How do I deal with overbearing parents?
August 26, 2012 7:39 AM   Subscribe

How do I get along with my opinionated, controlling and overbearing mom during her visit without fighting thereby worsening our relationship?

I've been away from home for almost a year, and my mom's visiting me for two weeks then I am going back to my parents' place to stay temporarily until I find a job.

My mom is very critical of everything that I do and am. She doesn't hold her tongue, rather, she feels it's her motherly duty to let me know of my faults(lack of job, weight loss issue, facial and body imperfections, lack of man/husband, etc). She's expecting me to hangout with her, well, she WANTS to hang out with me, as she's been having a hard time with my dad.

My mom's expecting me to have lost a lot of weight...which I haven't. I am not looking forward to seeing her, which is sad cause I should miss my parents, rather I wanna be far away from them as possible.

Is there anything I can do to help myself get through this time and furthermore, get me through staying with my parents till I am able to move out? (keeping my spirits up, be positive, accomplish my goals)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Don't talk to her about your weight. Make not talking about your weight a condition of spending time with you -- as in, "If you insist on talking to me about my weight, I am going to go do something else/hang out in my room/go for a walk/etc." And then follow through.

I had to do this with my own mom. Trying to argue with her about it didn't get either of us anywhere.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:42 AM on August 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

"Mom, I get it. I should lose weight/get a job/find a partner. I can't do that right at this minute, though, so how about if we go do this other thing."
posted by Etrigan at 7:47 AM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, try being forthright in a calm, pleasant voice? Mom, I really don't want to talk about this, and it kinda hurts my feelings when you criticize me so much. It's damn hard to do with a parent I know, because I have a very similar mom, but I've broken the cycle a bit by consistently asking her to not say such things in a calm, polite way.

If she gets angry at that, try to remember that you can't control her reaction, and don't get involved in a cycle of reactions that develops into a fight. Walk away. It may take time, like training a puppy, but it should pay dividends.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:50 AM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

"That's not up for discussion." [Change of subject.]
"Nope, still not up for discussion, but thank you for your concern." [Change of subject.]
"I've made it clear that [subject] is not up for discussion." [Change of subject.]

Rinse and repeat, as calmly and neutrally as possible.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:03 AM on August 26, 2012 [11 favorites]

My mom is similar and the only way for me to deal with her is to not respond to her at all. Usually her rants are somewhat irrational and completely unproductive ("talking to her" - which means arguing/screaming fights - about anything is never helpful and it took me until I was 27 years old to realize that)

You're not going to change her mind or get her to see things your way or anything else, you're only going to engage her which is likely what she wants - especially if she is having problems with your dad and wants to hang out with you instead.
posted by fromageball at 8:05 AM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Try to brainstorm a variety of subjects about which you do want to talk to her. If she says something about your weight/job/partner, politely acknowledge it and then change the subject to a previously thought of non-combative topic.

Also, can you try to do active things with your mom rather than hanging out over coffee or food? It is harder to talk while biking/kayaking/[insert other activity], but you still get the sense of quality time. Oh, and, also, if she doesn't want to do these things and brings up your weight, you can be petty and tell her that she wasn't interested in doing something active with you (I don't necessarily recommend being petty, but whatever, shit happens).
posted by aaanastasia at 8:09 AM on August 26, 2012

Your mother didn't become an asshole over night. Her bad behavior has been reinforced over a lifetime, and she has developed plenty of methods to overcome people's defense mechanisms against her nastiness. She expects you to stay in the place she has assigned for you -- the browbeaten child. If you try to redefine your position, she is going to fight you on it.

So, draw the line and refuse to talk about these topics. If she brings them up, get up and leave, no matter what you are doing. Even if it means you just go to your room and close the door, do it. Even if it means getting up from a meal, still do it. She gets exactly one warning -- "If you bring this up, I will leave/hang up/whatever". Then, never fail to actually follow through. If you refuse to interact with her when she pulls this garbage, she will get the picture eventually.

Do not bother trying to debate these topics. I wouldn't even bother telling her that she's hurting your feelings - she knows she is, that's why she's doing it. If you try to converse with her, she'll just have an opportunity to extract from you the guilt and unhappiness she craves. So don't give her the chance. Just draw and enforce the line.

