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How to Deal with an Emotionally Manipulative Parent

Because the consequences of doing nothing can be devastating — and last your entire life

On a sunny day in July 2016, outside a community swimming pool in the small English town of Spalding, Lincolnshire, 57-year-old Lance Hart emerged from where he had lain hidden beneath a car, raised a single-barrelled shotgun and fired it at his wife, Claire, as she crossed the parking lot with their 19-year-old daughter, Charlotte. He then reloaded and shot Charlotte too. As his two family members lay on the ground dying, he pulled the trigger once more and killed himself.

On the face of it, the case looked as though it fit a familiar pattern of a troubled family man finally succumbing to his paranoia, jealousy or despair — which is certainly how the British media reported it at the time. But Charlotte’s two surviving older brothers, Luke and Ryan (who had both been working out of the country at the time of the attack) have since painted a picture of their father that’s even more mundane and chilling. They have recently made a number of appearances in the U.K. media — both to correct those early misleading reports and to raise awareness about coercive control as an under-acknowledged form of domestic abuse — in which they describe growing up under the yoke of a “tyrant” ruling over his home like a “sovereign king.”

Yet the brothers have also insisted that Lance Hart wasn’t a violent man — he didn’t suffer from mental illness and didn’t “lose it” before killing his wife and daughter in a fit of uncontrolled rage.

As Ryan told BBC Radio’s The World At One show in November 2018, in their home, his father had adopted the role “as he viewed it of a traditional man… He believed he was entitled to own and control and abuse his family.” Despite living with his brutal emotional punishment-beatings for 25 years, having to second-guess arbitrary household rules no kid could never hope to obey and constantly being yelled at for the slightest transgression, Ryan says, “We didn’t know what our father was doing to us. So we can’t blame anyone else for also looking out for the wrong stereotype of a physically violent man — looking out for those bruises, looking out for those cuts… Control is at the heart of why these men abuse. Control is their aim and it’s their mechanism, and violence is only [one] way of maintaining that control.”

It’s an extreme instance, brought to light by its tragic final act. But in the vast majority of cases, the parents who systematically control and manipulate children are hiding in society in plain sight. Often because, as in the case of Ryan Hart and his siblings, children aren’t aware that their parent’s cruel behavior counts as anything unusual, and isn’t how families are supposed to function.

“Our dad had a real control over us; the chaos was really exciting, and we were completely used to the abuse,” recalls Lily, who’s now in her 30s. “If that’s how it’s always been, you don’t question it.” Lily’s father, a teacher from California, would deliberately terrify her and her brother as kids, because, she says, “he enjoyed frightening us, and enjoyed seeing disappointment or sadness in us.” She remembers he would revel in making them watch disturbing R-rated movies and from distressing psychological “games” such as deliberately getting his children lost in downtown areas: “As far as my brother was concerned we were gone, because my dad would hide and I would have to hide with him.” She recalls how police officers would be shocked to be confronted by a little kid asking for directions at 11 at night.

Or, she says, “We’d go on these bonkers vacations with him… and end up being left places for hours on end. We were left in a bus station in Europe for six hours while he went and did I don’t know what the fuck. It was just dangerous stuff that was happening, all the time.”

Exposing the Parent Trap

Looking back, Lily says she now realizes her father had cast her as the “boring” one in the family, and that growing up, her self-esteem was continually being chiseled away by “all these tiny micro-aggressions that he’d just do regularly that was just like, ‘You’re not worth it.’ That was the message that I was getting as a kid.”

It’s a pattern that’s familiar to many psychologists who work with children. According to U.K.-based clinical psychologist Alyson Corner, “Often young people feel responsible or to blame, particularly if the parent used a lot of derogatory words, as in, ‘You’re an unlovable child,’ or, ‘You’re difficult to manage’ — you think then that it’s your fault.”

This makes it harder still, says Corner, for those people as adults to see through the manipulation and recognize that they had been subject to years of emotional abuse.

This kind of upbringing can have “profound psychological effects,” says Dan Neuharth, a family therapist based in the Bay Area. “It can be very inhibiting and damaging to just feel that you’re wrong.”

Neuharth is author of the bestselling If You Had Controlling Parents, a book he wrote partly to confront his own experience of having a “very controlling dad,” but also, he says, “because I was seeing this in my practice: People who felt terribly perfectionistic or like they needed permission to do and achieve… or felt anxious or guilty or a little empty, and would second-guess themselves. Those things aren’t uncommon, they can come from a number of factors, but for a good number of people, we’d talk about their parents and would find they had been very authoritarian, or they’d micro-managed them, or there wasn’t really any freedom of speech, or they felt they had no voice growing up.”

While Neuharth cautions that an impulse to manipulate kids can spring from a wide range of factors, including alcoholism and drug abuse, he identifies two main personality types he regularly encounters. The first is “people who are drawn to order and control, or are very uncomfortable with chaos” — the authoritarian moms and dads. Parents exhibiting this kind of control-freakery, he says, “find it hard to let children have the necessary independence.” The second is the pernicious personality disorder of narcissism. “There’s an overlap,” says Neuharth. “I remember when I was first putting together my book, I was talking with the publishers about titles and I said, ‘You know, in essence a lot of this is about narcissistic parenting — parents who are doing things because it’s best for them, not because it’s necessarily best for their children.”

