Our mother is volatile and is causing rifts in our family

Tell Me About It: ‘It is obvious that she is suffering deeply. What can we do?’

PROBLEM: Our mother is in her early 70s and physically very healthy. She is outgoing and involved in activities since her retirement and has good friends and social life. On the surface all looks good.

Within the family, though caring, she is volatile. She takes slights where there are none and completely overreacts to the point where we are all on eggshells when it comes to family events – invariably she causes rows at every opportunity. This is not new behaviour so other issues like Alzheimer’s may not be the cause. She blames everything on her marriage and so my father is not in a position to support her.

As her children we have all suggested she seek professional help, but she absolutely refuses. Her behaviour is causing a huge rift as we all avoid her because she is starting to turn on her grandchildren, no one is immune.

It is obvious that she is suffering deeply. What can we do?

ADVICE: On the one hand, your mother is doing well as she is socially active and involved, but as you say her family life is fraught with issues. The difficulty is that all of you, and now her grandchildren, would like her to behave in as reasonable manner in her close family life as she does with those who are more external. It sounds as though this behaviour has gone on for a long time and, much as you would like her to tackle it, no offers of help have been taken up by her.

This is, of course, her right, but then the rest of you are left tiptoeing around her, for fear of encouraging slights or blame. It is good that you see this as her suffering deeply and that you recognise that everyone who cares about her is beginning to avoid her and this will leave her more alone and more resentful than she is already. There are two aspects to addressing this: one is to teach the family how to respond in a way that allows them not to be upset and the other is to take every opportunity to get your mother to see that the cause of her suffering is herself.

When your mother is blaming or defensive it is most likely that she is coming from a place of fear and insecurity. An example of this might be if she feels she is not getting enough attention or that someone else is getting more credit than she is. What is happening here is probably that her self-worth is so delicate that she is on the look-out for any evidence that others see her as ‘less than’. The reality is probably that she fears her own view of herself will be disclosed (not worthy or not good enough) and so she protects it with barbs and over-reactions. The family need to see the insecurity and respond to that rather than to what is being said or played out. This is quite a challenge but if you support each other you may be able to change the dynamic, e.g. instead of responding to the slight offer reassurance. This does not mean indulgence as she may need to hear the effect of some of her interactions, e.g. towards the younger members of the family.

However, she will not be able to hear this if she is stuck in blame or insecurity so another calmer time will need to be put aside for these discussions. It is a good idea to ask questions as much as possible and perhaps start with her own upbringing and how her self-confidence was supported or otherwise during that time. She may be more able to see and take responsibility for her current behaviour when she has some understanding and self-compassion for her younger self.

If this conversation can gain traction, it might be a good idea for someone to both invite and accompany her to a course that includes self-awareness, for example one of the Aware courses or one of the many introductory philosophy courses that are available. This might allow insight and conversations to grow about the nature of human beings and the things that bog us down. Indeed, she may well be interested in the many articles, blogs and conversations that are around about imposter syndrome, fear and insecurity – Bene Brown’s many podcasts and TED talks could be useful here as a starter/conversation pack.

The family’s suggestion that she seeks professional help is correct and it would be great for her if she were able to take up this suggestion, however, it is likely that she sees this as confirmation of her ‘less than’ status and she needs to resist this to prove it untrue. If anyone in the family has availed of counselling and is doing well, it might be good to open up about this so that she can tangentially hear that it takes strength and courage to seek this type of support, rather than see it as a weakness. Luckily, she is loved and cared for in spite of her volatile interactions, so trust in that base and change the pattern of behaviour that everyone is engaged in and look beyond avoidance as the only option available to you all.