How to repair the toxic legacy of a bad mother
A book by a leading psychologist reveals how victims of mothers who were domineering, angry or just plain cold can turn the pain they suffered to their advantage
21:36 GMT, 6 June 2012
Like it or not, our relationship with our mother will have a lifelong influence on our personality, behaviour and self-esteem. If we’re lucky, that legacy will be an overwhelmingly positive one.
But what happens when you are raised by a ‘difficult’ mother It’s the subject tackled by a new book written by psychologist Dr Terri Apter.
In Difficult Mothers, the Cambridge academic examines the different types of problem mother — controlling, angry, hyper-critical, emotionally unavailable — and explains what can be done to turn her negative influence into a positive one.
Long-term legacy: How our mother treats us growing up impacts on our self-esteem (posed by models)
‘For most parents and their children, whatever the glitches, scuffles and conflicts, the relationship is largely comforting and supportive,’ she says. ‘But for some, there’s more pain in the mother-child relationship than comfort and pleasure.
‘My own mother’s violent and unpredictable outbursts can still affect me today.
‘When I wrote a magazine article on the emotional and behavioural fallout of being raised by a “difficult” mother last year, I was amazed by the number of letters and emails I received from both men and women who wanted to share their experiences.
‘When I researched the phenomenon further, I found that difficult mothers seemed to fall into distinct patterns of behaviour, each resulting in its own painful, sometimes lifelong legacy, for the child.
‘But there were positive sides to these traumatic experiences, too. Once you identify which category your “difficult” mother falls into, and take time to discover what is really going on in your relationship with her, you can learn not only to survive it, but how to manage it, and, in some cases, even turn it to your advantage.’
Here, in an adaptation of her book, Dr Apter identifies five types of difficult mothers and reveals how each can leave their children with different, but positive, strengths.
As a psychologist, and mother, I am aware that all parents get angry — usually when we’re tired or stressed, or when we need to warn children of danger or teach them an important life lesson.
Anger management needed: Constant rage can lead to long-term stress
Although no child likes it when a parent is angry, a single outburst does not produce a difficult relationship. It is only when a parent repeatedly uses anger to close conversations and control family members that it becomes a problem.
When anger overshadows everything at home, children live in a constant state of high alert, waiting for emotional explosions. As well as being psychologically damaging, this type of long-term stress is also toxic to the young brain.
Flooded with unremitting anxiety, a child’s brain has been shown to form fewer of the mental circuits needed to regulate emotional states. The awful irony is that children who most need to acquire the skill to soothe themselves and control their responses end up being the least well equipped to do so. If not addressed, these problems can continue into adulthood too.
Many adults say they still panic in the face of their mother’s anger and grew up feeling they were constantly in the wrong. These people will often become appeasers — gearing themselves to please and placate others.
This can be a valuable skill. You may be a diplomat, or the person everyone wants at a party because you’re so good at smoothing over awkward situations.
However, don’t let your tendency to please others stunt your ability to make genuine friendships. It may be time to let people get to know the real you.
THIS type of mother will try to take charge of every aspect of their child’s life — to the extent that she even tells the child what to see, feel and want.
In a healthy relationship, control is used to shape general values and set down specific rules; but it is always informed by listening, and it respects a growing child’s ability to take sensible decisions of its own.
Mum knows best: Children of controlling parents can become distrustful of their own wants (posed by models)
Instead, day-by-day, a controlling mother implies: ‘I know who you are, and you don’t’, or ‘I need you to be this, and that is more important than what you want.’ She sees herself as custodian and controller of her child’s mind.
Having been told repeatedly that mother knows best, children of controlling parents can become distrustful of their own wants, needs and opinions. Even simple independent decisions can fill them with anxiety. They also learn to lie — to say what the controlling mother wants to hear — in order to keep her happy.
The upside of this incredibly difficult experience is that you are likely to have developed a thoughtful personality, having learned to weigh up your thoughts and opinions before you share them with others.
However, even as an adult, living in your own home and miles away from your mother, you may still carry the scars of that relationship. Sharing your experiences and worries with other people will definitely help you identify how difficult the relationship was and how it has affected you. It will also help you hone your resistance to its effects.
Going back to basics and identifying what you want and what you think in all areas of your life will help too. Take time to listen to yourself, catching sight of what appeals to you, noticing what attracts you and what feels easy and comfortable.
The definition of a ‘narcissist’ is a person who is totally self-involved.
A mother with narcissistic tendencies will be largely unable to show the empathy that is so important to a healthy parent-child relationship, because she sees every request for attention by her child as competition.
Ego: A narcissistic mother craves attention and adoration
Tell her you’re tired, for example, and she’ll snap back: ‘Don’t talk to me about feeling tired. I’ve been hard at work all day. You don’t know what being really tired is.’
