On accepting the limitations of your father

The relationship between my father and my sister has seriously deteriorated. No physical altercations, but all their interactions, even the ones that should be straightforward and mundane, just leave them both feeling hurt and angry and misunderstood. To the extent that blame matters, I think it’s more his fault than hers because a) he’s the parent and he therefore has the larger responsibility to control his emotions and think of his daughter’s wellbeing over his own and b) he is just naturally overall inattentive to and unappreciative of the basic emotional labor required to make relationships work. E.g., she knows (we both know) what he’s struggling with, what he’s worried about, quirks and favorite things, whereas he has barely any idea of what interests her and consistently fails to pay her the simple courtesy of listening at least 60% of the time when she’s talking.

He’s probably not going to change. He’s definitely not going to change enough. But my sister is hurting, and since I left for college, I feel like the only thing I can do for her is give her a hug and maybe a place to stay for a few days if she wants to get away from it all. Is there anything else I can do for her? Some word of wisdom that will help her not to feel so attacked and alone in her own home?

If there’s anything I’m not doing, please tell me. I just want her not to have to cry every time he talks to her.


It sucks to leave a younger sibling behind when you know things are dysfunctional at home. I’m sorry for both you and your sister.

The good news is that you’re close to the truth. You say your father is probably not going to change, and that he’s definitely not going to change enough. That means you’re only one step away from what you and your sister will both eventually have to accept: Your father is never going to be the kind of parent that you need him to be. Ever.

You’ve got some distance and a little perspective. That truth will be easier for you to process than it will be for your sister. The best thing you can do for her is help her understand that truth, because the closer she can come to accepting your father’s limitations, the better off she’ll be.

Right now, she’s in a cycle where if she can’t get your father’s love and approval, she’ll provoke his anger instead, because that means at least she still gets his attention. It’s incredibly painful, and it’s causing her serious emotional damage, but his rage still hurts her less than his indifference, so she’ll take it. She probably doesn’t even realize that’s what she’s doing.

Help her see that. Help her come to terms with his indifference. Help her accept the fact that he is never going to be the kind of father that she needs him to be, and perhaps most importantly, help her know that none of it is her fault.


11 thoughts on “On accepting the limitations of your father

  1. Petite Snarl says:

    This sounds very familiar; I was in a very similar situation ~6years ago. You’ll get through this, and you’re very lucky you have one another to depend on since you can’t depend on him. My father and I are still not close, and interacting with him gives me tremendous anxiety, but I don’t dislike him anymore. He’s flawed. He’s never going to get the help he needs. I recognize that so I stay away from him. Just be there for your sister–she’s the one who counts in this equation.

  2. R says:

    Exact same thing happened to me. Not all parents are equal. They’ll both be much stronger people for getting through this realization.

  3. LC says:

    I wish I had learned this lesson before my father died. I would urge the asker to follow the advice, accept your dad as a person with flaws, just like everyone has. It still hurts that he won’t be the dad you need but you might not be left with as much anger.

    • JC says:

      It took me a long time to come to the realization that my father is a human being with his own hurts, his own flaws, etc.

      The good news is that imperfect parents produce more interesting people than perfect ones 🙂

  4. hm says:

    I’m in the midst (and probably life long,) process of dealing with a toxic mom. I was raised by grandparents, really, and she has the tendency to rewrite history. She’s a frustrating but charming person, and she by all means, loves me. I appreciate that the advice here realizes the complexity of a difficult parent/child dynamic rather than coldly suggesting to cut it off. Distance, time and controlled interactions seem to be key, in my case. Being far away helps a lot, also. Eventually, you get through the shit, and come out sort of on the other side. As an adult, you sort of come to the realization that every relationship you hold is on your terms. It sucks to love a shitty parent, but when your interactions with them are on your terms, you shift the power dynamic and can almost halt the primal shit that you feel when you remember what they’ve been like in the past.

  5. J Lynn says:

    I also have a dysfunctional father. This advice is exactly right.

    A good, accessible book for insight is Toxic Parents by Susan Forward. It provides insight and gives advice about setting boundaries so you don’t get so caught up in a bad, reactive dynamic with the other party. When a parent isn’t so awful that you need to cut them off, sensible boundaries are key to an amicable relationship.

    Another piece of advice — work on letting go of sentimental b.s. about families, togetherness, unconditional love, etc. That can feel seriously oppressive, especially during Tgiving/Xmas season. People who have relatively happy families will never understand, and they routinely say well-meaning but naive things like “nobody’s perfect” and “they tried their best,” etc. From the sounds of it, this father goes beyond the normal human “flaws” that everybody has, and is emotionally neglectful.

    Your siblings will usually outlive your parents anyway, so those are good relationships to build up, if you can.

  6. Strangely Rational says:

    My dad has always been emotionally distant, but that increased after he got remarried when I was in college. My two sisters and I were sort of forgotten, and all our conversations with him consisted of him talking about how great his new step kids were and paying almost no attention to what was going on in our lives. That’s remained true for the last 20 years.

    I finally figured out that the best way to cope was by lowering my expectations. They got lowered several times! Now I’m at the point where my only expectation is that he treat me like some sort of relative. I think of him as an uncle that lives out of town (he lives in town but is always “busy”) whom I rarely see.

    It’s taken a lot of time, but I’m feeling much better now that I’ve gotten to this point. Acceptance is key.

  7. Nope says:

    If the writer has a reasonable relationship with their father and can talk calmly and rationally with him (or at least more calmly and rationally than he can talk with the sister), it could help to talk to him about how their sister is feeling and what her perspective is. Does he really not care? Or is he just flubbing things?

    My sister and my father were alienated for years. He still wanted a good relationship with her, he just . . . couldn’t get out of his own way. He couldn’t drop his pride and apologize for the shitty things that he had said and done. Eventually it was through my talking with (and yelling at, crying at, beseaching) him that he found a way through.

    That being said, we all had to grow up a lot and their dysfunctional relationship sort of hit rock bottom before any progress was really made. It was very painful for everyone.

    BUT, things are good now. They aren’t close, but they have a functioning relationship and we can have family dinners together again. It took some work.

    I guess I’m just saying, there’s hope.

  8. abab says:

    I think this is also a really important post for your book. A lot of people forget that their parents are just people who have shortcomings and are as far from perfect anyone.

    My dad was a dick. But putting his world view in the context of his upbringing and society at large helped me understand why he acted the way he did. It takes too much energy to hate someone so I’ve resigned to being cool with him. He’s too old to change and I’m too tired to fight. Plus he almost died. Twice. And it made me realize that letting him die without reconciling some of the crap that transpired between us would just leave me with a burden to carry the remainder of my life.

    Anyway, parents aren’t perfect. Forgive them. Or don’t. Just do whatever is best for you.

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