How to deal with a very sensitive parent?
March 21, 2019 9:52 AM   Subscribe

I keep hurting her feelings inadvertently

I'm 31 and my mother is 65. My mother gets her feelings hurt extremely easily. Ever since I was a small child and my father died (age 7), worrying about her feelings causes me anxiety. Lately I've been going through a burnout from work and so I'm not good at faking my emotions and being the perfect friendly woman and so I've also been a little flaky at responding to messages.

I asked my mom to call me instead of sending a million facebook messages with questions because I told her I was stressed out. But this hurt her feelings a lot. Also, I went to visit her 2 hours away for my birthday lately but I didn't tell her the exact time I'd be arriving and didn't have time to call iin advance because I was relying on a friend to drive me. So I ended up arriving around 9pm on the night I said I'd arrive. And so instead of spending time together we had a nit picky argument about me arriving on time / not telling her when I'm arriving / me not wanting to spend time with her apparently. The same thing happened at Christmas where I arrive home expecting that I can relax but instead it's a bunch of nit picking about me. I had told her before arriving at Christmas that I was going through a lot of work stress at the time and may be exhausted (I also had to work all through christmas and didn't get any days off). But she doesn't seem to be able to empathisze with the fact that I'm stressed and instead is focused on her own feeling of being slighted.

I know this is a petty situation but I don't know how to resolve it.
1) I had to stop worryuing about my mom always having her feelings hurt because it was holding me back from living a free life. For example, if I never hurt her feelings it would involve, never having sex, never having alcohol, never wearing attractive clothing, never swearing, never leaving my home town, never getting angry about anything, and not having any political opinions. Sadly for me, I didnt' start rebelling until my mid 20's when it's less socially acceptable, so now I am kind of seen as a black sheep in her eyes. (My younger brother did similar things as a teen and is still the apple of her eye) She's not even religious or anything. But, gets offended by things like tattoos, swearing, people spiting in public or not wearing proper clothes. She lives in a small , wealthy village in Canada among a demographic that is much wealthier than us (bought the house 30 years ago when it was still affordable) and lives alone in her own little bubble.

2) i may have gone too far in the opposite direction and become insensitive . However I can't go back to being the perfect little girl that she thought I would remain.

3) For the past 10 years she's been saying she thinks she is gonna get dementia because she has trouble keeping track of things. Tbh I think it runs in the family because I'm pretty much just as disorganized as her and I'm only 31.

Tl'dr; After becoming an adult woman how do I begin caring for my mom in a healthy way , without denying my own agency/ sense of self? Is that too much of a tall order and I should suppress myself when I'm around her? Or is this simply a matter of me being a "disrespectful daughter" and not sending her clear communication about when I'm arriving at her home?
posted by winterportage to Human Relations (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My mom was like this. Except also sort of rude, so like she's expect me to really be on top of things with her and then she'd also flake out or be sort of snappish because of her own anxieties. My general feeling was that she was a narcissist, undiagnosed, and as someone who grew up entirely with her and my dad with his own self-involvement issues (drinker) I grew up not being able to me-center my own thoughts and actions, everything was about someone else. Made me a great moderator, but a bit of a loss when something wasn't working or when someone was saying, as your mom is "You're making me unhappy"

I have a technique I used with my mom (who died a few years ago) which I would call "Loving broken record" when I would have a boundary that made her unhappy. I'd talk about my own issues, she'd counter that HER issues were the bigger deal. And hey, that is how she feels, and yet it's rude as hell for her to make that the centerpiece of a discussion if I started with my feelings and was hoping for maybe some sympathy or at least some support. So I'd say "Hey mom, I understand and care about whatever nitpicking issues you're talking about but I could use some support here." and if she tried to make it about her I'd just gently and with love, put it back on whatever I had been talking about.

