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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”