• Mia Brabham

It's Complicated: Navigating a Difficult Relationship with Mom


Photo Credit: Sabrina FV Holder

Not everyone has the best relationship with their mom. If this is true for you, feeling a little anxiety as Mother’s Day approaches is totally understandable. Contrary to childhood, as an adult you get to play a role in constructing the perimeters of your relationship – even if it feels like you can't, which is something Sharon Martin (a Licensed Clinical Social Worker) said she sees in her practice often.


“As a therapist who helps adults cope with their toxic parents, one of the biggest barriers I see is that adult children feel like they can’t make their own decisions," she said. "They think they have to keep doing things as they've always done them.”


These five tips can help you navigate the dysfunction within your relationship with your mom.


Don’t just set your boundaries, enforce them

If you find yourself never feeling good enough, constantly experiencing guilt over saying no or questioning your own decisions, you may need to set boundaries with your mom.


Boundaries are designed to accomplish two goals. First, they set clear expectations for how others are allowed to treat you and they allow for emotional (and sometimes physical) space between you and the person with who you're experiencing a toxic situation.


Don't be surprised if your mom tests or completely ignores the boundaries you set. Continue to repeat your boundaries and draw a hard line by sticking to them.


According to Martin, setting boundaries can be difficult because we may not have had the option to set them as children. It’s difficult, but don't let that deter you. Boundaries are essential to all healthy relationships. It's important to do what works for you.


Choose to disengage

“You don’t have to attend every argument you're invited to," Martin said. "Choose to disengage instead.”


This is your permission to stop trying to reason with the unreasonable. Accepting the reality of your relationship can be sad and frustrating. While it's okay to be assertive about issues that matter to you, don't expect your mom to care about or understand your point of view. Try not to get dragged into arguments or power struggles that spiral into nasty bouts of name-calling and other disrespectful behaviors.


Create an exit strategy

Coming up with an exit strategy and before you even enter a space with your parent can be beneficial for preventing meltdowns or explosions in the event that a heated situation should arise. How this looks is up to you and there's no wrong way to go about removing yourself from such a situation — even if it is your mother.


When things begin going downhill, the best thing you can do for yourself is to leave (or ask your mom to leave) before it escalates. Set a time limit for how long your visit will be. If you need to leave before time is up, do so.


"You aren’t obligated to stick around just to be polite or to make your parents happy," Martin said.


Do not try to spark change on your own

If you're a compassionate or empathetic person, your inclination may be to get your mom to see where you’re coming from. Unless you're both in the presence of a licensed counselor, conversations about the situation will almost always leave you feeling frustrated or defeated. The fact of the matter is that you cannot change people who don’t want to be changed. You can’t change her behavior, but you can focus on yourself.


Lean on your support system

While you may not have a confidant in your mother, the good news is that a therapist, friends, or other family members can support you in your journey towards healing. If you have a friend who can relate to your situation, consider designating a code word for triggering moments or when you're just having a tough time. Look to professionals and the positive people in your life for support.


Change the cycle

It can be heartbreaking to think you may never have the relationship with your mom that you want especially considering she is quite literally the first example of what it looks like to have relationships with other women. The dysfunctional cycle doesn’t have to continue into your relationships with your female friends, daughters, or mentors.


When you alter the ways you relate to your mom, you break a toxic pattern that has or may show up in other relationships in your life. It is natural for your mom to push back on these changes. It is also natural to want better for your spirit and mind, and even your children or future children. That’s power.


None of this is easy. You may stumble and it may take a few tries to successfully carry out your plan. Even if the relationship doesn't change, by adhering to these practices you'll at the very least have peace of mind.

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