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I Need Help With My Cruel Mother

My mother is my worst enemy.

Dear Dr. Greenberg,

For a while now, my relationship with my mother has been strained. When I was younger, she would tell me to do things and basically smother me all of the time. While it wasn’t bad then, it is now as I have gotten older and matured (I am 16). I’ve been called very mature for my age, yet my mom doesn’t see that.

She likes to over-criticize. A very common example is the "issue" of my acne. My acne doesn’t really bother me too much since I’m a teen and it’s not like really bad that I have it, but my mother treats it like the end of the world. Even though I told her most teens have acne for years, she still freaks out if she deems “my face isn’t getting any better."

This type of thing has been happening for a couple of years and it did take me a while to finally ponder the idea that I am beautiful (though there are some times where I don’t think I am). It doesn’t help when my mom goes on rants about how bad my face is.

I once asked her why she cared so much about it, [saying] that it is my face and I am not worried about it, so she shouldn’t be. Apparently that was the wrong thing to say since she completely freaked out on me. A little bit into that "conversation," she stormed out of my room and (I kid you not) started to stomp her feet. The childishness of it would have been funny if it didn’t hurt me so much.

Another thing is that my mom has a very different work style than mine. She is a person who likes to do as much as she can in a day and is always busy. I am more of a procrastinator, and while I always get straight As and turn things in on time, I often leave things to the last minute. Recently, I’ve been trying to stop procrastinating, but it’s getting harder as the homework and tests get harder.

The reason I mention this is because my mom always wants me to work on homework. If she had to choose between me working on homework that is not due for a while or spending time with my family, she would choose the former. A lot of arguments stem because of this and I try my best to keep calm and just ignore her words, but it does get really, really hard.

My mom also makes a lot of borderline-cruel comments. I’ve actually made a list on my phone of every bad comment or thing she did. I deleted it in an effort to forgive her for it and in hopes to start over. I eventually started a new list after her harsh comments continued.

I’ve started to learn to tune my mom out, but I really just don’t want to. I hear and see my friends have good and trusting relationships with their moms and I can’t help but feel jealous. I want to be able to tell my mom my secrets, but I just don’t really trust her.

I have two older sisters, but they are already out of college and I don’t get to talk to them much. My dad, out of everyone in my family, is the one I am closest to and have the most respect for. He normally tries to create a neutral agreement with me and my mom whenever we disagree. But at the same time, it is frustrating because I know my mom only sees me as a rebellious, immature teenager who is unable to care for herself.

I haven’t seen a doctor or anyone, but I think I do have panic attacks or anxiety attacks from time to time. My mental health isn’t the best and all of this conflict with my mother has only worsened it. I want to see a doctor or somebody, but for some reason, I just don’t feel like I can. I think it’s more because of the fact that I don’t want my mom to know.

My mental health has been getting better over the past few months, but every day, or every other day, I am reminded of my mom and the feeling that she isn’t proud of me and who I am. As I said, I try to ignore it, but I want a good relationship with my mom. I just don’t know how to get it. I tried to open up to her about why I react so strongly when she criticizes me about my acne, and for a moment I thought I was getting through to her, but she ended up storming out of my room.

I told my friends about this and they helped me a lot, but I just don’t know where to go from here. A part of me wants to stand up for myself and another part just wants me to submit to my mom so I can spare our relationship.

I’ll be grateful for any advice you can give.


A Distraught Daughter

Dear Daughter,

I am really happy that you reached out to me. You have a very real issue going on with your mother. I will do my best to help you with ways to deal most effectively. I can tell from your letter that you are sensitive and thoughtful, which are qualities that will serve you well, not only at this point in your life but also throughout what I hope will be a long and fulfilling life.

You describe your mother as critical and I must validate your choice of words. I also understand how your mother's behavior might make you not only angry at her but might also make you self-conscious and frustrated. All of these feelings must certainly be affecting your mental health. You said that you have experienced anxiety attacks. This does not surprise me. Your home sounds like a stressful place and stress that is overwhelming can and certainly is, in this case, contributing to these anxiety attacks.

I wonder what your mother's history is. My guess is that she grew up in a home in which she was heavily criticized. This doesn't make it okay for your mother to try to micromanage you. Sometimes, though, it is helpful to have an understanding of why a mother would criticize and nitpick a daughter who is not only a good student but who seems to also be a good person who is trying hard to have a good relationship with her. Your mother's own history and childhood may get in her way of having a loving connection with you. That is really sad. Of course, you want your mother to love you and be proud of you. Every child wants that. You are in good company here.

I am glad that you have a good relationship with your father. I hope that your father expresses his support and love in a kind and clear manner. It does not seem that your mother has this ability.

I know that you want to have a better relationship with your mother and you want her to see you as you are rather than as a rebellious and immature teen. You have attempted to have discussions with your mother which have unfortunately been unsuccessful. I do not think that you should, as you suggested, submit to your mother. Those are your words and I assume that you mean continuing to have your mom criticize you while you passively nod in agreement. This is not a healthy option. You need to be your own person and this does not mean that you need to do everything that your mother either does in her own life or suggests for you. You do not need to be a carbon copy of your mother. Everyone is unique and has different ways of balancing their lives.

Your idea of standing up for yourself is a good one but we have to carefully discuss what that would look like given your mother's tendency to anger easily and make you feel bad.

Listen to what your mother has to say but try as hard as you possibly can to remind yourself that just because your mother says something doesn't mean that it is right or helpful. In fact, remind yourself that what she says may actually be problematic. Also, remind yourself that your mother has limitations. I am sure that you know this but this can be difficult to accept.

You mention that you would very much like to have a mother who is a confidante. It is a shame that this may not be possible because your mother is so judgmental. Your mother may, unfortunately, never be the ideal mother for you. I am so sorry to say this. This does not mean that she doesn't love you or isn't proud of you.

You write that it is helpful for you to talk to your friends. That is wonderful. It might be very helpful for you to also have the support of a good therapist. During this pandemic, you may be able to set up virtual sessions with a therapist who will help you deal with your anxiety attacks and with your relationship with your mother. I know that you have been reluctant to speak to a therapist because you fear your mother's reaction but I think that you will get so much good out of therapy. Once you have a new way of thinking about your relationship with your mother, you will be less concerned about her approval.

I wish you luck. Please consider everything that I have said and get back to me with any more questions or updates.

Dr. G.

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