Casey’s mother is coming to visit next weekend. She doesn’t feel she can say no. After all, her mom and dad often have been very helpful. They paid for the two kids’ camps last summer. They are generous at birthdays. But Casey isn’t happy about the coming visit. “I know my mom cares, but she’s so critical. She always has a comment about decisions I make, how I’m raising the kids, how I look, and whether my house is clean enough. I feel constantly put down. It’s to the point that I don’t look forward to their visits at all.”
Does this sound at all familiar? It’s a common kind of complaint. Adult children, especially adult children who are building a family of their own, often talk to me about their conflicts with their mothers and their mothers-in-law. They want to be treated with respect they feel they deserve. They want the older generation to keep their opinions to themselves. What can I suggest that will get the old folks off their backs while still keeping them in their lives?
As with struggles in any relationship, the solution doesn’t lie with making the other person be different. We can’t. Especially when we’re talking about someone who has had a long life being as they are. Confronting, complaining, or commenting is not likely to be effective. But there are things we can do ourselves that can remove the sting of negative comments.
- First look at yourself.Are you still too invested in your mother’s approval? As you have grown and changed, it’s likely that you’ve made some choices that are not what your mother would have done at your age or would do at all. It’s unfair to ask her to put a stamp of approval on things she just doesn’t agree with. It’s up to you, as an adult, to accept the difference of opinion without becoming defensive.
- Remember that your mother isn’t perfect and doesn’t have perfect advice.She’s made mistakes in her life. I guarantee it – only because she is human and humans do make mistakes. You are entitled to make mistakes, too. You are equal in this respect, not less. If she comments on a mistake you’ve made, it’s more than okay to own up to it and to turn the conversation to what you’ve learned from it. It’s okay to say “yes, Mom, I know and I’m handling it. Thanks for your concern.” Then change the subject.
- Treat your mom the way you’d treat an older (and maybe wiser) friend.Would you be as reactive if someone else said the same things? If not, the issue isn’t with what your mom is saying. It’s that she is the one saying it. Back to no. 1. What do you need to do to see your mother’s comments as simply conversation, input, or feedback, not as an indication that you are somehow lacking?
- Look at the problem from a different angle.Sherry’s mom starts cleaning as soon as she comes in her adult daughter’s door. Sherry, quite understandably, has always interpreted it as a sign that her mother doesn’t approve of how she keeps her house. Maybe. But maybe something else is going on: Maybe her mom is trying to be helpful. She knows how busy her daughter is. She can’t do much for her but she can clean the kitchen. Or – maybe her mom is nervous about talking to Sherry. Maybe being on the move with a sponge in her hand is a way to deal with her anxiety. Or – maybe she’s someone who is a bit ADHD and really can’t sit down and relax. Sherry will feel better about her mom’s cleaning if she understands that it isn’t necessarily a comment on her housekeeping but rather is a way that her mom is managing her own issues.
- Learn how to respond to information without feeling you’ve agreed to something you don’t really agree with. You can thank your mother for her advice. You can tell her you will think carefully about all she’s said. You can tell her how much you appreciate her concern. You can let her know that you understand that she is being helpful. All true. And maybe when you’ve had time to think about it when you are more relaxed, you will even find some of her advice is useful.
- Remind yourself of your mom’s good qualities.When you are feeling frustrated and resentful, take time out, breathe, and remind yourself of all the ways your mom really is a positive person in your life. She loves you enough to care; to visit; to try to be helpful. She probably has talents and interests you find interesting. Change the subject to something you both would enjoy talking about.
Of course, all this is with the understanding that some mothers really are toxic, unhappy, and relentlessly critical people. In that case, you have to make a decision about how much contact is healthy for you and your family.
But most moms are well intended, if maybe a little clumsy in how they interact with you or a little insensitive about your sensitivities. If that’s the case, then the solution is not to make her be different but to change your reactions to those critical moments so you can enjoy each other the rest of the time you are together.
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