You are 35 years old and your mom is still trying to run your life. She doesn’t approve of your boyfriend. She thinks your best friend is taking advantage of you. She comments on your weight. She “suggests” that you rearrange your living room and “insists” that she doesn’t want to be a bother — but — why haven’t you called her in the last 48 hours? She feigns illness, goes helpless around household chores you know she can do, and implies you aren’t a good daughter if you have other plans for your weekend besides going shopping at the mall with her.

You know she is able to take care of herself. You know that she isn’t sick. At 60, she manages a demanding full-time job. She is still strong enough to keep her woodstove going in winter and to give the entire house a good cleaning in the spring. So why does every conversation with her leave you feeling guilty or angry?

It would be too easy to call her “controlling” as if that’s an explanation. It’s not. It’s a label that may reflect your angry feelings but may not at all describe what is going on. Before searching the Internet for ways to put her in her place, there’s more to consider than an amateur diagnosis that results in setting rigid boundaries and distancing her from your life.

Possible Explanations for What Looks Like Controlling Behavior

Maybe she is lonesome and can’t admit it to herself. If she is widowed or if your dad is distant and uncommunicative, she may be longing for your company. However close her friends may be, they may not know her as intimately as members of her own family do. If she acknowledges her longing for closeness, it would make her feel too angry at your dad to live with him peacefully or too sad about where her life is ending up. As a member of the family, she feels more able to impose on you than on other people she knows.

She may be grieving. If your father died within the last 5 years, she may be having difficulty with the loss. Yes, some people move on within a year or so. But some people grieve for three to five years following the death of someone significant in their lives. Some people never seem to get through it and need professional help. Being with you may distract her from her grief.

People don’t have to die in order for someone to be grieving.

People don’t necessarily have to die for her to be grieving. If your mom is taking care of her 80-something-year-old parent who is failing or if your dad is sick or if a disabled sibling is suffering early dementia, for example, your mom may be having difficulty managing the new reality. If she is losing her closest friend to cancer or is trying to cook and clean for people she cares about who are ill on top of managing her job and home, she may be overwhelmed by both what’s called “anticipatory grief” and by the added chores. Feeling so out of control of these events, she may be exerting some control where she can — on you.

Perhaps she has an anxiety disorder. People with social phobia are fearful of judgment by others or that they will embarrass themselves in some way if they are among people who don’t know them well. As long as she has a child or two with her (even an adult child), a socially phobic mom can keep the focus off her and on you. If she is agoraphobic as well, not having a companion when she goes places puts her in a panic. Unable to make friends, she leans on you for conversation and company.

Maybe she really is sick but either doesn’t want to face it herself or doesn’t want to burden you. You don’t see her every minute of every day. It may be that it takes her hours to do things that used to take her minutes. You see the woodstove burning or the clean house. You know she gets to work every day. You don’t see what it costs her to do it.

Possibly she is pointing out things that you don’t want to admit might be true. Having been the guardian of your emotional and physical health for a couple of decades, she may not be able to give it up just because you are a grownup. (Even grownups can be unwise.) Maybe the boyfriend really is a loser. Maybe your best friend isn’t looking out for your best interests. Maybe you aren’t seeing in the mirror what she sees when you walk in the door. Perhaps she could be more tactful but just maybe you keep wearing those old jeans because they have stretched out enough that you don’t have to face that you have put on two sizes this year. Proud of how skinny you are? Maybe she is right that you have gotten carried away with your exercise routine. If you’re trying to avoid an issue, it’s not fair to be mad at her for caring enough about you to point it out.

Or maybe she really is the problem. Of course, there is the possibility that she has an untreated personality disorder, that she’s a mean alcoholic, that she is one of those sad people who only feels significant if she’s making other people jump, or that she simply has never been a nice person (so why would she be one now). Maybe she plays favorites, makes threats, and tries to buy alliances in the family in a desperate need to count. In such cases, “controlling” may be an appropriate word.

Analysis of a Situation Is Important

Good analysis is key to knowing how to handle the situation. One size doesn’t fit all. Stop labeling. Start analyzing. Take a huge step back and think about what your mother may be dealing with. There may be more hints than you’ve allowed yourself to see. Reflect on what goes on in her typical day. Are there some legitimate needs being masked by what looks like demanding behavior? If so, compassion and action is more appropriate than annoyance.

