‘Adult Children’: A book helping deal with narcissistic parents

  • “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” is a bestselling book about dealing with difficult parents.
  • The book breaks down emotionally immature parents into four categories, providing tips on setting boundaries and maintaining healthier relationships.
  • It has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon, shared countless times on social media and sparking public conversations usually left for private spaces.
  • I interviewed the author, Dr. Lindsay C. Gibson, as well as several readers who say the book made a lasting impact on their lives by helping them speak up for themselves more in their relationships.
  • Sign up for Insider Reviews’ weekly newsletter for more buying advice and great deals.

After spending months deep in quarantine, Linsey, 38, decided to take herself on a solo road trip to Arizona. Loading up on audiobooks for the long drive ahead, she added one more after seeing writer Ashley C. Ford rave about it on Twitter (and getting her therapist’s approval). 

She finished “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” in less than 24 hours, replaying it again later that week when driving back to Texas. 

“Listening to [it] released hidden pain I had stuffed deep within for decades,” says Linsey, who recalls tears barreling down her face as she drove. “Every single chapter gave me something new and validating.” For the first time, she had a name for the neglect and trauma she experienced as a child — and could see her life expanding like the road in front of her.

Linsey isn’t the only one who experienced this private moment of self-realization while reading this book, nor is she the only one to discover it on social media. The book has been shared across the r/books Reddit and Instagram hashtags and too many tweets to count, leading to a groundswell of interest in and conversations about mental health and emotional trauma. When a book that would normally be handed to a friend with a knowing whisper is retweeted thousands of times, it becomes somewhat of a movement.

What it means to have emotionally immature parents

“Adult Children” describes four types of emotionally immature parents — Emotional, Driven, Passive, and Rejecting — categories Dr. Lindsay C. Gibson, the author, came up with after working with thousands of patients and spotting patterns in how they’d describe their upbringing. She recalls one client in particular who was “just a lovely person — somebody that, if you weren’t their therapist, you would love to go out to lunch with. And they [were] presenting themselves as just all messed up, blaming themselves and feeling guilty about not getting along with their parents.” Meanwhile, the patient’s father behaved himself like a four-year-old, which sparked the idea for the book.

To cite a famous Twitter quote, the irony of Gibson’s core audience is that they’re “often in therapy to deal with the people in their lives who won’t go to therapy.” They’re what Gibson describes as internalizers: people who deal with their trauma inwardly and strive to work on how they can improve their relationships, even if those around them aren’t putting in the same effort.

And, if Google searches are any indication, internalizers are increasingly looking for more answers. Part of the reason for the book’s popularity is that its core concept, narcissistic behavior, has become an immensely buzzy topic over the last few years, especially in the context of family relationships. It’s also become more common to seek therapy and help privately while talking about mental health publicly, thanks to the anonymity and distance the internet provides. 

Avoiding labels that can feel too broad

Ironically, another reason the book resonates so well is that Gibson uses common terms like “narcissism,” “toxic,” “self-absorbed,” and “estrangement” rather sparingly throughout her writing. For the people who don’t see their parents as fully destructive, the “toxic” label can feel too flat or inaccurate. “When you’re using terms like ‘narcissistic’ or ‘self-absorbed’, they tend to paint the personality with a broad brush,” Gibson says, adding that sometimes “the parent does have good qualities, the parent is sometimes [emotionally] available, but the problem is that those times happen on the parent’s schedule, depending upon how secure or good that parent is feeling about themselves.” 

She does still acknowledge that “there are some people who are actually so destructive [and] so sadistic that you’re protecting yourself by getting away from them.” But many readers are still stuck in limbo when trying to answer questions like: What about parents who made big financial sacrifices, such as paying for their child’s college tuition? What if the parents would drop everything to help if their kids were physically hurt? What if the parents had seemingly tougher childhoods, themselves victims of emotionally immature parents? 

The power of “Adult Children” is that it gently fills in the spaces between those questions and the truth: that our parents can do a lot for us and still hurt us. They can be wonderfully supportive in some arenas and wildly damaging in others. For those who don’t want to sever ties but also can’t imagine living in anxiety through every family holiday, the book offers a salve: setting boundaries.   

Building empathy and finding freedom through boundaries

Chris, 24, started doing just that after her therapist recommended the book. “I love my parents and want to maintain a relationship with them, but I need to protect myself and allow myself to live freely,” she says. After realizing that she always kept her hurt feelings to herself after watching how her more outspoken sister was treated, she tried to tell her parents how she felt — only to be yelled at over the phone for hours. “It finally clicked that I’ll never have emotionally fulfilling conversations with them where both parties are respectfully heard,” she recalls. Now, the next time it happens, she’s resolved to politely tell her parents that she’ll talk to them when they’re calmer, and hang up the phone.

Em, 25, who first heard about “Adult Children” through Instagram, initially didn’t think the book would apply to her. “I just thought [my parents] were difficult to deal with,” she tells Insider. Nonetheless, she picked it up on a whim, and “cried tears of sadness and relief while struggling to get through the first chapter.” She ended up going through select chapters with her therapist because she felt the book so clearly laid out her own feelings on paper.

“It turns out, my parents are simply a product of their own childhood and environment — they grew up in homes where they were taught that expressing certain feelings was shameful,” Em says, citing that the book made her “more empathic towards [her] parents, because [she] now [realizes] that they simply didn’t have the emotional tools or the knowledge to care for [her] how [she] wished to be cared for.”

“That doesn’t mean they didn’t do their best in their own way; it just means it wasn’t enough for me,” she says, while also adding that the book taught her to no longer accept conditional love from anyone.

Read more: The professor behind Yale’s popular online course, The Science of Well-Being, shares tips on how to feel happier right now

While the takeaways from “Adult Children” can lead to something many people fear — lost ties — it also opens up possibilities of stronger relationships down the line. Linsey credits the book with helping her foster more authentic connections with her husband and four-year-old daughter, while also granting her “greater understanding, freedom, and empathy for [her] parents and siblings.” 

It’s the potential for a wholly different life that adds lightness to the book — and likely why many of its readers are so eager to share it with not just their close inner circle, but with strangers on the internet.

“The people that I worked with in psychotherapy would get to this point where they would realize what the relationship with the parent had cost them, and they would be very sad, sort of stunned by the impact on them,” Gibson says, while at the same time noticing how differently they started to carry themselves. “You could just hear how much better their life was once they got free of these old ideas. And so, for me, it was like seeing them transforming into another level of personhood at the same time they were grieving.”

It’s why suddenly understanding the root of inexplicable, lifelong loneliness isn’t so scary, because that knowledge can only make us better. As Gibson says near the end of her book, “How many people get to be awake and aware for the emergence of the person they were always meant to be?” 

Thankfully, with the reach of social media, it could be many, many more.

For more reading, check out the sequel, “Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents”: