It’s normal for a mother to get angry and speak viciously on occasion, says psychologist Terri Apter. But when she routinely uses anger and neediness to manipulate a child, she’s in a different league. She’s what Apter calls a “difficult mother” and she can haunt a child for a lifetime.
Apter was researching relationships between adolescents and parents when she noticed that, in 20 per cent of her cases, the mother was causing intractable problems. “I was not setting out to do a study of difficult mothers but I realized I had data on difficult mothers,” she explained last week from England, where she is a fellow at Cambridge University’s Newnham College.
She also realized the controlling behaviour of her late mother had been on her mind for years. In her new book, Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power, Apter describes how she can still “chill to memories of my mother’s angry breath. Her critical, suspicious, probing presence is a constant companion.”
In the book, Apter identifies various types of difficult mothers. There’s the Neglectful Mother, the Envious Mother, the Angry Mother and the Narcissistic Mother. Apter gives the example of Jon, who grew up believing his mother was very confident and that everyone loved her. Jon’s mother would tell him, “See how he looked at me? He couldn’t take his eyes off me.”
But as soon as Jon started dating women, his mother became needy and self-abusive. She’d tell Jon, “I’m just an old, useless woman. I hope my organs are aging as quickly as my face, so I won’t live to get much older.” The implicit message is “show me you adore me and put me first or I’ll die,” says Apter.
“What is the aim of this book? A lot of it is just understanding,” she says. “There is something so liberating about being able to name the experience that you’ve been facing. I think with understanding the impact of a difficult mother, you are much more able to stand back and say, ‘That punitive voice I hear in my head whenever I spill a little bit of coffee, is that a remnant of her?’ ”
When you can identify the legacy you can revise it, even without costly therapy. “A therapist is not going to fix it,” says Apter. “A therapist is going to offer possible interpretations, but you’re the one who has to do the work.”
In Jon’s case, knowing his mother is a narcissist helped him understand he’ll never be able to meet her needs. “She is just going to be needy whatever he offers. It makes more sense for him to say, ‘What do I need? How can I get on with my life? What is reasonable for me to offer?’ ”
Often, sons and daughters of difficult mothers develop beneficial coping strategies. They learn how to be diplomatic. They learn patience. “They can be very successful professionals but when it comes to interpersonal exchanges, or when something goes wrong, they can be flooded with self-doubt and the sense that they should be punished.”
Children of angry mothers, for instance, may grow up to be attracted to people whose anger is easily aroused because they associate the behaviour with their mother’s authority. They also have trust issues and often feel as if people are coercing them.
Changing the behaviour of a difficult mother isn’t likely. That’s not the aim of the book, Apter says, explaining that a difficult mother has no insight. When confronted, she sticks rigidly to her own story and dismisses her child’s feelings.
She might say, “You have no idea what you’re talking about!” Or she might blame the child. “You made me angry. Are you satisfied?”
Changing the way you deal with your mother is possible. Instead of trying to placate her, understand the anger is her problem, advises Apter. “Put boundaries around it so you don’t feel so crushed by her power.” When you hear “shadow voices” telling you that you don’t measure up, identify them as legacies of a difficult mother, then challenge them and put them to rest. “People don’t want to discard a mother, they just want to manage themselves so that she doesn’t drive them crazy.”