Question:I am the mother of a 36-year-old daughter. Our relationship is very strained. She repeatedly speaks to me with sarcastic intonations in spite of my numerous requests for her to "try to talk nice." She rolls her eyes and smirks at me openly. Then when I get upset/hurt, she says I'm making a big deal about nothing and tells me I drive her crazy. When I try to put some time/distance between us so that things can cool down and I can focus on the things I need to do to take care of myself, she calls me, always due to the latest crisis with which she desperately needs my help (usually requires monetary assistance--something I have in short supply myself). I end up helping her and my son-in-law mostly in the interest of helping my grandchildren. No thank you, no sign of appreciation, and if I say anything that indicates even remotely that a little appreciation would be nice, then the sarcasm starts up, or screaming, or I get cursed out. I realize I'm a huge part of this equation, but I feel like I'm on a merry-go-round, and I don't know how to get off. I see that I am repeating/reliving my relationship with my mother (deceased) with my daughter, and it makes me sick. I feel like my heart is broken. Please help!
This is a common problem between adult mothers and daughters because women have often been conditioned from very young to be indirect in their communication which leads to PA communication. I have divided this question up into three components on this website to illustrate how to manage situations using the tools of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). The first step is education which I address in a PsychNote. The second step is examining and challenging the mother's thinking regarding the situation which I describe in a Cognitive Diary Example. And the third step is changing the response to the situation as I discuss here.
If the mother has already focused on changing her thinking about the situation she can gain a little emotional distance from the situation which can help her in deciding what would be a better response to her daughter's behavior. In particular, if you have read my article about PA behavior, the goal of the PA person is to indirectly express anger without having to take responsibility. In this situation, the daughter starts with sarcasm and facial expressions. If she is confronted it gives her the opportunity to blame the mother about being overly reactive. This then escalates into more aggressive behavior which the daughter justifies by accusing the mother of "driving her crazy."
The mother needs to remove herself from this pattern. If she has worked on her thinking she already recognizes that trying to control her adult daughter only leads to escalation. Therefore, she needs to do the opposite. She shouldn't try to get her daughter to change behavior or to express appreciation. If she doesn't appreciate the mother's help, the mother doesn't need to continue to help. The mother can use behavior rather than words to manage the situation. When the daughter treats her poorly, the mother can calmly (this is important!) leave the situation or hang up the phone. If the daughter tries to draw her into conflict by saying that she is "making a big deal about nothing" she should have a simple response such as "Maybe I am but I don't like it when you treat me this way." She should not attempt to argue or explain further.
The bottom line with this situation is simply to not engage. But for the mother to not engage she must first change her thinking regarding trying to get her daughter to behave better. Only by doing so will she be able to disengage from the situation. As I indicated, this is a good example of how the different components of CBT work together to help manage a situation.
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