It was around the age of 14, says Lily, that she first became aware her father was a narcissist. Though she didn’t know the name for it at that time (she would call it a “god complex”), she had realized he was obsessed above all else with crafting an exciting narrative for his own life to impress others — and that this was also his approach to parenting. “He used to give us speeches about what a natural father he was,” she says. Yet “all the things that children need — boundaries, consistency, routines, patterns — he threw out the window and it was all about unpredictability and adventure.” By that time, she says, “I was so alive to his bullshit I didn’t want to have anything to do with him.”

Parental Guidance: How to Handle a Manipulator

Any attentive, encouraging parent, of course, will exert a certain degree of emotional control over their kids, especially when they are young — that’s why good children get to have nice things, and naughty ones have to go think about whether they really deserve screens today. But Neuharth estimates that on the “parenting continuum” that runs from utter negligence to a style that hinges on oppressive or harmful interventions, “there’s easily around five percent of people in Western cultures” who are likely to have been raised in environments of unhealthy control. That’s one in 20. “It could be more,” says Neuharth. “It’s a matter of degree.”

One indication that it’s a much more widespread problem than many people realize — many clinicians and therapists included — is the popularity of a recently launched website in the U.K., My Horrid Parent. Founded by Corner and the journalist Angela Levin, who has written candidly about her experience as the child of a devastatingly spiteful mother, the site received 45,000 hits on its first day. “It was just an astonishing reaction,” says Levin. When the project launched in early 2017, she recalls, “We did lots of radio and telly, and their lines were completely blocked.”

They had decided to launch a website, says Levin, because, “We found there was an awful lot about dealing with difficult children, and there was absolutely nothing on how children can deal with difficult parents. We wanted to break the stigma of criticizing your parents openly.”

What’s been most surprising for Levin in the public’s response to My Horrid Parent is what it’s revealed about people whose lives are still oppressed by a rogue mother or father far into adulthood. “We thought we would aim it at 18- to 23-year-olds, and we found we were getting loads of people in their 40s, 50s, 60s — even in their 70s — saying that their mother or father was still controlling them and making their life a misery, which is tragic.”

So, it seems, even once you’re aware that the deficiency lies with your toxic parent and not with you, this knowledge often isn’t enough to cope with all the barbed comments and threats they throw your way. “You can do several things to manage it,” advises Corner. “You can either take the view that, ‘If my parent is rude to me, I’m just going to say: ‘I’m sorry. I’m leaving.’ Or you can say, ‘I’m going to call you back when things are a bit calmer,’ and put the phone down. You can make a quiet excuse to exit, such as, ‘I’m just going to run to the bathroom.’”

For longer-term coping strategies, both she and Dan Neuharth advise their clients to journal their experiences from being around their parents. “Having it down on paper is part of the process of recognizing it, taking it on board and accepting it,” which helps prepare you for your next encounter, says Corner.

“One of the things that’s very helpful for people who are just beginning to be aware of this is to allow themselves just to observe, like it’s a research project,” says Neuharth, who helps clients distance themselves from the emotions being turned against them by assigning them the role of detached anthropologist. “Notice what they do; notice the ways they control; notice how it affects you. And you don’t even have to do anything about it — it’s an experiment, and with experiments nothing can go wrong, it’s all data.”

Or you could try visualization techniques that allow you to disengage from petty sniping. “You could imagine that you’ve got a heat shield around you,” suggests Corner, “and these zinging arrows are just going to bounce off. And you try very hard not to take it personally.” Says Neuharth: “I can’t tell you how many clients have said, when they’re in their 20s or 30s: ‘You know, when I looked at my dad, I realized I’m a foot taller that him.’ And it was a revelation because they still felt so much littler. So being able to reverse that and recognize, ‘Oh, I’m starting to feel small now, but wait a minute — I’m not,’ can be helpful.” Because, he says, “that’s the point of it. That’s how people manipulate. They make you feel small because that gives them more power.”

“The way I navigated it was a sense of humor,” says Lily. “A sense of humor helps you to be resilient.” Her ultimate solution, though, has been an extreme one — to cut off contact with her dad completely. It’s a decision that has given her “huge sadness,” but, she says, “it’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve not had a relationship with him,” and the effect on her life “has been really great.”

Despite this, she says there can be some upsides to an upbringing shot through with emotional abuse. “It’s kind of enabled me to have a little bit of a superpower, because I’m allergic to narcissists. I can spot a male narcissist a mile off. It means that professionally I know how to deal with them, but personally I won’t have anything to do with them.”

Now, she says, she also has a model for how not to behave toward her loved ones. “It’s something I police in myself. You search yourself for signs and try not to be narcissistic.” And she takes strength in the resilience that she and her brother were both forced to develop as the emotional playthings of their father. “By telling these stories,” as an adult, says Lily, “it makes me remember to feel proud of my young self for having survived the madness.”