This is especially true when setting a boundary

You: "I don't know when I'l be there but I can text you from the road
Mom: some agitated bullshit
You "I'll do the best I can, I'm looking forward to seeing you"
Mom: agitated "You're doing this to me"
You: "I'll text you from the road, see you soon"

The big deal is not to fall all over yourself apologizing to her. You can be sorry that she is anxious. You can even be sorry that her feelings are hurt, but for someone who is super sensitive you don't need to take all of their feelings as your responsibility. Sometimes people feel bad and it's not really anyone's fault. Or they feel bad because they want the world (or you) to be different. My mom just could not handle, at some level, that my sister and I moved away and had our own lives and weren't there to dote on her. At the same time, she was mean and judgmental to be around and made everything about her. So I'd visit when I could, on my terms and schedule, not really take on any of her "Blabity bla I want the world to be different" with anything other than "Yeah I can see that would be tough." but also just getting to a place where I didn't feel like she was going to be able to be supportive of my stresses and concerns. It's tough when a parent kind of can't do that but maybe your mom can't. Or maybe she's just in a weird place and can readjust if you have a conversation with her about it. Either way best of luck, I know it can be challenging.
posted by jessamyn at 10:23 AM on March 21, 2019 [40 favorites]

You can manage your relationship with your mother.

Talk to her about the topics that you want to discuss with her on your terms. If she criticizes you, you can respond with, "That hurts my feelings mom" and end the conversation.
Don't visit if she is going to bother you. I realize that for some holidays it might be unavoidable, but in general, you don't have to. It is up to you if you want to tell her why.

As far as her views about things -- remind yourself that your mother was raised in a different era and holds onto this view that what other people think matters. (And yeah, more broadly, it does matter if your neighbor thinks that you are nice versus an asshole, but I mean more like swearing...) *YOU* know that it really doesn't matter if people have tattoos or swear and that being judgemental about such things is a waste of time and not kind. If you mother is being judgemental "The neighbor's son got a tattoo! How awful!" You can respond with "Well mom, it is his body. It doesn't impact you at all. Personally, I'd just ignore it." And move on. Or "Rebecca's daughter wore BLACK to a WEDDING!" You: "Gosh mom, it is 2019 - I don't think that anyone really cares about that anymore. If Rebecca's daughter liked the dress and felt good in it, who cares? It doesn't affect you at all, right? It seems pretty silly to buy a new dress just for one wedding anyway." Keep on harping on the "it doesn't impact you" mantra cuz it is true.
posted by k8t at 10:27 AM on March 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Check facebook less, tell her you're just not really on there anymore? Otherwise I agree with jessamyn that restating your boundaries and reassuring her that you are doing what you have said you are doing (and not doing it AT her) is the way to go.

I have learned a lot about asserting and maintaining boundaries (gently and less gently, as called for in different situations) from Captain Awkward.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 11:02 AM on March 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

Stop bending over backwards to accommodate her. Mom, Chris is driving me so the time is approximate; this is not something I can fix and stop discussing it. Always have a list of topics to distract her. Blah blah complain. Yeah, that happened, hey, this is a nice plant. It looks healthy in the kitchen. Yeah, that happened, let's have some herbal tea, I'm so thirsty. Do not give her attention for her complaints; that's a reward. Confrontation is not usually successful. Change your behavior and reward her with attention for being fun. It's kind of frustrating to rely on other people for rides, but I get to see you {hug} now let's go for a walk.

I am a Mom of an adult. Dang, I wish I had such trivial complaints. You sound like a nice person being pretty good to your Mom.
posted by theora55 at 11:49 AM on March 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

My parent is like this and the only way I was able to reframe it was lots of therapy. You can't change your parent but you can change how you experience their behavior.

My parent (and maybe yours) has a potent mix of anxiety and isolation and fear that leads to a feedback loop where they fall into patterns like you describe. With therapy I've realized that my parent's experience of the world is not (my) reality, it's not my responsibility, and the sensitive response you're describing isn't based in reality--there will always be something to negatively respond to, so you might as well live your life how you want.

