Is there anything more complex than the relationship you have with your parents? Probably not.
Although “daddy issues” are more rife in popular culture, statistics from this 2016 crime survey showed that 40% of people reported psychological abuse at the hands of their mother (as opposed to 35% from their father).
Relationships with mothers can be pretty darn complicated
Another report on family estrangement, which looked at 800 cases, found that more people were estranged from mothers than from fathers or both parents at once.
So what does it all mean? In short, our relationships with our mothers can be pretty darn complicated.
We caught up with life coaches, and those experiencing problems with their mothers, to learn how best to steer through a problematic relationship with Mom.
1. Don’t expect her to change.
It’s reasonable to expect compromise from her, but don’t expect a full personality transplant. You’re only setting her up to fail, and setting yourself up for serious heartache.
To minimize the impact of heartache, don’t base your expectations on blind hope
“You should avoid trying to change your parents,” says life coach Carole Ann Rice. “Especially if they are elderly as it’s quite likely they aren’t going to change. It’s more about how you behave towards your parents and it’s usually best not to drag up the ancient past – it’s likely they won’t want to say sorry and waiting for a huge apology is a waste of time and energy.”
“Emotional blackmail is not okay,” says life coach Michelle Zelli. “But it is sadly a well-used currency to get adult children to continue to feel powerless to impact a shift in the relationship dynamic.
“To minimize the impact and heartache of trouble with your mom, take care to ensure your expectations of each interaction are based on evidence, not blind hope.
“It’s all too easy to yearn for a nurturing and nourishing mother-relationship and get carried away with hoping ‘it will be different this time’. Unless there’s a willingness and desire to change, nothing will. You will simply end up endlessly disappointed, hurt and even heartbroken.
“Let your mom know how you feel, with open, honest and respectful dialogue. It is normal to need to re-enforce new styles of feedback several times before the other person accepts the new rules of engagement. Stay consistent, clear and courageous.”
2. Don’t fuel the fire.
According to Nyle, whose mother has a short temper and can interpret things as personal attacks very easily, he advises taking the “walking on eggshells” tactic.
“When she’s not letting something drop,” says Nyle, “I tend to try and take a step back and not react in kind. This can be difficult to do at times, as it’s human nature to want to convey your interpretation of events but when you know that doing so will fall on deaf ears and only serve to add fuel to the fire, it’s best to let the fire burn itself out.”
3. Set boundaries
Do your conversations with Mom always spiral out of control and turn into arguments? Or do you avoid visiting because you know an hours-long drama inevitably awaits?
Make sure you put a limit on your visit to save things getting to that point.
It’s your right to have other commitments too
“A good start to approaching a meeting with your mom would be to make sure the meeting is time-limited,” advises Anne Rice. “For example, say ‘I’ll pop over for an hour’ or ‘a 15 min chat’ – this way the time is already set and there’s no space for negotiation or being dragged into something you aren’t happy with.
“You shouldn’t feel obliged to overstay, you have your right to have other commitments. It’s also important to set healthy boundaries; if someone is making you feel uncomfortable, hurt or insulted, it’s entirely okay to say that.”
4. Live up to your own expectations (not hers).
If you’re constantly disappointing your mother, ask yourself if you’re disappointing yourself too. Because you’ll likely realize that it’s her problem, not yours.
Show that you have your own life and relationships
You’re not a disappointment to anyone who doesn’t want to be disappointed. “To develop a healthier communication pattern, it’s important to let them know in every way that you are independent,” says Anne Rice. “You need to show that you have your own life, own relationships and own mind.
“Once they can see you as an adult that is separate from them, there will be a degree of respect. Equally, if you act like a child and let them rule you, you will continually be treated in this way.’
5. Don’t look to Mom for answers. And don’t let her look to you for them either.
It’s one of life’s most important rites of passage: realizing that your parents are failable and prone to weakness, stupidity, and mess-ups just like everyone else.
They shouldn’t expect you to solve their problems
“You have to remember that parents don’t have the all the answers,” states Rice. “They were young once. Our parents are human, and they also make mistakes.”
