Abusive Mother

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

My dad was very physically abusive towards both my mother and me while I was growing up. He hit me, threw me against a wall, etc. I don’t think he ever was towards my two younger sisters. My mother was very emotionally abusive towards me during this time, again I don’t think she was towards my sisters. I married and left 15 years ago. I always thought that our not getting along was my fault, I was a bad daughter, etc. About 6 years ago my youngest sister (about 23 then), who was still living with my parents, had an episode where she ran away from home and ended up in a psych ward overnight. The doctor who saw her said she might be schizophrenic but she hasn’t had any more episodes and my mother said the doctor she saw afterwards said it was a misdiagnosis and she’s fine now. However her personality changed and is now very insecure (she used to be a social butterfly), still lives with my parents and won’t do anything that might upset them. About two years ago my husband and I decided to move closer to my parents and go into business with them. I still thought that we would be able to patch things up since I was now a grownup and could “behave” better.

After the first couple of months though, my mother once more became very emotionally abusive towards me and I decided then that it probably wasn’t my fault all those years ago and that I didn’t want to put up with her mistreatment anymore. Specially since I felt myself becoming just as abusive towards my children every time her and I had a fight. I tried to keep a familial relationship with her even though we weren’t working together anymore but she just kept picking on me and insulting me even when my kids were present so I opted for not visiting her and not having her over at all. This resulted in my being very calm and serene and I know I am better able to parent my children now. My husband however kept working with them because all our money is invested in that business, which she controls in its entirety. We were naive back when we started and never imagined it would come to this. Things went along fine, she would complain and cry to my husband about how I was mistreating her by refusing to see her, laying on the guilt. At first my husband and I had big problems over this because he felt that family is important and she is my mother after all, I shouldn’t treat her this way, etc. I was finally able to convince him that right now, our family: him, me and our two kids; is more important and that I needed this space to be able to function properly. He didn’t understand it, he didn’t agree with it but he was able to respect it and give me the support I needed by telling her that when he’s over at the office it’s a work relationship and to please not discuss me with him. Part of the reason he didn’t understand it is that he never got to see that other side of my mother, he only saw the nice side, the side where she’s all smiles and she wants only the best for me.

From what my husband told me over the months I could notice my mother was getting more and more frustrated by her inability to control me. Four days ago she exploded. They were at the office and she started on about how I was depriving the kids from seeing their grandmother, etc. Before I go further I want to clarify that I never did that. I told my children that they are free to call their grandma on the phone and go over to her house whenever they felt like it and if she had ever called and asked for them I would have put them on, she never did. During this time while I haven’t spoken to her, my children have gone over to her house, driven by dad, they have spent the night over there on several occassions, etc. Most of those times initiated by my children themselves. Actually 5 days ago, my dad came by my house and asked if he could take them to breakfast which he did. She could have gone with them, I don’t know why she didn’t, I don’t know where she was and I didn’t ask. The thruth is that she could have seen them a lot more if she had only wanted to. I think her complaint was only to lay the guilt on my husband and get him to intercede for her with me. My husband refused to do that and she went berserk. She attacked him physically, she insulted him, called him names, scratched him and hit him. The left side of his chest and arm are covered in bruises and scratches. She tore into shreds the shirt he was wearing. My husband came home feeling scared and very very sad because of this incident. While I am very sad that this happened to him I also feel a bit relieved because I have been saying for years that my mother wasn’t a good person to me and not having anyone believe me to the point where I even started thinking I might have imagined it all. Now he knows, which means I wasn’t crazy. But this puts us in a very awful position because our livelihood lays with her. I still don’t know what to do about that. But my question to you has to do with my sister. As I said, she is still living with them (she’s 29) and is now very emotionally dependent on my mother. Over the years I have seen her thoughts get in synch with my mother’s to the point where I don’t think she can have an opinion by herself. My mother is a very manipulative and controlling person and for some reason my sister has been very impresionable. I worry about her now being there stuck in my mother’s web but I can’t just go in and save her, she probably wouldn’t even let me but side with my mother instead. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and I think that my mother might have borderline personality disorder and that her being so overbearing was what drove my sister to that lone “crazy” incident. I should say that over the years my mother has been controlling the doctors my sister goes to and the medicine they prescribe to the point where she puts it in my sister’s mouth herself. You might think my sister can’t take care of herself from what I’m saying but that’s just not so. She drives, she works, she goes to the movies, the only thing is that whenever she says anything she either checks with my mother to make sure she aproves or says something exactly like my mother would have said it. My middle sister also left home as soon as she could and now works and lives halfway around the country. She comes to visit twice a year and everything’s very amicable for those weeks. Needless to say, my sisters and I don’t have much of a relationship. We’re civil, we’re cordial, we’re just not friends, we don’t call each other to talk or any of those things that sisters seem to do. When we were kids my mother would pit us against each other, say things to compare us, etc. Even the last fight I ever had with my middle sister I remember my mother standing there watching us with a half smile on her face. I think that she enjoys the discord. My husband talked to my father and told him about my mother’s attack, my dad only said that that’s the way my mother is and we should try harder not to upset her so there’s no help there. Weird as it might seem though I wish there could be a way for us all to be a family. Is there anything that I can do? I know I can’t force my mother into therapy, I can’t swoop in and take my sister away, I can’t even protect my husband from my mother’s attacks. What can I do?

