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Controlling Mother: Understanding and Managing Her

Analysis is Key to Understanding

Good analysis of the situation 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 are more appropriate than annoyance.

Consider whether what you are calling “controlling” is something relatively new or if it has always been 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 suggest 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 a trained 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.

Look at your part. Be willing to look at whether you may be overreacting 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 she really is mentally ill or 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 bad-mouth 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.

Controlling Mother: Understanding and Managing Her

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Controlling Mother: Understanding and Managing Her. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.