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