So, therapy, and boundary-setting, including the technique Jessamyn describes above. Honestly if you don't have experience with setting boundaries it will get worse before it gets better, for me that's how it went, but it does get better eventually. You may need to prepare yourself for the interactions when it's going to feel like you've really hurt your mom's feelings, but she's an adult, and she's responsible for managing her own emotions. What helped me was thinking about this like an extinction burst. Your mom knows you respond to her emotional outbursts, so of course she's going to have them, and you trying to change that is going to make things worse temporarily. Setting boundaries helps reinforce the new pattern that those types of outbursts will no longer get a response.

Now with time and experience I'm able to find (dark?) humor in the times when my parent centers themselves in discussion, because I no longer need my parent's approval or validation of my lived experiences. I also have adjusted my expectations so that I am not actually sharing anything with my parent that I need support or sympathy for. That's what my therapist, partner, and friends are for.
posted by stellaluna at 12:16 PM on March 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Similar family circumstances, similar mom, similar dynamic:

Something to keep in mind here is that if your mom has spent most of her adult life kind of socially (much less romantically) isolated from other adults, handling boundaries in close relationships with other adults is something she might be very out of practice with. Outside of work, if she rarely has to deal with peers who hold her accountable for her behaviour (the way a healthy partner might, for instance) she's probably not going to react well to you setting boundaries.

We all know it's common for parents - single or not - to meddle in the lives of their adult children. The underlying dynamics of being a child of a single parent who lacks their own healthy support system make your situation a bit different, though.

Everyone's suggestions here are good and you should try to implement them, but remember that it may be more successful for you to modify your reactions to her behaviour than to modify how she reacts to you.
posted by blerghamot at 12:20 PM on March 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

I agree you need to set and enforce boundaries. Your post reminded me of this recent letter to Carolyn Hax written by a son whose mother pre-planned a calendar year of events for him, and I think you might find some insight in the response.
posted by Leontine at 6:13 PM on March 21, 2019

My dad took the time to explain what older people need, the social commitments that work to keep them comfortable.

1. Make regular appointments and keep them.
2. Listen, and respond carefully.
3. My dad was blind, when I took him places there were lots of accommodations.
Social workers or organizations like aging services have good information about how to relate to your elders. Look into it.
posted by Oyéah at 7:31 PM on March 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

I read something once that's always stuck with me: a lot of people say they are sensitive, or their behavior is excused by others because "they're really sensitive". But sensitive people are empathetic and mindful of other people's emotions. If it's always been a relationship where you are careful to step around and mind their feelings, but they haven't often empathized with you, then... they're not sensitive, they're some flavor of self-involved, manipulative, or immature.

I'm not saying your mom is an irredeemable jerk or anything, but it might help you to reframe the thoughts in your head, not that "I'm being mean for not catering to mom because she's SO SENSITIVE" but "actually she is a grown adult who can manage feelings of disappointment."
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:52 AM on March 22, 2019 [7 favorites]

^ Exactly. Is your mom sensitive, or is she manipulative? I mean, I'm one of those people who easily takes things personally, but I then think really carefully about how to bring it up, and I also check if I'm bringing appropriate expectations or (on the other hand) making my own social anxiety their problem. Is she sort of quietly hurt? Or, did she have certain expectations, that she now feels angry weren't met, and this is how she's choosing to communicate all of that? How does someone even get their feelings hurt by things like you having premarital sex, getting a tatttoo, or having a glass of wine? To me it sounds more like she's trying to control your behavior to get what she wants or what she thinks should happen, and for whatever reason, this is how she frames it. But even if it's that she has high social anxiety and low self-esteem, that is ultimately her problem to solve, so you can still set boundaries around what you'll put up with.

I do think you're smart to be thinking about how to do it in ways you feel good about. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 9:24 PM on March 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

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