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Difficult mothers

Date

Sandy Smith

Up to 30 per cent of parent/child relationships are difficult. While the impact can be devastating, understanding the dynamic can lead to liberation.

Dangerous liaisons ... many people have poor relationships with their parents.

Dangerous liaisons ... many people have poor relationships with their parents.

Does your mother pry into your personal affairs, give unwanted advice or still treat you like a little girl? For most women friction is part of a normal mother-daughter relationship, but what if dealing with a difficult mother brings more pain than comfort and pleasure?

UK psychologist Dr Terri Apter, senior tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge, knows first hand what it is like to have a fraught mother-daughter relationship. Even though her own mother died many years ago, she still chills to the memory of her mother’s angry breath and still feels her “critical, suspicious, probing presence is a constant companion”. In her new book,  Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power, Apter hopes to help others understand what sometimes goes wrong “in one of the most formative relationships of our lives" and why the effect can linger into adulthood. 

Difficult Mothers emerged from an article Apter wrote in Psychology Today. Thinking she was describing an uncommon experience, Apter was stunned to receive a flood of responses from adults relieved that it was not “just them” and that the fault was not “all theirs.” Apter says her studies have found that about 20 per cent of parent/child relationships are characterised by a difficult relationship.  According to data from larger studies focusing on attachment, the percentage of difficult relationships is higher — closer to 30 per cent, she says. The number of individuals who have these difficult experiences is high and “too often they are silenced by the cultural idealisation of mother love.” 

While skills such as tolerance, diplomacy and compassion can be learned from dealing with a difficult mother, for many the impact of a difficult relationship is devastating, she writes. “They persist in seeing themselves as the child who could not secure comfort with the most important person in their life. Love, attachment and closeness are packed with the dangers of constraint, humiliation and despair.”

Apter draws a distinction between what she calls “good-enough mothers” and “difficult mothers”. “A good-enough mother is sometimes angry, sometimes controlling, sometimes emotionally unavailable, but generally she fosters a relationship that offers more support and comfort than criticism and pain.” On the other hand, she says, “a difficult mother is someone who presents her child with the dilemma: Either develop complex and constricting coping mechanisms to maintain a relationship with me on my own terms, or suffer ridicule, disapproval or rejection.”

Writing the book has helped Apter to come to terms with her own experiences. “It has removed the guilt I felt for being unable to please her, and it has helped control that self-defeating critical inner voice that so many sons and daughters of a difficult mother carry with them.”

She advises that even if relationship troubles seem insurmountable, it is better to persevere through the upset than to sever ties.“For any child breaking off a relationship with a mother is painful, and it often means depriving oneself of larger family gathering, or suffering criticism from a father or sibling who is protective of the mother.  Breaking off is a last resort.  It is much better to learn how to interact with a difficult mother without being driven crazy.”

Here Apter offers strategies for dealing with some typical examples of difficult mother behaviour and says understanding a difficult relationship can be comforting and even liberating. 

The Angry Mother
When anger overshadows everything at home, children live in a constant state of high alert, waiting for emotional explosions. As well as being psychologically damaging, this type of long-term stress is also toxic to the young brain. Flooded with unremitting anxiety, a child’s brain has been shown to form fewer of the mental circuits needed to regulate emotional states. The awful irony is that children who most need to acquire the skill to soothe themselves and control their responses end up being the least well equipped to do so. If not addressed, these problems can continue into adulthood too. Many adults say they still panic in the face of their mother’s anger and grew up feeling they were constantly in the wrong. These people will often become appeasers — gearing themselves to please and placate others. This can be a valuable skill. You may be a diplomat, or the person everyone wants at a party because you’re so good at smoothing over awkward situations. However, don’t let your tendency to please others stunt your ability to make genuine friendships. It may be time to let people get to know the real you.

The Controlling Mother
Having been told repeatedly that mother knows best, children of controlling parents can become distrustful of their own wants, needs and opinions. Even simple independent decisions can fill them with anxiety. They also learn to lie — to say what the controlling mother wants to hear — in order to keep her happy. The upside of this incredibly difficult experience is that you are likely to have developed a thoughtful personality, having learned to weigh up your thoughts and opinions before you share them with others. However, even as an adult, living in your own home and miles away from your mother, you may still carry the scars of that relationship. Sharing your experiences and worries with other people will definitely help you identify how difficult the relationship was and how it has affected you. It will also help you hone your resistance to its effects. Going back to basics and identifying what you want and what you think in all areas of your life will help too. Take time to listen to yourself, catching sight of what appeals to you, noticing what attracts you and what feels easy and comfortable

The Narcissistic Mother
A narcissistic mother craves attention and adoration that comes from her own feelings of low self-worth. But no matter how hard you try to please her, you will live under a constant cloud of disdain, regardless of your efforts. Narcissists have fragile relationships with others, too — as their overblown ego means they often take offence at the smallest imagined slight and will suddenly cut people out of their lives or punish them in some way for ‘insulting’ them. Children in this situation often live with the fear that their relationship with their mother could break apart at any minute should they inadvertently offend her. But some good can come of growing up with a narcissist, too. You may have learned to be extremely diplomatic, patient and set high standards for yourself. On the downside, you probably downplay your achievements and may even scupper opportunities because you worry about not being perfect enough. To get over this, write a list of things that you enjoy and in which you take pride. It will help you to realise what you have to be proud of — and that another person’s success does not take away what you have.

Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power by Terri Apter is published by WW Norton & Company

92 comments

  • The same advice can be used for Fathers.

    Commenter
    Boo
    Location
    FakesVille
    Date and time
    June 15, 2012, 10:10AM
    • I wonder if you would be so quick to respond if the title was Difficult Fathers. how many ads would be banned if they made two ads one showing the woman as stupid, controlling whatever then another identical ad one showing the man as stupid controlling whatever. I see so many ads that portray Ooh stupid dad and super smart mum. but if the characters were reversed. If would be nice to see a balance. but we all know women as so much smarter and dads are... well, nice but hey they are dads after all (Dumb As Dog S***)

      Commenter
      PJ
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 16, 2012, 5:28PM
  • Hmmm then again there's women like my ex who's the trifecta angry, controlling & narcissistic all rolled into one...what a treat that was!

    Commenter
    Dave18
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    June 15, 2012, 10:16AM
    • @Dave18. Your ex sounds like my mother. What an awesome lady!

      Commenter
      Varun
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 15, 2012, 10:47AM
    • was waiting for the first comment by a man eager to tell us how bad his ex was...

      Commenter
      aaah
      Date and time
      June 15, 2012, 10:55AM
  • It's nice to have an acknowledgement that women are also fallible, just as much as men. One of the comments on here says "the same advice can be used for fathers". This is undoubtedly true, probably with variations on these to account for gender differences. The issue though is that a culture has developed where even to suggest that there is such a thing as bad mothers is more or less anathema, whereas there is no shortage of bad press about fathers. The family law courts would be well served by taking note of an article such as this when deciding about the relative merits of the child going with either the mother (most of the time) or the father.

    Commenter
    apublic2012
    Date and time
    June 15, 2012, 10:36AM
    • Providing an opinion on how 'good' a mother is or isnt is passing judgement on a whole family situation you know nothing about. Fathers tend to get criticized more, because there are some who take on less responsibility than Fatherhood requires and the percentage of them is higher than can be found in Mothers. Typically those that drink excessively, gamble, are abusive, or are regularly absent from home socialising etc... Mothers dealing with a family situation where the Father displays such traits can not be judged as bad mothers for having a reaction to it. Mothers are not superpeople with unlimited resolve. The quality of the support is a large factor in how 'good' a Mother is able to be.

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 15, 2012, 12:10PM
    • Yes, for once I agree with Rachael:

      Some small percentage of fathers are "bad" due to their own faults and vices. They should bear 100% of the blame for their failure to be better parents: having a nagging, tyrannical shrew for a wife is no excuse for being frequently absent from home! In addition, because of these few "bad apples", all fathers should be fair game for vitriolic attack on the blogwaves.

      But mothers who are also "bad" shouldn't be held responsible in the same way that fathers are: this would be an absurd misunderstanding of the concept of "gender equality" to mean "equal treatment of both genders".

      Instead, the blame for "bad mothers" should be put back on men, because we are responsible for all the world's ills.

      Commenter
      CaptainFlash
      Date and time
      June 15, 2012, 2:46PM
    • @Captain Flash The deputy vice principal of loving children, doesnt have the same responsibilities as the Superintendant. The more support the deputy can provide, the better the quality of performance from big boss. Your heckles may rise at this statement, but in my house all children verbally request their mother, and verbally reject their father when it comes to times of wanting snuggles and cuddles. My husband is an excellent father. This is just the way it is in the majority of households. Mothers are the ones under the most pressure from children whether they are full time at work or otherwise. You can not compare performances of Mothers and Fathers under the same set of performance indicators. And incidentally, nagging, tyrannical and shrill behaviour is learned. Developed as a result of the environment in which it is created. Unhealthy states of mind are never developed exclusive of the environment and influences provided them.

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 15, 2012, 6:46PM
    • From the gender politics perspective: Having grown up with feminism and as a result at times feeling bad for just being a man ("all men are bastards/stupid/after one thing/need a good woman" etc etc...) I find it a relief that media is gaining the confidence to tell it how it is, rather than applying censorship to anything that shows women in family life to be anything less than perfect, or else a victim.

      However I don't think it's anything new. The controlling mothers, adults still with "apron strings" uncut, warring/interferring mothers-in-law, emotional manipulation, malevolent romour-spreading - It's all well-worn terminology in the suburbs.

      Commenter
      Muz
      Location
      one for gender equity
      Date and time
      June 16, 2012, 11:27AM

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