A. There may be no “easy” way to deal with your family situation. Your sister seems loyal to your mother. Even if being loyal to your mother means that her quality of life is severely compromised there may be nothing that you can do to change this. As you said your sister does everything your mother says. She’s under your mother’s control. Your sister cannot make a decision without consulting her. You cannot speak to your sister without your mother being present. Maybe your sister will eventually come to realize the damage your mother may be causing her but she may have to come to this understanding on her own. This process may take days, months or years. Be prepared for the possibility that your sister never comes to this realization. You can be there for your sister in case she ever needs support or advice but for now you might have to accept the relationship between your mother and your sister as it stands.

I know that you wish your family’s situation would improve. It’s unclear whether or not they can change. Your mother seems to have many mental health issues. This may make it impossible for the family to be fully functional and cohesive. Your father excuses her behavior probably because it’s easier for him to believe that “is the way she is.” There may be many other family dynamics at play as well that were not described in your letter.

Another major concern is that you and your husband own a business with your mother. As you said, your “livelihood” is dependent on her. This is an untenable position to be in. In the near future it would be wise to explore how you can cut ties with your mother and this business. I do not mean that you should sell your business but you need to find a way to regain control over your financial life. You do not want to be inextricably reliant on your unstable mother for your income. You need to protect yourself, your husband and your two children from your mother’s instability. I would suggest contacting a lawyer regarding this business matter.

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph you may not be able to change your family situation. Your sister may always be reliant on your mother. Your father might always make excuses for your mother. Your mother may never change her behavior towards you or other family members. Unfortunately you may never have the type of family you desire. You have to deal with the “hand you’re dealt.” In order words, you have to deal with the reality of your family situation.

You may not be able to change your family but you can learn new ways to deal with them. It’s important to learn how to protect yourself, especially from your mother. For instance you cannot change your mother but you can change the way you react to her. It’s important for you to learn not to give into her, how to handle her when she makes unreasonable demands, how to place boundaries on what you will and will not do for her, what you will tolerate from her, and so forth. If you need coaching on how to deal with your mother then I would suggest therapy. A good therapist can advise you about more constructive ways to handle her and the rest of your family. Your husband might benefit from counseling as well.

It’s not going to be easy to change how you deal with your family but you can if you try. I should also warn you that if you change the way you react to your mother she’s probably not going to like it. It seems like she has always had control over much of what you do and how you think. If you begin to change the way the two of you interact she might feel like it’s a threat to her control over you. It’s a complicated situation and that’s why you should consider seeing a therapist about this matter. It’s time that you take control of your own life. Therapy can help with this.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Mar 2009

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2009). Abusive Mother. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 18, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2009/03/09/abusive-mother/