Tell Me About It

My narcissistic mother is manipulating my daughters and I’m scared to death

Tell me about it: I have suffered years of whiplash mood swings and treading on egg shells to feed her insatiable need

PROBLEM: I have always just thought of my mother as demanding and difficult, but, finally, after 41 years of existence, I have come to realise that she is, in fact, narcissistic.

I feel awful just thinking about it, but it’s the truth, I have suffered years of whiplash mood swings and treading on egg shells to feed her insatiable need, for whatever it is she wants from me. I had just about learnt to ignore her ‘dramas’, but now she has set her sights on my girls who are 17, I am literally scared to death. I don’t know what to do – she has my sisters and brother in her pocket and they will do anything to appease her.

My father (they divorced when I was eight, as he couldn’t stand her behaviour) passed away eight years ago, so he can’t help. My husband has stood up to her, but she loves playing the “hard-done-by doting grandmother”.

I am at my wits’ end.

ADVICE: Having a mother who is difficult, self-absorbed or narcissistic is indeed very difficult. A relationship with a parent is perhaps the one case where we expect unconditional love and where we can claim to be the centre of attention.

Growing up in a home where the mother-love is conditional, withdrawn on a whim or compromised, can have life-long consequences for a child. There is no doubt that the old childhood fear of her all-powerful moods has now resurfaced as you fear the influence on your children. However, you have a lot of life experience behind you and you have learned to manage your relationship with your mother.

In addition, you have support from your husband who sees as clearly as you do, so your fear may not be as founded as you think. You are now in the strong position as you are an adult in charge of your own life and you have influence over how your own family relate to your mother. It seems that you see no option but that she has unfettered access to your daughters and I wonder why this is so – do you see a vulnerability in her or it is that you still see her as all-powerful?

History would seem to suggest that your mother is not open to challenge or change – your father divorced her and you and your siblings seem to appease her without any significant self-awareness growing in her. But now she wants something and there is an opportunity for adult challenge, ie if you witness any manipulative or unsavoury behaviour between her and your daughters, you can call it out straight away and remove your family from the situation. This would require that you fully step into the role of mother and protector of your children. As someone who puts the needs of your children first, it should be entirely possible that you fearlessly engage in any conflict with your mother. Your childhood stance of appeasement would finally be put to bed and your fear overcome by the greater need of protecting your girls. Your mother is responsible for her own behaviour and you are not, and would not be, responsible for any consequences of her actions – if the result is that she is blocked from seeing her grandchildren, then she carries the responsibility for this.

However, let us not forget that 17-year-old girls are capable of intelligence and intuition and it is time you put some trust in your years of parenting. Talk to your girls of your experience with your mother and tell them that you are available for advice and discussion should they need it. Trust them to make their own judgments and whenever possible demonstrate the capacity to speak up and call out bad behaviour when you see it. Your girls are not a replica of you at that age – they have the benefit of strong parenting and are secure in the knowledge of their place in your life. They need to make their own choices and mistakes and you will be there in the background to support them as needed.

There is also one other possibility in this situation: we have lots of evidence that grandparents can be far more caring and loving in their relationship with their grandchildren than they ever were with their own children – it is a type of second chance.

Can you ground yourself, let things unfold and allow yourself to react when you see what is happening rather than be paralysed with fear of repeating your own past? You are not on your own now, you have a husband who is clearly on your side and you do not have to maintain a relationship with your mother unless you choose to.

Love allows us to challenge and love for your daughters will offer you all the motivation you need to address your mother’s issues, should it be required.