Have you got a difficult mother?

In an ideal world, our mother is our best friend, confidant, ally and her love for us is unconditional. But what if our relationship with our mother is the opposite – confusing, hurtful, painful and, dare we say it, a little toxic? Thea Anderson has some advice


Have you got a difficult mother?

If you answer yes to three or more of the statements below, you may have a difficult mother. She may not behave in these ways all the time – these traits are often part of a spectrum and can be inconsistent. Difficult mothers can also be talented and have wonderful, giving, fun sides to them, too.

  • It seems like you are there as an extension of her and to reflect well on her. She enjoys the achievements of yours that she can brag about. She worries what people will think if you don’t live up to her expectations.
  • It appears that she’s not really interested in you at all, or she can be caring and interested when she wants something in return. Sometimes, if you try to talk about yourself, she turns the conversation back to her. You might find you give up trying.
  • She regularly ignores your boundaries. If you ask her not to call at a certain time, come over or talk about a particular subject, she’ll ignore your request, and she might also tell you you’re being over-sensitive. This feels like subtle or overt manipulation.
  • She regularly criticises or attacks your choices. It feels impossible to get things right.
  • Sometimes she is jealous of you, or competes with you. You’re surprised your mother would feel like this about her daughter.
  • You have to attend to her emotional or physical needs before your own or, if she does give to you, she then acts like a martyr. It’s not comfortable either way.
  • She lacks empathy and finds it hard to put herself in yours and others’ shoes. This can make you feel unloved and that your relationship lacks closeness.
  • She feels personally attacked by the world – a victim – and can’t understand why you or other people do things that she doesn’t like.
  • She’ll never change (or only very little). She has a need to be right and finds reasonable discussion difficult. If confronted on any issue about her behaviour, she becomes aggressive, defensive, blames you or walks away.

So what can you do? Family therapist Dr Karyl McBride, author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing The Daughters Of Narcissistic Mothers (Free Press, £10.99), offers her suggestions

1. Take your mother to therapy

When family therapist McBride asks her clients: ‘Would your mother attend therapy with you to address mother-daughter issues?’ most people instinctively know the answer will probably be no, based on prior experiences of attempting to discuss feelings. However, there are those mothers who are prepared, like you, to work on issues, so it is worth asking gently.

According to McBride, many difficult mothers are also on the narcissistic spectrum, and they typically project their feelings, finding it difficult to connect with their emotional inner life. They generally refuse therapy, are uncooperative, blame the daughter and might even walk out. You may instead need to create a civil connection (see below).

2. Create a ‘civil connection’

This is a good option for daughters who do not want to give up on their mother totally, but have accepted that she is incapable of true mothering, and keep being wounded by this. The idea is to have less contact with your mother, keeping it light and making no attempt to be emotionally close. You will have fewer expectations then, so you won’t be as disappointed when these aren’t met, and you won’t tend to share much personal information.

However, McBride also recommends having a temporary separation before taking this step.

3. Have a temporary separation

This means taking a break from seeing your mother to work on your own recovery without being constantly triggered by her behaviour. McBride suggests that you tell your mum you are taking time out for some personal issues and will contact her if there’s an emergency. She might not like it – she might even throw a fit – but as McBride says, she doesn’t have to. You’ll need to learn to set some gentle, but firm, boundaries if she persists.

4. Take a permanent break

Sadly, some mothers are too toxic for their daughters to be around. If, after your own recovery, work therapy and attempting all the options above, your emotional wellbeing is still being severely compromised, then this may be the only option that protects your mental stability. It can be a hard choice, because others may not understand.

Dr McBride’s website offers lots more information and online courses. See willieverbegoodenough.com

Photograph: Getty Images