This may make you feel guilty and bad. That's natural, but you're only defending yourself. Your mother is the one behaving poorly, and demanding that everyone around her cow to her version of reality.
posted by Coatlicue at 8:23 AM on August 26, 2012 [30 favorites]

Is she having trouble with your dad because she criticizes him as well? I think part of the problem is that you agree with her criticisms and thus feel her voicing them is in part your fault.
She believes her criticisms are helpful. She might not understand any attempts you make to tell her otherwise. Rather than try and change her, I suggest you see her as the one with the problem. She can't help being the critical parent. If you try and tell her this, you become critical like her (or so she'll hear it) so you need to see her with a problem she can't face (yet.) If you can keep this in mind when she's being critical, you might have some compassion for her and not feel so under assault.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:33 AM on August 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

As others have suggestdd, just don't engage it. At all. Since you are apparently new at refusing to engage, you will no doubt try out a few different approaches before you start getting the hang of it. But arguing is de facto agreement that her opinion matters, she has a right to try to influence you, etc. It is like fertilizer, growing the problem. If you can wrap your brain around the fact that she has no such right, it gets easier.

After some practice, you might be able to instead try to engage her on a different level. There are almost always huge assumptions behind such criticisms. Her criticism of your weight may mean one or more of the following: "I am worried you will have no friends and be socially isolated because of this issue"; "I am worried you will never get a man"; "I am worried you will die of a heart attack like your Aunt Ethel did"...and so on.

One of the most effective means to bust criticism of this sort is to address the unstated underlying concern. The assumption that excess weight causes x, y, or z other problem is not really true, even if it isn't just batshit insane. Correlation is not causation. The two issues are generally separable. Separating them is easier than "defending" your weight, since you likely don't feel it is defensible.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 8:56 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there something you can do with your mother that she enjoys being right about, but that isn't important to you?

Perhaps, for example, she's a Scrabble fiend, and you're indifferent to the game. By asking her to sit down and play, you encourage connection and create a "safe" space for her to win, and her opinion of your play doesn't really have to mean much to you, because you're meh about Scrabble anyhow.

Maybe by finding a neutral connector, whatever that may be for you, you can help preserve the relationship and your autonomy, and your mom can feel valued and confirmed in her opinions.

Also, if you have the chance you should read Deborah Tannen's "You're Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation" for its cogent discussion of mother-daughter communication and meta-communication, and practical strategies for lowering the temperature of heated back-and-forth.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:09 AM on August 26, 2012

The key here, since you already know what you're in for, is to minimize conflict over this issue. Simply acknowledge that the issues are important, thank her for being concerned, and tell her that you are not prepared to discuss those issues. Do that each and every time. Some people really do thrive when they are creating strife. Do not reward her by giving her what she wants, if this is the case with her. Be cordial, thank her for her concern, and calmly move on to a different subject.
posted by brownrd at 10:14 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Schedule mini breaks for yourself. A walk in the morning, errands you have to do. twenty minutes to an hour. People need to pace themselves with restorative breaks from depleting stressful situations... And what you are talking about qualifies.

when i was in a similar situation, I needed at least ten minutes every two hours, just to care for myself, so YMMV.
posted by anitanita at 10:21 AM on August 26, 2012

I think it's really important to learn to respond to your parents as you would any other adult--not as the child you used to be. Criticism like this from a parent has the effect of making you an insecure 12-year-old again, so you'll respond like a 12-year-old with hanging your head, whining, etc. But how would you respond to a friend or co-worker who talked to you like this? You'd say something like the other commenters here have suggested: my weight is not up for discussion. You'd be calm but firm about it.

It's really hard to do this, I know, especially if you're financially beholden to your parents. But it's really necessary. I've seen this so dramatically in my own family; my sister, who is 50 fucking years old, can be so easily shamed and cowed by our bossy mother, so my mother keeps doing it to her all the time. I moved away from home early and stayed away for years, so I learned to interact with other adults like an adult; when my mother tries this with me, I don't tolerate it, so she's stopped doing it.

Remember: being unemployed, not at the weight you want to be, or whatever you perceive your failings to be, none of this stuff means that you deserve to be treated without respect. None of us are perfect and all of us need support from the people that are supposed to care for us. You deserve kindness and respect from your mother for the wonderful person that you are; don't let her shame and hurt you like this.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 10:33 AM on August 26, 2012 [13 favorites]

I think Narrative Priorities is right. You have to dictate the conditions of spending time together, and follow through if she fails to obey the rules you set. You have to absolutely, 100%, give up on the idea that she will in any way understand how her actions affect you, or see how inappropriate, hurtful, and counterproductive her behaviour is.

