How to manage a toxic mother

You love her - but are you always on high alert around your mum?


How to manage a toxic mother

She says she loves you. You know she needs you.

Yet you are on high alert in her company, waiting for the next outburst or put-down. The time you spend with her leaves you feeling apologetic, unworthy, unlovable or timid – and these beliefs pervade every area of your life. The effects of a difficult mother are profound.

Fortunately, there are ways to manage your adult relationship with your mother that can help minimise her negative influence, says psychologist Marisa Peer:

• The first step is acceptance. You cannot change who your mother is. You cannot fundamentally change the relationship: it is as long as your life. The toxic mother is either in denial or so skilled at deflecting your needs or justifying your relationship that you are unlikely ever to talk her round.

• Focus on what you can control, which is your reaction to her. Instead of hurling accusations, frame your complaints as your own feelings: ‘I don’t like it when you do that. You’re making me feel uncomfortable.’ She may still dismiss your feelings, but you have sent out the signal that you don’t accept how she makes you feel.

• If your health is actually suffering, I’d advise ending face-to-face contact. Clients are often horrified when I suggest this, but frequently report feelings of peace and liberty. Despite what is culturally entrenched, you do not have to see your mother.

• If cutting off contact is not an option, try to control the circumstances in which you do see her. It’s common to spend entire weekends with our mothers. Why, if you know it will end in an eruption? Lunch in public robs her of the control of her own territory, and also makes it easier to leave. In public with others she’s less likely to be evil. Even asserting control over the venue will make you feel better.

• Use her own techniques and refuse to take on board her moods by asserting your own, positive, resolute point in response to any goading. ‘This dress makes me feel good. I like it and I’m going to wear it,’ or ‘I will do it this way, it works for me’.

• Sometimes, threatening to leave is the only way to make your point. ‘It’s not working out today. I’m going to leave a little earlier, or ‘I don’t want any negativity. I’ll see you when you’re in a better mood.’

• Finally, seek out other sources of support. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe says there is plenty of evidence that the influence and ‘programming’ of a mother can be overridden by other significant figures like relatives, in particular aunts, or even a teacher. These can both bolster your confidence and diminish your reliance on your mother.