Biggest Fan and Harshest Critic: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother
by Susan Newman, Ph.D.
One of the most enduring relationships we have is the one with our mothers. At the same time, adult daughters often discover that their mothers act in ways that threaten the relationship, engaging in behaviors ranging from annoying to downright damaging. Regardless of your age, success, or independence, you may find yourself ending conversations with hurt feelings or visits, saddled with guilt. As an adult, reducing conflict with your mother will move your relationship in a new, rewarding direction.
Here are a few strategies from my book, Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father, to ease tensions and stop your mother from saying and doing things that still drive you crazy:
What to Do When:
She still treats you like a baby.
Reinvention: Parenting behaviors you find upsetting are more often than not leftovers from childhood. The tendency to think of you as a baby and to worry about you comes from years of protecting you. These are ingrained habits, usually unrecognized by parents themselves, and therefore, difficult for them to stop. You are now an adult, it is up to you to make that distinction loud and clear to your overprotective mother. Simply telling her how you feel or what you don’t like is, surprisingly, often sufficient to change a parent’s action. When that doesn’t work, her babying might be more tolerable if you tell yourself that your mother’s worrying is a sign she loves you.
She inappropriately voices her disapproval of your appearance / partner / parenting / everything about you.
Reinvention: You may have a mother who measures and evaluates your every decision—or at least it feels that way. When you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time preparing for your mother’s visit, ask yourself how much of the clean-up or attention to your appearance is for you and how much is designed either to thwart parental criticism or to gain parental approval. With a hypercritical mother you may need to take an aggressive approach by setting boundaries. Let her know you will walk away if she continues to criticize, and then do so until the old patterns are broken.
There is a big gap in your relationship and you wish your mother wasn’t so emotionally distant.
Reinvention: There’s a whole culture of parents that thinks parents should mind their own business and feels strongly about staying out of their grown children’s lives. But, you may want your careful mother more involved so you feel less detached from her. Mothers aren’t mind readers. You may have to give your mother permission to probe. Rather than being upset with your mother’s lack of empathy, be straightforward. Let her know that her coolness upsets you. In the future, it’s far more likely she will pay attention to your needs.
She is too demanding of your time and energy. You have a life, too!
Reinvention: As an adult, you now have a say in how and when you and your mother spend time together. Explain that your time for her may be limited, but you love her; tell her your schedule and set guidelines for when and where you can be reached without disrupting your life. This way you are not abandoning your mother, but are helping her adjust her needs to your availability.
She manipulates you to get what she wants by making you feel guilty.
Reinvention: Believing they know what is best and right for their offspring justifies many mothers’ attempts to maneuver and control their adult offspring. Sometimes the best reaction is no reaction, but rather a simple acknowledgement that you hear what your mother is suggesting. Adult children with more ruthlessly controlling mothers may need to distance themselves by seeing their parents less often and by reducing the number of times they talk on the telephone. This leaves less opportunity for conflicts that bring out the different forms of maternal control. When you honor and enforce your own needs, a parent will be less able to dictate your course.
Untying the Apron Strings:
Whatever the former dynamics of your relationship, your mother is no longer tying your shoelaces or signing permission slips for you. You untied the apron strings long ago. Now you have the chance to turn your relationship into a flourishing one – neither stagnant nor bland and far less harmful or stressful than it has been. By stopping behaviors that interfere with how you relate, you are far more likely to move your mother from your harshest critic to your biggest fan. And given that people are living longer and in good health, you will have many years to savor the reward for the effort you make.
For more on resolving differences with parents, see Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father or if you are living with a parent again or an adult child has returned to live with you, check out Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily.
Social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D. blogs for Psychology Today Magazine about parenting and small families and is a member of The American Psychological Association. She has written 15 books including The Case for the Only Child, The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It–and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever, and Parenting an Only Child, The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only. Visit her website at www.susannewmanphd.com or follow her on Twitter.