From India: i have a bad relationship with my mother.

Your letter was short, but it says enough. Your problem is more common than you may think. We receive many letters from people who wish they had a better relationship with parents but don’t know how to go about it. It’s particularly difficult when the parent isn’t interested or able to also work on the relationship.

What I tell my clients is this: Not everyone gets the parent they wish they had. Having children doesn’t necessarily make someone into a good parent. Good parenting is even more unlikely if the parent is mentally ill, addicted or didn’t have good role models in their own parents.

There really isn’t a guaranteed recipe for an adult child to improve their relationship with a mother or father. But there are some common elements:

  • Stay out of fights. Fighting, arguing, debating, blaming, etc. never get us anywhere. Such behaviors tend to only make things worse.
  • Accept the person as they are: You are unlikely to change someone who has decades of practice being difficult.
  • Find the things you can appreciate and celebrate, even if they are very small or seem ordinary (like if your mother did cook for you) and focus on those.
  • Change your responses: You can’t change the other person, but you can change yourself. When invited to a fight, either find a way to gracefully exit the situation or deflect it by saying something like, “I’ll have to think about that.” or “Thank you for telling me.” The point is to stay out of the argument.
  • Be sure to acknowledge and compliment the person whenever things are positive.

It would be so much easier if the parent would simply see how difficult they are, apologize and work hard on doing better. It does sometimes happen. But when a parent is unresponsive, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to entirely give up on the relationship. Often a change in response to a person does set something better in motion. If not, then changing your expectations can help you be less stressed by the situation.

But — and here’s an important but — if the parent is abusive and refuses to make changes — then it is wise to let go and make peace with the fact that the person you were born to can’t or won’t change. In that case, develop deep friendships with older, wiser people. Often, “family” is of the heart, not of biology.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie