the last existing taboos. "I kept everything secret because I was afraid people would think I was disloyal and they would never understand. If you come from a very happy family, it's very difficult to understand that one's mother can be really emotionally cruel. I was afraid they would have felt like I was a large contributing factor and I didn't think I was."
Last year, her good friend Alyson Corner, a clinical psychologist, called her to ask if she would help her to create a website devoted to helping people cope with difficult or emotionally cruel parents. "The idea had been bubbling around for some time," Corner explains. "I've always been very keen to help young people find a voice to express what they feel, particularly when those closest to them are not able to hear them… this group can have huge difficulty in being listened to."
You can't wave a magic wand. The only thing we can ever fix is ourselves.
A few months later, they created the website MyHorridParent.com for the children of difficult parents to seek advice and commiserate with those in a similar situation. The site delineates the different types of bad parents, from overpowering or self-obsessed mothers to competitive and angry fathers, as well as the various feelings these parents will likely trigger in their children.
The site's advice for coping with a difficult parent places the onus on the child (be they 13 or 73 years old): understand the situation, remain calm, stay positive and employ techniques to mitigate your parents' outburst and criticisms. The majority of the advice involves working around the difficult parent, I ask Corner, but is it possible to work on actually changing their bad behavior?
"I don't think it's for anybody to fix anybody else," says Corner. "You, as a child, cannot fix a parent. It isn't your responsibility and it can't be done. You can't wave a magic wand. The only thing we can ever fix is ourselves; even if you've had very horrific experiences, you don't have to stay with that. You can decide the person you want to be, the life you want to lead and go on to turn it around.
Corner believes that many cruel parents often hold a lot of bitterness, sadness and misery that gets projected on to their offspring. Mental health issues and substance abuse can play a role, too. While the parents are unlikely to change, she says a child can shift their own response as a way to try and moderate their parents' behavior.
Corner's therapy practice showed her firsthand how resistant certain bad parents are to change. She says she'd often hold sessions with families, giving both parties the chance to vent their frustrations, and then she'd ask the parents to think of a few ways they value and appreciate their child. "Most parents are able to quickly remember a happy memory with their child or say something about how lovable they are, but for a significant minority, they cannot find anything good to say about their child. When you push them, they say something like, 'He's only good at winding me up and making me angry,'" says Corner.
Find a very plain card that simply says 'Happy Mother's Day.'
Instead of working on changing, the parent takes the stance of, "You're the expert. You fix my child. I'm fine. It's the child that's the problem."
More problems arise around holidays like Mother's Day, which are often celebrated with gushing cards and gifts, creating a dilemma for people who have horrible mothers and will likely be criticized by her no matter what they do for the occasion. "You may want to mark the day because you want to keep your relationship with your mother, but you don't want to send something that feels desperately insincere and then feel hypocritical about it," says Corner, who suggests that the best course of action is to find a very plain card that simply says "Happy Mother's Day," and think of ways to minimize any arguments.
A key message from both women is that the child of the difficult parent should behave dutifully so that they are protected from feelings of guilt in the future. Angela says that she was always well-behaved towards her mother, which meant that when her mother eventually passed away, she didn't harbor any guilt or regret. "Unless the parent is bordering on abusive, we encourage people to not behave badly. Do the right thing. Give a gift, give a card, be prepared for criticism, take a deep breath, use your relaxation techniques, excuse yourself as soon as you can and don't get involved in being harangued by your parents," says Corner.
Levin and Corner also stress that the child in the situation can and should break the bad patterns established by their parents—and that just because you have an unkind or punishing parent, doesn't mean that you are destined to become one yourself. Angela, who now has three adult sons, chose to make her mother a template of exactly who she did not want to become. "I nearly decided against having children because of her, but when I had my children, I loved them all instantly," she says.
"I've always encouraged them. I've always been positive about them."