Whether you love it or hate it, most people will agree that the mother-child relationship is one of the most significant relationships in a person’s life, affecting your wellbeing throughout your life.
At the same time, many of us will not have the perfect relationship with our parents. In fact, one psychologist estimates that 85% of families are dysfunctional. More optimistic estimates say that about half of mothers are “good enough” (not perfect, but adequate). Either way, there are many of us whose maternal interactions were not the intimate safe haven idealised by Hallmark.
Let’s look at some of the ways things can be off and what you can do to create a more rewarding, happy, and healthy relationship with your mother.
Making it better: strategies to improve the dynamic.
Perhaps your mother was loving, healthy, and not at all dysfunctional: great! If she sometimes did things that bothered you, but was often “there” for you, you have still done fairly well in the Mother Lottery. But let’s say your mum engaged in what we could call “toxic” behaviours: ways of interacting that didn’t help create a positive bond between you? These behaviours would be things like being dismissive, critical of your ideas and aspirations, not really listening to you or making everything about her. Some mums were simply caught up in their own chronic pain – either physical or psychological – and just didn’t feel up to the task of caring for their children, even though they loved them deeply. Such mums may neglect their children or make them into their caregivers. Even if your mum is showing (or used to show) some of these less-than-ideal behaviours, she undoubtedly loves you very much and also probably did the best she could. Given that, it may be up to you to make the dynamic better for both of you.
Have a look at the A-B-C-D-E of mother-relationship improvement below. These are strategies of Activation, Boundaries, Communication, Doing stuff, and Empathy.
1. Make the first move to get past any estrangement or ill will; she may want to but perhaps does not know how to do this.
2. Change yourself; grow past the point where her criticisms and dismissive comments wound you. 3. Consciously activate a new, more modest set of expectations about what the relationship can achieve. 4. Stick to the present; bringing up old stuff may just re-wound both of you 5. Repair damage quickly when new misunderstandings arise.
1. Set boundaries and stick to them.
2. Balance individuality and closeness. 3. Agree to disagree. 4. Don’t bring third parties into any discussions or conflict.
1. Be an active listener even if you feel that you were not listened to. 2. Use I-statements rather than accusing her. “I feel this way when….” 3. Talk about how you want to communicate (e.g., no calls after 8:00 p.m. unless urgent) 4. Comment on how some of your best qualities came from her. 5. Ask her what life was like for her at your age, or how she handled things you are dealing with now. 6. Reference childhood family jokes and memories; tell her about the aspects of your childhood that were happy (assuming some were). 7. Tell her you love her.
1. Go shopping with her or take her to lunch; spend time with her. 2. Ask her what her favourite movie is; bring it over to watch together. 3. Take a picture of the two of you together; frame and give it to her. 4. Tell her to invite a couple of friends over; make them all lunch.
1. Learn to forgive
2. Put yourself in her shoes; poor mothers are usually badly mothered themselves. 3. Try to be affectionate.
Some of these strategies may be difficult for you but keep in mind that taking steps to improve relationships with your parents will benefit you as well. New research shows that those who have a strong bond with their parents tend to have lower levels of depression, higher levels of self-esteem, and higher levels of intimacy and satisfaction in their romantic relationships.
Often, the best gifts we can give are not material but are interpersonal in nature. While these types of social gifts may take more time and effort, we often need to work the hardest for the biggest rewards.