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One of the Web's Oldest Personal Mental Health Sites [Est. 1998]

How to Deal with a Clingy Overbearing Mother

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A question on Quora asked,

“How can one deal with an overbearing, overly clingy mother without hurting her feelings or compromising one’s boundaries? I am my mother’s only child. I love her to death and I am her whole world. I’m also 30 years old and I’ve lived in different states for years, have a great career and a great life. I call my mother every day (she goes ballistic if I don’t and starts calling the police and local hospitals because she worries something may have happened to me). She also very persistently pushes her points of view on many of the things I share with her, even if I’ve told her that I disagree and that her ongoing pushiness is causing me stress… So, over the years, I began to share less and less with her, especially on the subjects that I knew from experience would cause ongoing, negative reactions from her. She has recently begun to realize that we’re no longer as “close” and that I’ve established boundaries, so she is now persistently trying to break them. I’ve tried talking to her and explaining that if only she reacted differently, we could have a better relationship, but this was to no avail. She continues to act the same way and now also to be evermore intrusive and demanding of my time and of the personal things that lie beyond the boundaries I have drawn for her.”

Your story sounds similar to the stories that are posted in the “comment” section of an article I’d written about emotional manipulation and guilt.

Let me go through some parts of your question that stood out for me:

“I love her to death and I am her whole world.”

There is a difference between loving a parent because of the life experiences and the child-parent bond that has developed over your 3 decades of life, versus a mutually parasitic dependency that will, actually, suffocate and kill any prospect of growth for both you *and* your mother.

This is not true love, but your mutual way of manipulating each others’ emotions. You aren’t in love. You’re at war, and emotional manipulation is the weapon you’ve both learned how to use. But this is understandable because this is the only way you’ve both thus far learned to identify as “love”.

It sounds like at this point you’re recognizing that something doesn’t feel quite right and you’re looking for a different way of relating with each other, a different way to love that can be supportive – not suffocating – of both of you.

I call my mother every day (she goes ballistic if I don’t and starts calling the police and local hospitals because she worries something may have happened to me).

Your mother has projected herself wholly onto you such that she may have regressed to the emotional dependency of toddler: very young children genuinely believe that if their parents are out of sight, their parents have completely disappeared forever. Even younger children assume that their mother is an organic part of them, and they will panic and scream when their mother has moved a distance beyond what the children have acclimated to.

Thus, your mother may have grown her life and self identity into you for so many years that she really is in a panic when you don’t “check in” predictably.

You now have a choice to make: you can be like a parent who does not want her child to panic and cry and conform yourself to the comfort zone of this child at the expense of the child’s learning independence and your own life — or you can be a parent who helps her child learn that the parent who is out of sight *will* come back.

Should you choose to make the latter decision, you can begin by telling your mother that you are going to call her much later than she was used to. If I had my way I’d say, “Mom, instead of calling you tomorrow, I’m going to call you the day after tomorrow, at 9am.”

But if she has grown so used to this pattern because you have trained her to expect your clocking-in, then you may need to take baby steps.

“Mom, instead of calling you tomorrow at 9am, I’m going to call you at 8pm, and if you call me during the day I am not going to be able to answer you. From the hours of 9am to 8pm, I am going to be fine, and you’ll be fine too. In fact, let’s talk about what you can do during those hours until we talk and you can tell me about what you did.”

You do this for a few days or a week then you draw out the time between calls to the frequency you feel works for you. Maybe it’s once a week or every other week.

She has recently begun to realize that we’re no longer as “close” and that I’ve established boundaries, so she is now persistently trying to break them.
This is because your mother is smart, as young children who no longer get what they want are smart. I don’t fault her for pulling out all the tricks. I’ve seen them all from my 3 year old when I’m putting him in a new situation that forces him to acclimate.

I know you may find this hard to believe, but I know that when I make my child find his own inner resources, I am giving him the kind of “love” that will help him grow and learn to believe that he has what it takes to be a whole human being without my constant physical presence. I have sat in the parking lot hiding in my car crying because of the pain I feel when I see my boy screaming and crying because he knows I’m going to be leaving him even for a few minutes.

But I do it, because this is not about how I feel, it’s about how he grows. I know you love your mom, and you understand what I’m talking about. This is going to be as painful for you as it will be for her, and this means you have to put your “great love” for her above any excuses your pain will tell you.

It’s going to be hard as hell. But you will get through it. So will she.

I’ve tried talking to her and explaining that if only she reacted differently, we could have a better relationship, but this was to no avail.
This is because she has not yet come to the same level of awareness that you may have at this point. There is no use in trying to explain to her using the same abstract ideas if she cannot understand it fully. You’ll only frustrate the both of you.

Instead of telling her what you don’t want to talk about, tell her what you do want to talk about, or find something new to talk about. You can also set some ground rules of how you will go about “talking”. If rules are violated, there are reminders, then warnings, then the termination of the discussion. Do not ever deviate from the ground rules. Eventually you will be able to have a conversation where you hang up feeling like you’ve had a good talk rather than screaming at each other or you seething in passive aggressive silence.

I hope this is helpful and I wish you strength and courage to change this course of love between you and your mom.

Written by Jane Chin

July 12th, 2011 at 11:27 am