In her egotistical way, she also sees her offspring as a reflection of her; so her children must be outstanding in every aspect of their being to be ‘worthy’ of her.
It’s a bewildering and volatile situation, as any child of a narcissistic mother will be under constant pressure to be both subservient to his or her mother’s ego, yet expected to shine.
A narcissistic mother craves attention and adoration that comes from her own feelings of low self-worth. But no matter how hard you try to please her, you will live under a constant cloud of disdain, regardless of your efforts. Narcissists have fragile relationships with others, too — as their overblown ego means they often take offence at the smallest imagined slight and will suddenly cut people out of their lives or punish them in some way for ‘insulting’ them.
Children in this situation often live with the fear that their relationship with their mother could break apart at any minute should they inadvertently offend her.
But some good can come of growing up with a narcissist, too. You may have learned to be extremely diplomatic, patient and set high standards for yourself.
On the downside, you probably downplay your achievements and may even scupper opportunities because you worry about not being perfect enough.
To get over this, write a list of things that you enjoy and in which you take pride. It will help you to realise what you have to be proud of — and that another person’s success does not take away what you have.
Normally, parents long to see a child happy. But for the envious mother, a child’s success arouses hostility.
Glowing with good news, a son or daughter expects a parent’s face to reflect admiration; instead, the envious mother’s jaw freezes, the corners of her mouth pull down in contempt.
‘Someday you’ll realise you’re not as good as you think you are,’ she warns. Or perhaps the initial response is cheerful, but later you notice that ordinary things you do irritate her. ‘Stop making such a racket,’ and, ‘Why do you have to go on and on about it’
Instead of bolstering a child’s confidence and inspiring a sense of his or her potential, an envious parent begrudges her child’s independence and self-pride. She looks at her child and thinks: ‘Why can she feel joy when I don’t’ or, ‘Why does she have a chance to be successful when I have been disappointed’
Children learn that the good things in their lives somehow offend, even harm, the person who matters deeply to them, and whom they long to please.
Parental envy is particularly common when a child hits adolescence and starts to make their own way in the world. Instead of seeing a child’s success as a source of pride, and taking delight in a son or daughter flourishing, an envious mother feels something is being taken away from her.
She believes that she can have a comfortable and secure bond with her child only if her child’s self-worth is as low as hers.
But the psychological effects of coping with an envious mother are not all bad — you may have learned how to stave off the envy of others with charisma, or to look past negative comments. You may even be a high achiever, driven by your mother’s dissatisfaction.
But if years of trying to please someone in vain has made it hard to enjoy your achievements, the following thoughts may help bolster your self-esteem and help you to extricate yourself from the fallout.
First, remember your mother’s start and finish point is dissatisfaction — nothing will ever change that. Second, there is considerable scientific evidence to show that pursuing the approval of others leads to greater unhappiness than pursuing what you yourself value.
EMOTIONALLY UNAVAILABLE MOTHER
Often the result of depression or perhaps a drug or alcohol dependency, a mother’s emotional unavailability can be incredibly difficult for a child to deal with and lead to all kinds of upset and confusion.
A mother’s prolonged emotional absence has even been shown to affect the physical and chemical make-up of a child’s brain.
‘Affective sharing’, or emotional exchanges between mother and baby, increases brain growth and generates those crucial brain systems that help us manage our own emotions, organise our thoughts, and plan our lives.
While living with 'difficult' people can help us to become better at dealing with others, it's all too easy to allow an emotionally unavailable mother to take over huge amounts of your time and energy
Positive emotional exchanges have been shown to stimulate the growth of the cortisol receptors in the brain that absorb and buffer stress hormones. It builds the brain strength we need to bounce back from disappointment and failure.
Children with depressed, emotionally unavailable mothers can grow up seeing their role as a comforter and protector. They may feel guilty for feeling happy and often take on large amounts of responsibility to make up for her ‘absence’.
As a grown-up, ordinary emotions such as joy and sadness may strike you as extreme, self-indulgent and even dangerous. You may also have deep-seated beliefs about the role you should play in close relationships, believing that other people’s needs are more important than your own, that you always have to be mature and ‘grown up’, and that you cannot trust people to be there for you.
While living with ‘difficult’ people can help us to become better at dealing with others, it’s all too easy to allow an emotionally unavailable mother to take over huge amounts of your time and energy.
If you accept that you are an adult now, and start to question some of the ways you behave (perhaps you frequently discount the importance of your own feelings, feel guilty when others are unhappy and hold yourself back from growing and gaining confidence), you will realise that a big step in creating a new story for yourself is to confront and understand the old one and make room for new experiences.
Adapted from Difficult Mothers by Terri Apter, published by WW Norton on June 12 at 17.99. Terri Apter 2012. To order a copy for 15.99 (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000. For advice, you can tweet the author @TerriApter.