How to Deal with a Dysfunctional Relationship with Parents?

Answered by Ustadha Zaynab Ansari


I am a Muslim female in my 20s. I live alone, away from my mother. For most of my life, I have spoken to my mother every day. As I have grown older, however, I have found it to be challenging to talk with my mother every day, as I feel like she attempts to become overly involved in my life–in a way that makes me very anxious and makes me feel as if I am being watched. Also, I still have issues with abuse from my father when growing up and my mother not giving me enough support.

After being diagnosed with depression and anxiety and taking medications, through the course of therapy, I have come to realize that my mother is quite controlling and seems not to like it when I attempt to show independence.

Despite knowing about my mental conditions and that they get worse when I come home, my mother insists that I come home to visit and talk every day. I decided to limit our contact and phone calls for my emotional well-being. When I did this, I felt calmer and got more accomplished, but my relationship with my siblings worsened because my mother expressed how she was hurt that I didn’t contact her as much anymore. I started to call again, and she liked that, but my emotional well-being worsened.

I also realized that my mother seems to have been having an affair while I was growing up and maybe even now. I’ve seen my mother often lie, so she probably wouldn’t admit it if I asked her.

Concerning calling my mother, what would you recommend given that frequent calling oppresses me and less frequent calling upsets her? Also, about visiting–especially given the situation that I am afraid of my father–what would you recommend?

I study human psychology, and, examine my family dynamics, it appears that my family is enmeshed and dysfunctional. I have been taught that the way to help deal with such a situation is to establish clear boundaries, as enmeshed families like mine tend not to have them. At the same time, I do not want to shrug off my religious obligations. Also, I am concerned that if my mother is overly involved in my life, it may affect any future marriage that I may have and any possible future relationships with my children.


In the Name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful

We know from revelation that life is characterized by tribulation. For example, Allah Most High says, “O you who have attained faith! Behold, some of your spouses and your children are enemies unto you: so beware of them! But if you pardon [their faults] and forbear, and forgive-then, behold, God will be much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace. Your worldly goods and your children are but a trial and a temptation, whereas with God, there is a tremendous reward.” [Quran, 64:14-15]

Although the outward purport of these verses is directed towards parents, children, from experience, sometimes know very well that the trial runs both ways. Those closest to us can pose the most significant challenge because they know us so well and, hence, can manipulate us to their advantage, causing us much hurt. However, as the Quran counsels, we should take the higher path and choose forgiveness.

I’m glad you’re in therapy, as the situation with your mother is a lot to handle. However, please make sure you’re doing things for your spiritual well-being. A regular morning and evening program of dhikr, supplication, and prayers upon the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, works wonders.

Please understand that our parents are human beings and are far from perfect. Sadly, some Muslim parents are dishonest, dysfunctional, and abusive. Some parents will attempt to live vicariously through their children and have total control. However, as adults, we can do several things:

Mitigate the harm to family members by responding with kindness, refusing to argue, and establishing clear boundaries. I can’t tell you what limits you should install in interacting with your mother. Only you know what works and what doesn’t. Consider, however, the patience of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in his dealings with his family members. And do try to recruit some supportive people in your life.

Learning not to be parents: Sadly, children can bring out the worst in some of us. While we would ideally like to be our best selves as parents, children, with their constant demands for our time and attention, not to mention their need for material resources, can push parents to the limit. That is why children, as Allah Most High says above, can be the ultimate test. I know it’s difficult to understand, but your mother might feel as frustrated with you as you are with her, but she has not found a healthy way to handle that. So learn from this situation how not to be a parent.

Choosing Peace and Forgiveness

Every day, wake up and actively choose to forgive your family members and be at peace with their imperfections.

Finally, to address your suspicions of your mother’s infidelity, it is best to leave this alone. Even if you have proof, it would be challenging to confront your mother, given your relationship. Pray for her and ask Allah to send her some spiritual support. And encourage your siblings to take her around good, religious people; let them know you care.

May Allah Most High grant you ease,

[Ustadha] Zaynab Ansari
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Ustadha Zaynab Ansari has served the Muslim Community of Knoxville since 2014 as a scholar-in-residence, public speaker, facilitator of interfaith dialogue, youth mentor, and a full-time instructor at Tayseer Seminary.