Overbearing or neglectful, abusive or completely absent - difficult parents can wreck your self-esteem for a lifetime. But how much are they really to blame? And can you ever learn to forgive them?
"parents ... are sometimes a bit of a disappointment to their children. They don't fulfil the promise of their early years," novelist Anthony Powell wrote as long ago as 1952. Many people would agree.Unhappy adults are inclined to attribute their misery to a rotten childhood, with the result that parents are often blamed for "doing the wrong thing". Some are accused of taking too much interest; others of taking too little. Some smother their children with affection; others deprive them of it. Whatever they do, in Philip Larkin's much-quoted words: "They fuck you up". The anger and resentment some adults feel towards their parents can lead them to break off all contact, seek refuge in marriage, move thousands of miles away or pursue years of therapy.

In order to help such troubled adults, psychologists Windy Dryden and Jack Gordon have produced a new book, How to Cope with Difficult Parents, which gives advice on dealing with parents who are, among other things, over-protective, neglectful, rejecting and critical.

It will not appeal to those who believe that only years in analysis can sort out the deep-seated, not to say unconscious, resentments we may harbour towards our parents.

As both authors are cognitive behaviour therapists, the book's starting point is the idea that you feel as you think, and that you can change your feelings by conscious effort. If you can change your thinking, you can change your emotional state, they claim.

The first step is to abandon the irrational beliefs that clutter up your judgement. These beliefs include the idea that you can change your parents' behaviour; that if you are not loved by your parents you are worthless; that other people should always treat you well; and that if you do not get what you want, life is unbearable.

You cannot change your parents' behaviour, they say. You can only change the way you react to it. If you get less-upset about it, that might enable you to influence it.

"We wrote the book because, when we run therapy groups in hospitals and elsewhere, one of the subjects that patients often raise is the problem of their parents," says Dryden, who is Professor of Counselling at Goldsmiths' College, London. "There are lots of books on bringing up kids, but not many for adults who are dealing with their older parents."

They recommend people undertake three key tasks. First, get into a healthy frame of mind emotionally; secondly, understand and accept their parents with their difficult traits and behaviour; and, thirdly, act in an enlightened self-interested way towards their parents. They illustrate their approach with case histories of patients who have come to terms with their parents.

One such example is Shirley, who seemed to have the original parents from hell. They despised and criticised her during her childhood, because she was not as academically successful as her siblings, so, at 20, she married, partly to escape their clutches.

But after her marriage, the problem got worse. Her parents were constantly phoning, turning up at her home, and commenting on her decor and clothes. They even rearranged her dining-room furniture and changed the colour of her curtains, "to show how much brighter the room could look". They would offer her money to go out and buy "something decent to wear" and, on one occasion, rang her up to tell her the new dining-room suite that she had bought was a waste of money.

Then her husband began to blame her for not standing up to her parents and for allowing them to interfere in the marriage. "Your parents are a blasted pain in the butt. And it's all your fault," he told her.

Her reaction, unsurprisingly, was one of self-pity. "I don't deserve this. Life shouldn't be so unfair and I can't stand it any more."

Unfortunately, feelings of hurt and self-pity stop people thinking rationally, the book's authors say. One of Shirley's irrational beliefs was that life should give her what she wanted and if it did not, then it was unbearable.

She also suffered from "low frustration tolerance" which, roughly translated from the book's jargon, means that she was not prepared to put up with some disturbance in the short-term to reap some benefits in the long-term - she didn't want any conflict with her parents, because of the hassle.

After several sessions of therapy, Shirley managed to rid herself of her self-defeating irrational beliefs about the "unfairness" and "horror" of being constantly criticised, and she adopted a more constructive approach. She saw the situation as a problem to be solved, rather than a catastrophe about which she could do nothing.

In order to understand her parents, she looked at how they had been brought up, to see if there were clues to their behaviour there. She got on their wavelength by listening to them, and managed to make them feel understood. She discovered that her mother was aware she had left home to get away from her, and she was worried that she would lose her altogether unless she kept in constant touch.

Shirley assured her parents she was not running away from them, but explained that she felt the time had come to become more independent. Eventually, both parties came to an agreement that Shirley would visit her parents once a week, and her parents would limit their visits to once a fortnight. This was rather more than Shirley would have liked, but she took a long- term view. Eventually she hoped to start a family, and realised how useful parents could be when they had grandchildren to take out.

But what of adults who cannot bring themselves to understand, accept or forgive their parents, as the book suggests that they should? What advice do the authors have for them?

"People do not always understand what forgiveness means," says Dryden. "They think it means making light of what their parents have done to them, or 'giving in' and letting their parents win. If someone wants to 'win', I say that they have already lost, because it shows that they are still resentful. It is hardly a healthy emotional state. But if people want to think that way, who am I to stop them?

