Top tips for dealing with crazy people?
June 2, 2011 9:12 AM   Subscribe

How do you stay calm under (social) pressure? I'm looking for some tips on how to keep my cool when someone is really trying to wind me up and make me lose my temper.

The sad truth is that the person I'm talking about is my mother. Our last visit went really well and I thought it would be ok to come and have her stay for a week. That was obviously a total mistake, but I want to somehow get through it until next Monday when she leaves, without any more major scenes.

Needless to say there's a lot of backstory to this, but right now I have one very clearly defined goal: how do I avoid being baited by her? It's really difficult because it seems like the smallest thing can set her off (she just gave me the glare of death because she mentioned the name of a childhood doll that I lost and I corrected her). I can't just keep my mouth shut until she leaves, so what else can we do or talk about?

To forestall any helpful suggestions of getting everything out in the open with her: I tried that the day before yesterday, saying to her to come and sit down so we could talk. It ended in an enormous scene and I only narrowly managed to stop her storming out the door. She's made it very clear to me that discussing things calmly is not an option - the main thing she kept saying when I finally got her to sit down was, "I feel sorry for you", over and over in a superior, pitying tone.

I just want to get through the next few days with minimal further damage to my self esteem, and not provoke any more silent treatment or personal attacks. What are your best tips for dealing with crazy relatives?

Random information that may be relevant: I am female, in my late thirties, my mother 25 years older; my mother has lived by herself for many years; I had a very unhappy childhood and don't really have any interest in seeing my mother at all, but my partner and I don't want to cut her off from our son (her grandchild) and really want to keep things civil if we possibly can. I've had more therapy than you can poke a stick at and feel totally comfortable with my past, but am having a lot of trouble dealing with the continued conflicts with my mother, especially since our interactions now are always either on my territory or hers, with no escape, as we live in different countries.
posted by rubbish bin night to Human Relations (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Try to keep conversations as light and shallow as possible. "This chicken salad we're eating sure is good! I like that there are grapes in it! I like grapes!" Or "gee, the weather has been really dry lately, I need to water the plants today." I have an extremely uncomfortable relationship with my grandmother, so that's what I try to do.

Talking about other relatives is good, too, especially if you have a young child. "Junior is walking now! You should have seen him going the other day, made it all the way across the living room without any help!"

If she tries to dredge up anything that happened in the past or make you feel inferior, just ignore it and switch to a boring, neutral topic. Not necessarily exciting conversation, but hey, enormous scenes and fights are "exciting"--and they're no fun at all.
posted by phunniemee at 9:20 AM on June 2, 2011

As difficult as it might be, my suggestion is to deflect or stop. Anytime she looks like she might be veering down the path to a big blowup, either change the subject, or flat out refuse to discuss the situation with her.

"Mom, I'm not willing to discuss this with you. Let's talk about something else."
posted by LN at 9:24 AM on June 2, 2011

I know this is going to sound rough, but sometimes assholes have children, and some of us just end up being those children. Learn to look at your mom as just a person with faults, who got pregnant and had a kid. Detach, and let her be the flawed human she is. You're not going to fix her, and she's not going to fix you.
When my mom says assholish things, I simply do not respond in any way at all. I tried for years to say "Hey, that's wrong," or "Hey, that hurts," but that never led me anywhere useful. Sigh inwardly, and move on.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:28 AM on June 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

"I don't know how to respond to that."

Then change the subject. Bonus points if you can engage her in talking about herself. For instance "mom, i've been meaning to ask you...what wad it like for you when you decided to move?change careers?have children?build a house?...etc"

And if she asks "why would you want to know that?" You can say "well, I was just thinking about you the other day and I realized that I usually only think of you as my mom---now that i'm a mom, I also see you as a person.and I was wondering what that was like for you."
posted by vitabellosi at 9:29 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Remind yourself, quietly and over and over again, that her behavior is about her and not about you. I do this as a teacher all the time with my students (and, not occasionally, their parents). You have to emotionally divest yourself from her being upset and angry -- or even pitying.

You know she's crazy. Don't legitimize her craziness in your own head. When she's about to do her crazy thing, stay where you are (emotionally) and refuse to follow her down that path.

Cold comfort, I know. I wish I had more advice, because my grandmother was much the same way with my family & I was the only one who felt the need to call her on it. On the bright side, you've already made it to Thursday!
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:29 AM on June 2, 2011

I just want to get through the next few days with minimal further damage to my self esteem, and not provoke any more silent treatment or personal attacks. What are your best tips for dealing with crazy relatives?