But just because you’re now an adult and just as responsible and sorted in your life as they are, parents shouldn’t expect you to have the answers either.
“It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend the rest of your life mentally caring for them,” says Rice. “If they become overly reliant on you – expecting you to solve their financial or marital problems – remember this isn’t up to you. Again, set strong boundaries and don’t feel obliged to be an emotional counselor.”
6. Try to understand her.
Empathy is one of the all-time great human virtues. Your mom might be the source of turbulence or drama in your life, but try to remember why she’s the way she is.
‘I do what I can to keep it civil’
Take Mike’s example. He says that knowing more about his mother’s background has helped him understand the way she acts.
“I still find I can’t share much at all with her,” he says, “as typically any attempt of conversation will lead to some sort of criticism or projection. This leaves very little to ever talk about apart from small talk but I typically just go into any situation with her being calm and keeping in mind that she is trying her best. I can only meet somebody where they are at and do what I can on my end to keep it civil.
“I will not, however, let her bring me down anymore, so maintaining composure and an understanding of the dynamic between us helps to prevent any negative emotional outbursts from occurring.”
7. Take a break.
That doesn’t mean sever ties completely, but sometimes space is what you need to think, regroup, and deal with a situation – no matter how emotionally triggering – with rationality.
You may eventually have to face a harsh reality
“Anything that has happened to you is not your fault,” says Mike. “But how you decide to handle it is your responsibility. You can choose to be the bigger person and you can choose to overcome. This may result in making the decision to take long breaks from your mother to regather yourself when needed but you need to support yourself first.
“You may eventually have to face the harsh reality – the love most people receive from their moms, is not what you receive from yours. But that is okay and you can keep trying to build yourself up to the person you want to be.”
8. Meet on neutral ground.
Erin, who’s had struggles with her own mother, advises meeting in a public place. It makes sense – the family home can carry a lot of emotional baggage.
“I try to avoid meeting my mom at the family home as this evokes a lot of bad memories and opens the door for old habits and power struggles,” she says.
Plan to meet a friend later in the day to vent
“Meeting in a café helps to keep things neutral and provides more opportunities to cut things short before they go downhill. Encounters can be very draining so factor in plans for later in the day.
“For example, I might arrange to meet a close friend straight after to vent and I’d avoid a meeting before any big social occasion in case it puts me in a terrible mood.”
9. Build a support system.
OK, so some family members might seem like the cause of all life’s problems. But other family members could be an invaluable help to you. Make sure you keep brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and others – providing they’re emotionally supportive – as close as you possibly can. And, if they’re drawn into the fracas, use them to mediate between you and Mom.
“I wish I’d used my siblings as a better support system,” admits Erin. “When we were all living at home, we never spoke to each other about the difficulties we were experiencing and at times turned on each other if we thought behavior or actions were leading our mom to act out.
“We started to rationalize my mom’s behavior and became angry at each other and it really stifled our relationships as siblings.
“Instead, having a neutral person mediate your relationship might be beneficial. Particularly if it’s someone your mom considers an equal, like an aunt or older family friend, as the hierarchy that’s in place in a mother/child relationship can lead to them always feeling like they’re right, and them disregarding your opinion or feelings.
Ensuring someone else is aware of the difficulties you’re experiencing might also allow your mom to get much-needed help. I’m now able to understand my mom’s behavior was driven by mental health issues, which might have been avoided had there been intervention.”
10. Only cut them out if necessary.
The tighter the boundaries, the more respect you will be shown
“I would only recommend a client cut off communication with their mother if the relationship is extremely toxic and abusive,” says lAnne Rice. “If the contact always made the client feel diminished, hurt, abused or small, then a timeout would be recommended.
“Boundaries need to be set when you feel threatened, disrespected, abused, insulted or uncomfortable. This could be in any way, through your kindness, generosity or good nature.
“It is your general human right to have your own boundaries and let people know if you’re not okay with their behavior, and this is no different with your mother. The tighter the boundaries, the more respect you will be shown.”