The only thing you can do is teach her that if she doesn't play your way, then you will just leave. She can try to control the conversation. But she cannot control your feet.
posted by molecicco at 10:55 AM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Many mothers see their children as some sort of validation of their own life, instead of seeing the child as a unique, independent unit. If that's your mom, she doesn't get that you are your own person with your own boundaries. That doesn't excuse her, but it gets at why your perceived imperfections are so difficult for her to accept and that they are not hers to fix.

You need to shut this down in the 2 weeks she's staying with you. You want to establish the new rules of engagement on neutral turf. Once you return to your family home, old habits will be even more difficult to curtail.
posted by 26.2 at 12:55 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

It might help to think in advance of several reasonably "safe" conversation topics, preferably ones that will give your mom plenty of material to riff on. You could try asking for stories about her childhood, how she decided whatever major life decisions she has made, how her job / garden / knitting group is going.

I'm suggesting this partly because talking about neutral topics may just give less time for the unwanted topics, but also because I think you might find that starting off on this kind of "two adults talking together" footing might help reset the terms of your relationship from a parent-child dynamic to something that's more appropriate now that you're an adult.
posted by emilyw at 2:02 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Never see your mother alone. You need a defender and distractor whose buttons don't get pushed the way yours do. I used to wrap my wife's impossible mother in my arms and call her "My favorite mother in law" each time she began a rant, or even before she started. Have your spouse/SO try the same.

Otherwise only something seriously aggressive will do. When your mother cuts loose, reply "Thank you, Lady Sneerwell." (See Sherdan's play The School for Scandal).
posted by KRS at 2:52 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tell her your reaction to stress and criticism is to eat, so by attacking your weight, she's actually making the problem worse. If she shuts up or actually god forbid encourages you, you might achieve your goals.
posted by Jubey at 4:10 PM on August 26, 2012

It depends if you want a fight or not. My mother is the exact same way and any attempts I make to let her know that I don't want to hear about my faults, usually ends in a big fight. She also believes that it is her motherly duty to tell me everything that is wrong with me and I don't think I can change that about her.

I have given up completely and I just sit through it. I let her nag, criticize, drone on and on and when I think she's finished, I bring up something that is completely unrelated and move on with the conversation.

I know this doesn't sound like awesome advice, but if you're like me, you're probably tired of fighting. I much rather let her criticize and get on with the conversation then break into a brawl with her. I know it hurts, but I've come to realize a lot of the things that my mother finds fault with are so trivial and lame that most other people won't realize. As a result, when she gets into it, I take that time to daydream about stuff.
posted by cyml at 6:04 PM on August 26, 2012

Yup, boundaries:

"Mum, I don't want to talk about that."

"As I said earlier, I still don't want to talk about that."

"I'm going for a walk, see you later."

And so on until she gets the idea that certain subjects are not up for discussion. This works face-to-face or over the phone.
posted by deborah at 6:47 PM on August 26, 2012

My Mum is just like yours. She is 72 now and her criticism is getting more and more vile. I've tried every approach mentioned but the results are short-lived. As a way to keep my sanity I've found that recording her on my iPhone puts me in the position of an observer and gives me a momentary respite. I have not listened back to the recordings but have considered making an art piece where I have various photos of my mother in an art gallery, and concatenate the recorded rants by theme and play them in a loop, a different one next to each picture. Approaching this as an art project made me look forward to gathering more material. Amazingly, even when I told my mother I was recording her this didn't stop or lessen the barbs.
posted by Dragonness at 4:24 AM on August 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

"There are lots of people who are overweight, but very very few parents who would knowingly make their child feel bad about themselves. If you insist on being that unusually cruel type of parent, you're not welcome here until you learn to act like an adult."
posted by anildash at 5:27 AM on August 27, 2012

"There are lots of people who are overweight, but very very few parents who would knowingly make their child feel bad about themselves. If you insist on being that unusually cruel type of parent, you're not welcome here until you learn to act like an adult."

This is how my mother would respond to that: "Your mother is the only person in your life who will always tell you the truth. Others can lie and tell you everything is fine, just to spare your feelings, but I am the only one who will be honest with you for your own good."
posted by Dragonness at 9:59 AM on August 27, 2012

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