Don't play into their mind games. Take the high road, and don't engage with them on something they are being unreasonable about. For example, if you say something that makes them inappropriately upset and they give you the silent treatment, don't try to get into an argument about why they are upset. Instead, just act normally as if they aren't giving you the silent treatment leave it up to them to either cut it out or escalate. Also, dismiss personal attacks and don't fall into the trap of either believing them or trying to argue against them. Basically, engage on a normal conversational level but not on their crazy combative level.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:30 AM on June 2, 2011

I only narrowly managed to stop her storming out the door

Why did you bother? Don't engage at all. If she wants to storm out in righteous indignation, let her. If you want to be held hostage to her whims then keep trying to placate her. Listen, my mother is Grade A Certified Nuts. I know how much it sucks. Set boundaries, enforce them ruthlessly, and either she behaves like a reasonable person or she doesn't get to see her grandchild. You spent your childhood having to deal with her bullshit, don't continue doing it as an adult.
posted by crankylex at 9:32 AM on June 2, 2011 [19 favorites]

I only narrowly managed to stop her storming out the door. [...] What are your best tips for dealing with crazy relatives?

Let her storm out.
posted by Zozo at 9:33 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jinx, crankylex.
posted by Zozo at 9:34 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm confused.

You had a crappy and/or traumatic childhood, and you want to reward your mother for this by giving her access to your son and bringing her abusive behavior into your adult home for him to witness??

Rethink this strategy.

(you should have let her leave early, btw.)
posted by jbenben at 9:38 AM on June 2, 2011 [11 favorites]

Can you go out of the house to do things for a while? Would she be less likely to make a scene at the museum or the movie theater or the park? Do you have a good friend who you could take to lunch with you, who would be willing to jump in and deflect-deflect-deflect as necessary? What kind of hobbies does she normally do at home, can you do any of them at your house?
posted by anaelith at 9:38 AM on June 2, 2011

Response by poster: Let her storm out.

Haha, I so agree with both of you. Ten years ago I did let her storm out, after flying halfway around the world to see me she stomped off in a huff and that was it. Pathetic, huh? I thought I'd try another tack this time. It wasn't really a success though.

(On preview: jbenben, I hear you. I will be coming up with Plan B once I get through this week).
posted by rubbish bin night at 9:39 AM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Let her go. If she wants to be there, then she's shooting herself in the foot. And if she doesn't want to be there, then she's doing the right thing.

You can't manage the reaction of other people when they behave like this. Just leave them to get on with it. If she wants to be around the baby, she'll have to learn to not act like one herself.
posted by Solomon at 9:42 AM on June 2, 2011

Ten years ago I did let her storm out, after flying halfway around the world to see me she stomped off in a huff and that was it. Pathetic, huh?

You realize she is the pathetic one, and that in no way reflects on you, right? If she has such poor self control, then good riddance.
posted by crankylex at 9:47 AM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

The best thing you can say might be "Mom, go check yourself into a hotel." If she can't afford it, maybe pay for it if you can.

However, I understand that this is a very hard thing to say to a parent, especially without making it come out as "gtfo", which it sounds like she's inclined to take it as.

I really believe that you're best off setting boundaries. It's not okay for her to pull passive-aggressive bullshit when you're trying to make sure she has access to your grandson. You are not required to put up with it. You can remove yourself from the situation or remove her from it, but don't keep trying to push through - declare the conversation over and walk away.

Is she as bad in public? Maybe now is the time to spend a lot of time at the library or the mall.

I was very near the 'go find a hotel' point with my parents' recent cross-country visit (for different reasons), so I really feel for you. The way we handled it was to withdraw and carve out our own time (Time to run errands! Let's go to the beach!). However, my self-esteem/worth was not at risk.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:49 AM on June 2, 2011

Also, it sounds like 'narrowly stopping her from storming out' meant a lot of placating on your part - she's working on reeling you back in under her control. All that work you've done? She wants to undo it so you respond exactly like you used to and cater to her.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:50 AM on June 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

In order to survive the rest of the week, do what I do when I have to spend time with my parents. Talk about nothing. Refuse to engage. Watch tv. Smile vacantly. I spend a lot of time sitting silently in their living room resisting the urge to stand on a table and scream and throw things. Go on outings if possible. Pay attention to your child. Clean things, just so you don't have to talk to her. Clean already clean things. You get the picture.

