Writer and broadcaster

I struggle to cope with dad since mum’s death – he can be abusive. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

I have a difficult relationship with my dad, who is in his 70s. He is introverted, judgmental and insecure whereas I am not. I try to empathise and be considerate, and understand that these are not things that are always his fault. But he constantly complains about everything, from our lifestyle to the way our children behave. He considers that I am bright but wasted, having not studied science subjects, and that all else is useless. I have a strong sense of social justice and he considers that I champion the underdog, irrespective of circumstance.

My mum died very suddenly of cancer a few years ago. He is not coping well with being on his own and relies heavily on me as a conduit to the outside world and occasionally as a verbal punch bag – recently this has extended to texts and emails. I have managed to put a stop to this – for now – by telling him that I was sharing them with my bereavement counsellor, which he did not like. We come from a small family, and I moved a motorway journey away some years ago, before Mum died, to be nearer to my in-laws who regularly help out and are very supportive. My dad is jealous and judgmental and is essentially very under-confident.

Mum dealt with the world for him much of the time and he is now out of his depth in many situations. I dread him getting older and not being able to make the drive here, and what I will do. He tries to exert power and control all the time, and when challenged he becomes abusive and says I have psychological issues. Everyone who knows us both says it is him not me, but I now worry deeply for what our future holds, I really do not want him to move nearer to me. My only sibling lives abroad and has a similar relationship with him. He may well have depression, but elements of his control and insecurity have been life-long.

Although much of your letter is about your dad’s behaviour, there’s also a lot of your own fear mixed in with it. It seems to me that whatever the cause or reasoning behind his behaviour, you need a buffer between you. I’m a big believer in being there for one’s ageing parents. But, several times, you mention your dad’s abusive, controlling behaviour and I don’t think any child, even the most dutiful, should sacrifice themselves to such behaviour. It sounds as if your mother was a great diluting force. I’m sorry she’s gone.

Is there money for someone to come in and help, not a carer as such – not yet – but someone to help out practically?

David Secrett, a couple and family therapist (aft.org.uk), picked up on just how many of your worries are about things that haven’t happened yet – and might not. “You’ve become preoccupied with his decline and what might happen. With your mother gone, you are thinking about negative scenarios.”

That’s not unusual; when someone close has died, you can start to catastrophise things: everything is worse-case scenario. Secrett suggests you try mindfulness techniques. It’s great you have a bereavement counsellor.

He also thought you should have a bit more faith in yourself (it’s easy not to when family members define us as useless!) and says: “You’ve found coping strategies in the past, you need to have faith in those and maintain them. It will be much better if you use your ways of looking after yourself and not get embroiled in negative scenarios and guilt. You can maintain your love for him at this negotiated distance. You don’t have to be available for him, and if he stops driving, you can find other ways of staying in touch.”

Given how resourceful you sound, if or when your dad becomes less independent, you can then find out what local help he can get (Secrett says you might want to find this out now, but I think it will overinvolve you and worry you at this stage).

It’s great you have your in-laws – such a plus. You may need to lean on them more, even if just to keep you upright at times.

I realise your sibling is abroad but I don’t see why he or she can’t share the psychological burden as in “what shall we do when Dad gets old?” etc.

When you visit, could you take a third person? Someone for you to lean on and provide the same diluting effect your mother did? That way, if you visit your dad – say, once a month – this would lessen the guilt (because you felt you were doing something to help him). Lastly, remember that you don’t have to fill all these gaps left by your mother – your dad is 70 and is his own person. You can hang on to your mother’s memory without taking on her responsibilities.


This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 22 May 2015.