Handling Your Difficult Mother

If your relationship with your mum involves more pain than pleasure, you’re not alone. But knowing the problem is more about her than you is essential.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

If your relationship with your mum involves more pain than pleasure, you’re not alone. But knowing the problem is more about her than you is essential.

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All mothers have bad days, and can get angry, tired, fed up and frightened, just like everyone else. But then there are other mothers who are so demanding, controlling or fuelled by anger, they literally hold their child hostage to their needs, whether that child is six or 60. Never really happy with anything around them, they lash out often in irrational ways that leave their children scrambling for the right answers and in a constant state of high alert.

“Most interactions between women tend to involve sensitive matters and emotions,” psychologist Daniel Koh from Insights Mind Centre says of mother-daughter relationships. “Mothers may have an unspoken rule that daughters need to follow their tried-and-tested route, while daughters want to create their own path, which may cause friction.”

According to Daniel, communication issues are often at the heart of friction between mums and daughters. Stubbornness on the part of mothers may also be a challenge.

“At times, mothers may prevent daughters from finding their own way, and refuse to give way because it is seen as a weakness or in a way, ‘losing ground’,” he says. “They may be feeling hurt and unwanted, or like they are being overtaken by their daughters and their new families (their husbands and in-laws). If they feel that others are becoming much more important in their daughters’ lives, they may not know how to express or share these emotions.”

There are five archetypal difficult mothers; here’s how to cope if you have one.

The Angry Mother.

“My mother is like a hurricane when she’s angry. Everything that gets in her path is destroyed.” - Lauren, 33.

While every parent loses their temper from time to time, an angry mother is unpredictable. As a result, children in this environment are always on the alert for emotional explosions. This creates stress for the child, whose young brain forms fewer of the mental circuits needed to regulate emotional stress. The irony is that the children who most need to acquire the ability to soothe themselves may be the least well equipped to do so.

The envious Mother.

“A hardness around her mouth and manner sets in when I tell her something good about my day. It just drains the pleasure from everything, and, often, I wonder why I even bother.” – Rachel, 29.

Just landed a new job, a scholarship or a pay raise? If your mother is envious, she’ll show she’s affronted by saying, “You think too much of yourself”, or by becoming irritable, disdainful or sullen. An envious mother is saying, “The things you’re good at are really bad things for me, and they destroy our relationship.” Even as adults, her children’s success is accompanied by a deep-seated guilt that somehow their mother’s unhappiness is their fault.

The controlling Mother.

“Say no to her just once, even a small no, and the world turns. She won’t talk unless it’s an eruption of complaints and accusations.” – kelly, 32.

With the rise of the micromanaging ‘helicopter’ mum, the controlling mother has become the most common archetype. Where most parents teach their children self-control and resilience, the controlling mother keeps an iron grip on every activity and feeling their child has, through threats, fear and smothering kindness.

The controlling mother implies her child is helpless without her. Growing up, the child develops a ‘false self’, becoming a reflection of what Mum wants. A controlling mother is unaware of any distinction between what she wants and what the child wants.

The narcissist Mother.

“My mother believes that she’s very different from other people. She is special and way, way better; I had to be special and better because I was her child.” – bera, 36.

Everyone wants to feel important, but the narcissist mother seeks adoration at all cost. Part of the problem is her own fragile self-worth. If she feels injured, humiliated, hollow or empty, she reacts defensively. The underlying message is, “You may think you are something, but I have nothing but contempt for you, so I am better than you.” The child not only has to go to great lengths to not offend, he or she also has to be deemed worthy of her.

The emotionally unavailable Mother.

“My mother could be sitting right next to me and all of a sudden, she’s far away. Not like she’s thinking of something and will snap back, but like she’s buried somewhere and I can’t get to her.” – Doreen, 37.

Whether it’s deep unhappiness from a relationship or postnatal hormones, depression is often behind the mother who cannot connect with her child. Cocooned as she is in her black cloud, she offers minimal maternal care and doesn’t register delight at her infant or wonder at his or her development. Many children who have lived with, and loved, a depressed mother come to believe that their own emotions, however positive, are somehow alien and dangerous. W

Text: Bauersyndication.com.au / Additional Reporting: Lisa Twang.