It will be over eventually, and if there is a next time, make sure she stays at a hotel instead of at your home where you have no downtime from her.
posted by crankylex at 9:56 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

>>you want to reward your mother for this by giving her access to your son and bringing her abusive behavior into your adult home for him to witness??

This is a subject I've been wrestled with for years and years and years. The conclusion I've come to is that that the grandparent-grandchild relationship CAN be very different from the parent-child relationship, and even people who have done horrible things as parents may have enough good things to offer as a grandparent, that they merit conditional inclusion. CONDITIONAL. It's up to the parent to set up conditions of interactions that protect the child from the known danger. That is to say, if you know the parent hits, structure the visits to ensure this issue never comes up. If you know the parent is vicious on an emotional level, arrange and enforce the boundaries so they very quickly come to understand that this will not be tolerated under the New Deal.

But that wasn't the question. As far as avoiding getting wound up, planning activities is good. Things like going to the zoo encourages conversations on neutral topics. Watching movies encourages not talking. Finding things to do in areas of her particular interest could be helpful as well (hey Mom, there's a Macrame Convention in town! Aren't you doing macrame these days?) Avoiding topics you know are in any way controversial is also good; if you know your mother loves to pick on job choices/tattoos/particular friends/whateve, shun those topics: They're just fodder. I like the idea of the blank stare as well. I'll have to try that. Keeping really busy with kid/food-preparing/housekeeping etc. can be helpful when stuck in situations that encourage chatter. And letting her storm out when she wants to? I think that's a great idea. It either removes the problem at the source, or forces her to stop & analyze what she wants out of the situation before she comes back into your space.

But really, what I tend to recommend as the top way to deal with moms like yours is this: Know your tolerance level. If you know you can't cope more than 48 hours with the barrage, don't schedule a 7 day visit. It's just asking for problems. Good luck. You have my sympathies.
posted by Ys at 9:59 AM on June 2, 2011

The key is non-reaction to avoid escalating the situation, like Greg Nog's example. It sounds like she's feeding off the dynamic where you take her bait and either lose your temper or try desperately to placate her. You need to avoid both reactions.

If you can't do the blank stare, try a calm non-response. For example, she says "I feel sorry for you." You say "Thank you for your concern" in as neutral a voice as possible. You could even try to turn it into a game--you take the most outrageous things she says and try to come up with the blandest response possible.
posted by janerica at 10:02 AM on June 2, 2011

This may be a bit out of left field, but is related to Dialectical behavior therapy.

Opposite to Emotion reaction: essentially when you fell angry or sad or frustrated start engaging in behavior that reflects something else entirely. Even if you don't feel it at the time. If you feel angry.. chuckle, laugh. Frustrated? Give her a hug and walk away. This can be done in conjunction or alternating with the non-response to her baiting. Either one is essentially not giving her the energy/response she is expecting. After enough times of not getting what she expects, or getting something wildly divergent then what she expects the behavior is going to decrease. It will have to be consistent, and that can be hard work, because intermediate rewarding (say rising to her bait every 3rd time) can actually be more reinforcing then always rewarding (always rising to the bait).

1. Leave the room calmly and not hurriedly
2. Don't outwardly invest emotionally to her fishing expeditions
3. If you do react, react in an (obviously non violent) unexpected manner
4. find time for yourself away from her to de-stress and detox
5. Let her leave if she threatens
6. All future visits are contingent on her having her own space to exit to (hotel room) away from you and yours.
7. Don't be afraid to say no, and if/when you do divest it of emotional content when delivering it.
posted by edgeways at 11:32 AM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you feel angry.. chuckle, laugh. Frustrated? Give her a hug and walk away.

When I can manage it, this works wonderfully. At least, I've done it with bullies and it worked wonders on them (in the sense that they gave up and left me alone). Just laugh. Laugh at her and how pathetic she's being. You're all characters in a comedy and she's the crotchety, impossible-to-please grandmother. When she whips out one of her devastating remarks, just laugh and think, "oh, that's just classic Mom!" This will be very difficult for you at first and she will HATE it, but if you can maintain it for a while you might actually begin to believe it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:03 PM on June 2, 2011

My mother is a lot like that too.