"In my view, apportioning blame to either parents or children is not helpful. Some people think that because people are parents, they must be nice and kind and loving. But often these people were not like that before they had children, so there was no reason to assume they would be afterwards.

"People find it hard to accept that we live in a random universe. If they have had very disturbed parents, or parents who are alcoholics or violent, they say: 'Why me?' And I always say: 'Why not you?' Parents are fallible human beings like the rest of us."

Finally, does this approach work? Dryden thinks that it does. "Research shows that cognitive behaviour therapy [CBT] is more effective than other therapies. In comparative studies, psycho- dynamic therapy is as successful as CBT when the therapist is more active than usual and creates a focus, in which case it comes to resemble CBT.

"But even in cognitive behaviour therapy, the therapist can only do so much. If the patient steadfastly refuses to put the advice into practice, they do not get much out of it."

For some the effort is just too much. For them, the words of Oscar Wilde will ring true. "Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them."

8 'How to Cope with Difficult Parents', by Dr Windy Dryden and Jack Gordon, to be published by Sheldon Press on 23 November, pounds 6.99

they favoured my sister

Olivia Black (not her real name) is convinced that her difficulties with her parents stem from the fact that they wanted a boy. Her mother's first child was a girl. Then Olivia appeared.

"According to my parents, I was awkward from the moment I was born. I was always the argumentative one, the one that wanted a fight. It never occurred to them that if I was awkward it might have been in response to something in them."

Olivia, now a 33-year-old social worker in Birmingham and married with two children, was born abroad, where her father was working. But at the age of five, her mother brought her and her sister back to Britain. Their father joined them three years later. "Suddenly, I changed country, changed house and lost my father.

"I was left with my mother, all of whose emotional energy was invested in my sister. The two of them are very alike and get on well. My sister has always taken their part. My mother now favours her children over mine."

Olivia feels her parents were neglectful and rejecting, but without malicious intent. "They were gobsmacked when I recently told them what I felt about my childhood.

"I will never forget the time when I was six and my father, who was working abroad, came back to England to see his brother and never came to see us.

"From the age of 11, I was always left alone on Christmas Day. My sister, who was four years older, would spend it with her boyfriend, and my parents would go out for the day. I was stuck at home, getting sourer by the minute. By the time we all had Christmas dinner at 7pm, I was criticised for being in a bad mood.

"During my teens, I was a keen swimmer and took part in county and national championships. My father came to see me swim only once, and in that race, I came last. I was not only hurt by the way they did not come to see me, but by the way that they took no interest in my activities. I had to get myself to the events, get my own gear. It was a major event getting a swimsuit out of my mother. She asked me if I was sure that I would use it.

"I have managed recently to let go of some of my anger and sense of injustice and am left with a feeling of sadness and a lack of expectation from them."

they drove me inside myself

Emma Ryan (not her real name), a 56-year-old photo-journalist from north London, suffered from a domineering father and an inaccessible mother.

"My father was huge, powerful and verbally abusive. He was abusive to everyone in the family, but my mother took the brunt of it. He was abusive for no apparent reason.

"He suffered from depression and used to get into these foul moods which lasted for weeks. My mother told me that sometimes she would shake every time he came through the door, not because of fear, but because of stress. She was no victim. She was a very competent, efficient woman and a business school graduate. The stress my mother suffered in the marriage may have contributed towards the breast cancer which killed her."

Emma, who never married, partly because of the experience of her parents' marriage, but who lives with her 18-year-old son, was brought up in a wealthy US household, with a live-in chauffeur, cook and maid. She and her brother and sister did not see very much of her parents, especially when they were young.

"I never felt that we were terribly important in the home. We had to be managed; like the live-in help, or the purchase of food, or the upkeep of the home. And we were managed very efficiently.

"I think my mother became inaccessible in some ways in response to my father's behaviour. My parents were Roman Catholic and would never have considered divorce. So my mother decided the only way to survive was to repress or withdraw a certain part of herself.

"Eventually his behaviour led to the same response in me. It became so difficult to discuss things with him. Whatever I felt, he would jump on, criticise and take away from me. It was exhausting. So I went inside myself and became an emotional recluse in my teens. I didn't really emerge until my late 20s.

"I will never forget the time that I visited my parents when my mother was suffering from advanced cancer. It was about six months before she died. My father wanted me to accompany him to our cottage 300 miles away, and when I refused, saying I wanted to stay with my mother, he called me a 'selfish bitch'."

Emma finally came to terms with her father in her 30s. "I became more reconciled by thinking about his childhood which had been traumatic. His five-year-old sister had died of leukaemia, when he was eight, and his mother had developed such a serious depression, that he had to be looked after by relatives.

"He also had good qualities. He was voraciously curious and extraordinarily generous. He died six years ago, at the age of 83".