You are quite sure that you are dealing with your mom as a grown-up. That you are doing everything possible to communicate in a civilized manner. It’s just that mom won’t meet you half-way. She becomes annoyed, pesters you with advice and criticizes anything she can get her hands on. Maybe it’s just her way...
Well, if you’re quite sure that you bear no responsibility for this, I suggest that you take a 4-question test. The situations are artificial and your mother will probably use other expressions. However, if such things do in fact happen when you are together, answer Yes and give yourself 1 point.
- Criticizes how you bring up your children in their presence. She sympathizes with the punished child and sticks up for them. She objects to the punishment and makes a scene. She “engages in subversive activities” by giving treats to the naughty grandchild. (Yes/No)
- When tired or annoyed, she picks on everything: the gift is too cheap or too expensive. You cook horribly; whoever taught you? Can’t you sit down when mother has come to visit you?... (Yes/No)
- When visiting friends, she publically criticizes you or your husband. You don’t make enough money. You don’t spend it right. You just bought a horrible couch for way too much money! How could you even live with a piece of furniture like that? You’re sending the child to study art! Whatever do they need all those pencils and paints for? They should study something useful! (Yes/No)
- She believes her presence to be mandatory and unconditional at every family picnic, vacation or trip. That said, when you get there she goes into frenzied action as if she were the key organizer. So instead of relaxing, you fall back into the role of a gopher girl – wash the dishes, slice the veggies, run to the car for a throw, drive to the nearest store (30 mile or more) for the treats… (Yes/No)
If you have answered Yes to at least one of these, your problems with Mother have a very distinct name: Poorly set communication boundaries.
What’s Mother to do with boundaries! Why does she act that way?
I am sure you have heard about “personal boundaries.” I am not talking about a rush hour on a subway, where people are packed too closely together. Personal boundaries are a kind of private zone where you can safely store what’s YOURS “behind a barbed wire fence.”
Insults, humiliation, emotional manipulation and blackmail – all these are an attempt to climb this fence in dirty boots. It should be stopped. Even if it is done by your mother.
Such invasion can take various forms:
- Hidden aggression looks like imposition of stereotypes and happiness recipes, such as whom to marry, what to study, where to work, which school to send your children to, etc.;
- Open aggression means scenes and extortion. It does not matter whether it’s extortion of a new appliance or of additional attention, sympathy or care.
“We don’t live together. I visit her once a week. She seems to be genuinely happy to see me. She cooks and fusses over me enthusiastically and I am grateful to her. But then her mood suddenly changes and she starts yelling at me, demanding something. She presses all the pain buttons she knows of. So my gratitude just vanishes into thin air. All I can think of is, ‘You know, I have paid with my patience for everything you ever gave me.’”
This is a typical example of poorly set boundaries. Mom doesn’t feel so well, she is tired, she feels annoyed and she unloads all these negative feelings onto Victoria.
Why? It is not because her mom is a monster :). It is simply that Victoria always allows it. Mother is certain that her daughter will swallow it, forgive it and will keep coming as if nothing had happened. In other words, the boundary of what is permissible between her and her parents is quite fuzzy. Mother does not have a feeling for what type of behavior is acceptable and what type isn’t.
Who is responsible for this? For the most part, the one who gets used to putting up with it and voluntarily becomes a punch bag.
How to set boundaries for Mother
I have seen no better recipe for a case like this than the one described in Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog. You can build your relationship with your mother right along the book to stop these aggressive attacks.
Here is the step-by-step algorithm:
- Mother behaves herself: we happily talk to her, encourage her, surround her with care and attention;
- Mother says nasty things to you, goes into hysterics, raises her voice, etc.: we ignore it and stop dealing with her, not rudely, but categorically.
If she is aggressive often, warn her, “If you yell at me again I will not talk to you for 2 weeks.” If mother “falls off the wagon,” you really do not talk to her for 2 weeks.
Bear in mind that you must keep promises of that type. You must strictly keep to the timeframe and not compromise. You must not give way under pressure or in response to tears, reasoning or persuasion. Two weeks means 14 days and not an hour less!
It is unlikely that her treatment of you will radically change the first time around. In a little while, mother may write it off to your bad mood, an attack of nerves or PMS. Then she will use you as a lightning rod for her negative emotions again in a situation when she won’t have anyone else to vent her anger on.
If there is a repetition, boycott her for a month and stand your ground,
“When you’re nice to me – I talk to you nicely, take care of you, come to visit you. When you say horrid things to me and have a scene – we take a break for a month. I have no intentions of putting up with such treatment.”
It is a very rare case when you have to repeat it a third time. They usually get it before that.