I do have a huge reserve about the recommendation to "laugh it off" as an unexpected response. I tried this for a while with my parents too, since a lot of what they said is so off-the-wall that I genuinely did find it funny. THEY EXPLODED. The worst was when I was 27, and the three of us were in a car (father driving, mother behind me, I was in the front passenger seat giving directions) hurtling down the highway of a foreign country they did not know, and they started hitting me because I was not "respecting their authority". In a friggin' moving car!!

So, rubbish bin night, if you think your mother is on the saner side of things and would just go "??" rather than "OMG my CHILD is not RESPECTING MAH AUTHORITAH" then yes, laughing it off can work. But if she veers towards the "I must be in control at all times OR ELSE" side, it could backfire horribly.

Indeed, as others have said, stay as calm as you can, that's the second best solution I've found. The best... was cutting off contact entirely, like jbenben mentions. But it all depends on how your mother is; how much self-control and conscientiousness she may have. My parents are rather extreme examples; my therapist entirely supports me in never again contacting them, not even if I have kids one day. (I would be open to having them back in my life, but only if they recognize that their abuse was wrong and if they take concrete actions – not manipulative, meaningless speeches – towards respecting me as a human being. They know this. They've chosen several times to attack instead, so, enough. Basta, as they say here.)
posted by fraula at 12:38 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't take the bait. Instead, compliment her. "I really like your blouse." "Your hair looks great." "Mom, I really love you." This last one spikes the ultimate accusation, "You ... don't ... love me."

When my wife's mother started in, I'd walk over to her, wrap her in my arms and tell her "You're my favorite mother-in-law."
posted by KRS at 12:50 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

"how to keep my cool when someone is really trying to wind me up and make me lose my temper."

How do you know she's trying to wind you up and make you lose your temper?

"how do I avoid being baited by her?"

Try not to think of her as baiting you all the time.

"It's really difficult because it seems like the smallest thing can set her off (she just gave me the glare of death because she mentioned the name of a childhood doll that I lost and I corrected her)."

Is it possible that she feels you're being critical and judgmental of the things she says - that you need to 'correct' her all the time?

"I can't just keep my mouth shut until she leaves, so what else can we do or talk about?"

Completely superficial things or else you do things together. The conversation then stems from the doing of the things together (i.e. you have outside stimulus to both react to) rather than from the sitting around having to come up with non-confrontational things to say to one another when you both seem to push each others' buttons.

"What are your best tips for dealing with crazy relatives?"

Probably best to not think of them as 'crazy' for a start.

Both of you are human beings, both of you have issues with one another's ways of communicating, both of you seem to not understand the other and both of you seem to pity one another or make each other angry.

You need to listen to one another more carefully and do more things together (as in, go somewhere, visit the zoo, go to the park, go on a boat ride, etc). You also need to understand her and she needs to understand you and you both have to be prepared to put in the hard work to do that.
posted by mleigh at 3:02 PM on June 2, 2011

You could think about it this way -- she's probably, what?, 60? She has how many years left to live? Somewhere in there, she's going to lose her sight, hearing, memory, cognitive abilities, and/or ability to walk. And how many days per year do you see her? Point being: you have a limited number of healthy days left. Maybe you can focus on finding a way to enjoy what you do enjoy about her? If anything? This type of thinking helps me find patience and look on the bright side (if there is one; I'm not trying to minimize how terrible her behavior is or how upsetting all of this is for you).

The other thing I do is to imagine how things could be worse. There are plenty of options here depending on what movie I'd watched most recently. I might imagine that I was just reprieved from a last-woman-on-earth-alone-forever scenario, or think "well, at least we're not arguing while tied up in an attic and wondering when the serial killer will return," or "at least we're not arguing over the last food ration while adrift on a lifeboat with little hope of rescue." Basically, I reflect on how nice it is that, aside from the annoyance and arguing, the situation is safe and comfortable, nobody's life is in immediate danger, we aren't hungry or in pain, and that's nice.
posted by salvia at 3:02 PM on June 2, 2011

You have a more important priority here, and that's your child. Having your unhelpful mother involved is probably a lot worse than just excluding her. It's YOUR house now, with YOUR family in it, not hers. If she can't grow up and recognize your authority then it's best to leave her out of it entirely. Seriously, what good comes of involving her? What good for your or your family? None, from the sound of it. So let it go and move on.

Me, I'd let her storm out. Then pack her bags and have them at the door, call a hotel and reserve a room and then get her a cab. Wish her luck making her own life miserable.
posted by wkearney99 at 5:46 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just blank out/dissociate and run though song lyrics in my head.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:53 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

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