How To Cope With A Difficult Mother

help with mother daughter relationship in BrightonI often work with people who come for help dealing with a ‘difficult’ mother. Many find themselves stuck in an unsatisfactory relationship with their mother and although they might feel a close connection to her – often involving strong feelings – it is not the kind of close connection that they would like.

As adults, most of us manage to negotiate a relationship with our mothers which is good enough. Over time, the dynamic between us will ebb and flow and there might be pinch points, dramas and a reshuffling of responsibilities and personal boundaries – but usually a new equilibrium is found that is acceptable to both. Some of us, however, can remain stuck in an unhelpful dynamic with our mothers; a position that can leave us feeling powerless, angry and miserable. If this is you, talking about your feelings with a trusted therapist can help.
Friends and family might not get how difficult the relationship between you and your mother has become – or has always been. To others who have not experienced the same struggle to gain a healthy emotional separation from their own mothers (including, possibly, your siblings), your mother might come across as sweet and innocent whilst your anger and frustration is met with incomprehension or blame. This is not to say that as adult sons and daughters we do not play our part and must be prepared to take responsibility for our own actions. Within any relationship between two or more adults there are responsibilities on all sides and problems between mothers and their adult children often involve both a reluctance to let go of perceived authority or ‘power-over’ – by the mother, and a reluctance to assert themselves through appropriate confrontation – by the adult child. Fear of losing the relationship altogether (or some other calamity that you can’t quite put your finger on) may leave you both entrenched in these positions.
Sometimes, those of us who have difficult relationships with our mothers manage the problem through physical distance. We might move far away or keep ourselves ‘too busy’ to have much contact. This might work to a degree, and our anxiety is lowered, however it does not resolve the situation; the balance of power remains the same. Changing our own behaviour when we are actually with our ‘difficult’ mothers, however, underlines a sense of personal agency and can lead to a shift in equilibrium to a more equal relationship.
As a psychotherapist I might invite you to explore how you set personal boundaries with your mother. Together we might consider what is your responsibility within the relationship and, perhaps crucially, what is not. For example, if you find her behaviour intrusive, you might want to think about how to re-negotiate how often and when the two of you will talk on the phone or meet up. It may be that she is asking you to take more responsibility for her loneliness than could be reasonably expected.
Asserting yourself in a firm and friendly way whilst taking into account both your own and your mother’s emotional needs involves courage and persistence, but the rewards to your own self-esteem and general resilience can be very great. Also, people often report how other relationships in their lives improve when they are able to stand on a more equal footing with their mothers.
Please note that mental health problems can both complicate and exacerbate relationship difficulties and their resolution.
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If you live or work within reach of Brighton and Hove and my approach to counselling and psychotherapy interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation.
Copyright: Caroline Clarke, Brighton Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Postscript 1: Check out the interview on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour (The Daughterhood, 11th March 2015) with Natasha Fennell and Roisin Ingle authors of a newly-released book about mother / daughter relationships.
Postscript 2: If you live outside of Brighton and the surrounding area, see my page on Mother & Daughter Relationships for information regarding finding a therapist to help with difficulties between mothers & daughters.
Postcript 3: Elizabeth Strout’s portrait of a woman in her Pulitzer prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge (also available on DVD) explores – amongst other themes – the nature of the difficult relationship between the protagonist and her son from his childhood to her old age.
Image courtesy of dan at