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Dreading Mother's Day? Let go of expectations and accept your mother for who she is

On Mother’s Day, Maeve Halpin writes about how to negotiate your relationship with a difficult parent.

Maeve Halpin Counselling psychologist

CLODAGH* ENTERED MY office with a heavy step, her face a picture of frustration and resignation. She plonked into the chair in front of me. “Well, Happy Mother’s Day!”, she wished me ruefully.

Her ironic humour made me smile. “So, you’re not exactly looking forward to Sunday?” I queried. I knew her relationship with her mother was fraught.

“We’re planning to bring mammy out somewhere for Mother’s Day – she behaves better in public. But she’s already stirring things up  – she told my sister Jackie that I was looking for the cheapest possible place to bring her!” Clodagh’s annoyance was palpable.

The narcissistic parent

Clodagh’s mother was a classic narcissist: demanding, manipulative, irrational, emotionally unpredictable and totally self-justifying.

Because narcissists do not have a mature sense of self, they do not have healthy boundaries.  They can be cruel and thoughtless when talking of others, yet hyper-sensitive to anything said about themselves.

“She has no empathy, or appreciation of all we do for her. I can just see the whole thing ending in disaster”, sighed Clodagh, with more than a touch of fatalism.

Understanding narcissism

The key to dealing with the narcissist is to see them as a small child in an adult body.

Toddlers are naturally self-centered. They don’t understand other people’s needs. They express their emotions powerfully and spontaneously, as they lack the skill of emotional regulation. They are insecure, as they depend for survival on adults over whom they have no control.

Children who are neglected, abused or over-indulged during these formative years may become emotionally “stuck” at this developmental stage. They do not mature into healthy, emotionally-aware, empathetic adults.

Protecting ourselves

“You coped with your mother pretty well over Christmas,” I reminded her.

“Well, the tips you gave me about emotional detachment did help,” she agreed. “Over Christmas dinner, she told my daughter she was wasting her time studying graphic design – even though she boasts to her friends about how well her grandchildren are doing.”

Despite their grandiose ideas about themselves, narcissists are actually deeply insecure.  They are easily threatened by the success of others, especially those close to them.

“Normally I’d get angry and then feel guilty. So I just didn’t react. She went into a silent sulk, so I just left her to get over it. Which she did.”

Emotionally distancing oneself from the narcissist can help alleviate the psychological damage they often cause. Accepting that the person is not going to change, and that the relationship can never be resolved, but only managed, is key to taking back control. However, it’s not always as easy as it sounds.

“But now with Mother’s Day coming up, she’s in drama overdrive, playing the victim. I’m back to feeling like a child, looking for her approval”.

Taking action

“What do you think you need to do now?” I enquired gently.

Clodagh paused, then took a deep breath. “I need to step back into being the adult,” she said resolutely.  “My mother is the child – being demanding, throwing tantrums. My sisters and I need to decide on a plan for the day, let her know – and then stick to it. We need to make clear boundaries, just like with a two-year-old”.

Clodagh’s family had a pleasant day out. Nobody pandered to their mother’s childish moods. In this freedom, they came to find compassion for their mother’s brittle mental frailty, letting go of expectations and beginning to accept her for who she was.

*Names and identifying details have been changed.

Maeve Halpin is a counselling psychologist. She presents “Wellbeing for Everyday Life” on Dublin South FM 93.9 every Thursday, 1pm – 2pm. Her book “How to be Happy and Healthy – the Seven Natural Elements of Mental Health” is published by Ashfield Press.

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About the author:

Maeve Halpin  / Counselling psychologist

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