Consider whether what you are calling “controlling” is something relatively new or if it has always been a part of your relationship. New behaviors speak to a change in someone’s health or circumstances. Think about what may have changed in her life or yours that could account for the shift. Sometimes dealing directly with such changes settles a person down. Old behaviors, on the other hand, speak to an enduring personality type or dynamics in a relationship that have become habit. In that case, it’s more likely you can only work on acceptance, change how you react, and maybe offer going to therapy together to improve your relationship (if she’s willing).

What to Do About Your Controlling Mother

Give up the “guilt.” No one can “make” you feel guilty. It’s easier to accuse another of making us feel or do something than to take responsibility for our own feelings and actions. What you are calling guilt may be the tug of war between your love for your mom and your desire to be less the focus of her dependency, whatever the reason. It may also be your way of avoiding taking action. Feeling guilty is the least you can do if you aren’t prepared to help solve the problem.

Give up the anger. It isn’t doing anything to change the situation. It only makes you feel bad. It may be your way of distancing from any responsibility. If you see your mom as being entirely at fault for what goes on between you, it lets you off the hook for doing anything differently.

Take action. Instead of going away guilty or mad, have a clear discussion with your mom. Let her know that you love her and ask her what she needs. If she is unable to be frank, make some guesses, as kindly as you know how.

  • If she needs a social outlet, talk about what resources are available in your community.
  • If she hates that she is aging and less able to manage a big house or chores she is accustomed to doing, be sympathetic and figure out how to handle this new reality together. Think about whether the two of you can afford to hire someone a few hours a week. Money short? Consider organizing a family cleanup crew one morning a month or so. An established routine will reassure her that she’ll get help and will prevent you from feeling constantly tugged at.
  • If she needs help with another family member, see if you can find a way to spell her now and then so she has some time off. Caregivers need respite and care.
  • If she has been grieving for way too long or if she is losing people she cares about to terminal illness, suggest that she see either her spiritual leader or a therapist to help her come to grips with her losses. If you find her a real therapist to help her, you can go back to being her supportive adult child instead of trying to fill an inappropriate role.
  • If she is the one who is ill, let her know that it is easier for you to handle knowing about it than to be always be guessing. Understand that feeling sick or being in chronic pain makes people irritable.
  • If you believe your mom has an anxiety disorder or agoraphobia, deal with it directly. Sympathize instead of criticize. Talk to her about the possibility of some medication and therapy to help her with this long-standing problem.

Do you always need to be right to feel you aren’t wrong?

Look at your part. Be willing to look at whether you may be overreactive to anything that looks like control. Is your self-esteem shaky? Do you need always to be right to feel that you aren’t wrong? Maybe your mom is just expressing an opinion and you are taking it in as a harsh judgment. Probably it’s a little bit of each. You can ask her to change how she phrases her suggestions, but at 60 she’s not likely to change much. What you can do is change how you respond. If you in all honesty think you’re right about something, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks. Simply thank her for her input, tell her you’ll think about it, and move on.

If Your Mom Has a Mental Illness or Is Just Plain Mean

Quit trying to change her. She got to be who she is for reasons that are now too long ago or too complicated to untangle without her cooperation. If she isn’t motivated to get some therapy to figure it out or to improve her relationship with her family, you can’t expect it.

Be clear in your own mind what you will and won’t do. A morning at the mall each month might fit into your life but an every Saturday shopping day may be unreasonable. Make sure that you honor your own needs as well as hers.

Draw some boundaries around what you will and won’t discuss with her. There’s no need to be angry if you’re clear. Simply tell her that the topic is off-limits and change the subject. Refuse to argue when she lies, criticizes or blames. Calmly state your point of view and move on. If she still wants to fight with you, leave. By being matter-of-fact instead of angry, you avoid feeding the argument.

Look for cooperation from the rest of the family. Does your mom play favorites? Does who she considers to be on her “good list” change week to week? Whoever is on top knows they may well end up on the bottom of the heap in her favors with one false move. Get your siblings together and agree that you won’t participate in the game anymore. If she says something negative about one of you to the others, each of you needs to agree that you’ll tell her you aren’t going to badmouth each other and change the subject.

Build your own support system. Not everyone gets the mother they deserve. Good friends, a romantic partner, meaningful work, and a spiritual life can give you what you need. Focus on developing these resources in your life and you’ll be less dependent on getting emotionally fed from a mother who doesn’t have it in her to give.