Like it or not, our relationship with our mother will have a lifelong influence on our personality, behaviour and self-esteem. If we’re lucky, and how many of us are, that legacy will be an overwhelmingly positive one.
But what happens when you are raised by a ‘difficult’ mother? It’s the subject tackled by a new book written by psychologist Dr Terri Apter.
In Difficult Mothers, Dr Apter examines the different types of problem mother — controlling, angry, hyper-critical, emotionally unavailable — and explains what can be done to turn her negative influence into a positive one.
Once you identify which category your “difficult” mother falls into, and take time to discover what is really going on in your relationship with her, you can learn not only to survive it, but how to manage it, and, in some cases, even turn it to your advantage.
Here, in an adaptation of her book, Dr Apter identifies five types of difficult mothers and reveals how each can leave their children with different, but positive, strengths.
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.
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.
This type of mother will try to take charge of every aspect of their child’s life — to the extent that she even tells the child what to see, feel and want.
In a healthy relationship, control is used to shape general values and set down specific rules; but it is always informed by listening, and it respects a growing child’s ability to take sensible decisions of its own.
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.
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 definition of a ‘narcissist’ is a person who is totally self-involved.
A mother with narcissistic tendencies will be largely unable to show the empathy that is so important to a healthy parent-child relationship, because she sees every request for attention by her child as competition.
Tell her you’re tired, for example, and she’ll snap back: ‘Don’t talk to me about feeling tired. I’ve been hard at work all day. You don’t know what being really tired is.’
It’s a bewildering and volatile situation, as any child of a narcissistic mother will be under constant pressure to be both subservient to his or her mother’s ego, yet expected to shine.
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.
Normally, parents long to see a child happy. But for the envious mother, a child’s success arouses hostility.
Glowing with good news, a son or daughter expects a parent’s face to reflect admiration; instead, the envious mother’s jaw freezes, the corners of her mouth pull down in contempt.
Parental envy is particularly common when a child hits adolescence and starts to make their own way in the world. Instead of seeing a child’s success as a source of pride, and taking delight in a son or daughter flourishing, an envious mother feels something is being taken away from her.
She believes that she can have a comfortable and secure bond with her child only if her child’s self-worth is as low as hers.
But the psychological effects of coping with an envious mother are not all bad — you may have learned how to stave off the envy of others with charisma, or to look past negative comments. You may even be a high achiever, driven by your mother’s dissatisfaction.
First, remember your mother’s start and finish point is dissatisfaction — nothing will ever change that. Second, there is considerable scientific evidence to show that pursuing the approval of others leads to greater unhappiness than pursuing what you yourself value.
EMOTIONALLY UNAVAILABLE MOTHER
Often the result of depression or perhaps a drug or alcohol dependency, a mother’s emotional unavailability can be incredibly difficult for a child to deal with and lead to all kinds of upset and confusion.
A mother’s prolonged emotional absence has even been shown to affect the physical and chemical make-up of a child’s brain.
While living with ‘difficult’ people can help us to become better at dealing with others, it’s all too easy to allow an emotionally unavailable mother to take over huge amounts of your time and energy
Positive emotional exchanges have been shown to stimulate the growth of the cortisol receptors in the brain that absorb and buffer stress hormones. It builds the brain strength we need to bounce back from disappointment and failure.
Children with depressed, emotionally unavailable mothers can grow up seeing their role as a comforter and protector. They may feel guilty for feeling happy and often take on large amounts of responsibility to make up for her ‘absence’.
As a grown-up, ordinary emotions such as joy and sadness may strike you as extreme, self-indulgent and even dangerous. You may also have deep-seated beliefs about the role you should play in close relationships, believing that other people’s needs are more important than your own, that you always have to be mature and ‘grown up’, and that you cannot trust people to be there for you.
While living with ‘difficult’ people can help us to become better at dealing with others, it’s all too easy to allow an emotionally unavailable mother to take over huge amounts of your time and energy.
If you accept that you are an adult now, and start to question some of the ways you behave (perhaps you frequently discount the importance of your own feelings, feel guilty when others are unhappy and hold yourself back from growing and gaining confidence), you will realise that a big step in creating a new story for yourself is to confront and understand the old one and make room for new experiences.
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