Harboring Unresolved Anger Towards a Parent

As any experienced therapist will tell you, many people harbor anger towards one, or both, of their parents. Sometimes, this is justified, sometimes not. Often, it is a way of excusing one’s own failings and weaknesses. No matter what the cause, or how justified it may be, such anger needs to be analyzed and overcome.


Before you can do anything about it, you must first understand why you feel this way. Think carefully and deeply. Many people, when their partner or therapist asks them why they loathe their mother or father, repeat the same things they’ve been saying for years: “because she was cold and distant,” “because he was a bully,” “because she never encouraged me,” and so on. Some work so hard at these explanations that their mother or father ends up responsible for everything that has ever gone wrong in their life.

The reasons people feel anger varies. Some never felt loved or wanted. To use the language of the therapy room, they never felt “validated,” or welcomed into the world. Consequently, they spend their life riddled with self-doubt and self-loathing. Essentially, they doubt their right to exist.

Others feel resentful for the opposite reason: their parent wanted them too much and denied them space to grow. For example, a woman is lonely and desperate for a child; when she gives birth to a son, she then dreads him leaving. To prevent this, she teaches him that the world is a dark and terrible place, that it is us against them. The child doesn’t play with the neighborhood kids because, as his mother puts it, “I’m scared you’ll be abducted and murdered, like that little girl on the news.” And so the child grows up suspicious, cynical, and socially uncomfortable.

Many blame a parent for ridiculing or criticising them. In some cases this is explicit, with a parent openly stating that their child is ugly, stupid or disappointing. More often, they undermine their child in a subtle, non-verbal way, with plenty of deep sighing and rolling of the eyes. Others make sarcastic comments, or simply withhold praise. And the consequences can be appalling. Even famous and successful people can be scarred for life. For example, David Bowie once remarked that in spite of the adoration of fans and music critics, he never got over his mother’s coldness and lack of encouragement.

Some complain that they never really had a parent, that their mother or father was more like a needy child than an adult. Indeed, some parents are so immature they become jealous of their own children. It is not uncommon to find a mother making snide or bitchy comments to her beautiful teenage daughter, for example. It seems like only yesterday that the mother was the pretty, young one. First her daughter ruined her figure, and now she is upstaging her!

How one parent treats the second is another common source of anger. A child may have adored her gentle, softly-spoken father and hated the way her mother constantly belittled and ridiculed him. Not only does she resent her mother for hurting him, she feels that her own relationship with her father was ruined. Instead of a loving and affectionate father, she made do with the broken shadow of a man, too afraid to go against his overbearing wife. Or a child will resent one parent for not protecting them against violence or bullying. It is also common for a child to blame one parent for the divorce, or the fact that the parent who left failed to keep in touch.

Understanding Them

Many people know surprisingly little about their parent’s own childhood. And such ignorance is especially common when their relationship with them was hostile or strained. After all, if you dislike someone, or feel anger towards them, why should you take an interest in their past? The answer is because it may help you come to terms with their failings.

To take an extreme example, a recent British documentary on pedophilia included an abuse survivor who found out that his abuser had himself been abused. Though the victim could not forgive him, this knowledge did help him to make his peace with the past. The abuser ceased to be a monster. The more the victim learnt, the more the abuser dwindled in his imagination from hideous monster to sick and damaged survivor.

This is not to say that you must forgive your parents for the wrong they have done you. Some things truly are unforgivable. And sometimes people have no excuse: they behave badly because they are selfish and cruel, nothing more. But people are also made bad. Your mother may not have hugged you because her parents never hugged her, and though she felt love and tenderness, she simply had no idea how to express it.

Or maybe your mother failed to intervene when your father hit you because her father hit her, and so she assumed such behavior was normal. Even a parent who was spoilt is, in a sense, a victim. Had she not been spoilt she might have been able to accept life’s disappointments, have been a better mother, and would not be estranged from her children.

Using Your Parents as an Excuse

Look yourself in the mirror and be honest: are you using this anger as an excuse? Many people blame their mother or father for everything that is wrong in their life, and it can be pitiful to see a 55-year-old, who hasn’t seen his mother in 30 years, blaming her for his recent divorce or his struggle with alcohol and drugs. Most pitiful of all, however, are those who use their miserable childhood as an excuse for their failings as a parent.

At some point you are going to have to let this go. If you are smart enough to recognize that their parenting affects you, then you are smart enough to do something about those effects. All the energy you waste in hatred and fury would be better used pursuing therapy or healing the rift with your own children.

Redefining Your Relationship

As you move through life, you must constantly renew and update your sense of self and your relationship with friends and family. And this is especially true of your relationship with your parents. You may have been shocked to see a friend, or partner, normally so mature and self-aware, revert to a sulky or rude adolescent when in the presence of their ageing father or mother. Though they have matured in other areas of their life, their relationship with them remains what it was in their teens.

The fact is, some people are just not very good at parenting. They may try, or they may not, but either way they are hopeless. And yet that very same person often makes an excellent grandparent. If you give them a chance, you may find that they also make better parents of adult children. But you will never find out so long as you continue to behave like a child. Could you replace those destructive patterns of behavior with something new?

It Could Have Been Worse

Finally, it is important never to allow anger to turn into self-pity. Your parents could almost certainly have been worse. If you doubt this, try reading a book like A Child Called It, by Dave Pelzer. Pelzer’s mother beat and tortured him throughout his childhood, and eventually he had to be taken into care. Or try the Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn. St Aubyn’s father was a sadistic pedophile who, like Pelzer’s mother, tormented his child for years.

Ultimately, you must try and forgive them. Above all, you must take responsibility for your life here and now. People often resent this, and reply that they have no intention of blaming themselves for the hurt and trauma inflicted on them by an alcoholic mother or absent father. But this is a basic misunderstanding. Taking responsibility has nothing to do with self-blame, or letting others off the hook. It simply means recognizing that you are now in charge of your life and that passivity and self-pity will get you nowhere.


  1. Dear Author,

    Why is a woman the antagonist in every example? Why are they depicted as shallow and weak? Do better next time.

  2. Dear J,

    Why is the world suddenly filled with whining, entitled psuedo-feminists like yourself that find things to be offended at everywhere? Why are you unable to read a simple article online about an entirely unrelated subject without twisting it into another example of how bad a woman’s life is? You are the one who needs to do better but of course that won’t be possible for you since the evil patriarchy will undoubtedly come and sabotage it. You are absolutely pathetic. Divorced by any chance? Or still a university student? I wish you people were still throwing yourselves under racehorses instead of polluting every website with your whining falsehoods. Try appreciating all the good things in your life that men have invented for you, that should help you feel better.

  3. Good article, lots of different perspectives to take into consideration, thank you for sharing.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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