My mother and father are still together after 50 years of marriage. They are good, church going people who are very community minded. They show love by acts of service and are often kind and generous to other people. But the way my critical mother treats my largely passive father is toxic, and I recently took the opportunity to stand up to their behaviour in order to reverse the negative effects it has had on my own life. Here's how it panned out:

Standing Up To A Critical Mother

Standing Up To A Critical Mother

Recently my parents and I all attended my maternal aunt's 90th birthday party, along with my maternal cousins, my two older sisters, and all their husbands/wives and families. We spent the weekend in a lovely guest house in the country and since it was a long drive for my aging parents, they asked me to give them a lift there and back. I am a little apprehensive because I know the way my parent's behaviour often triggers me, but I see it as an opportunity to connect with them and spend some additional quality time together.

The two-hour drive to the guest house is relatively uneventful, with occasional friendly chatter and lunch at my parents' favourite cafè on-route.

However, I am starting to notice the pattern in my parents relationship that often upsets me: my mother “corrects” everything my father says, in a way which sounds critical and belittling to me. His reaction is to withdraw and shut down in response to this criticism; a common trait I particularly dislike in myself.

Initially, I just witness what is happening and my internal reaction. But over the course of the weekend as I notice more and more incidents where my father says something that my mother thinks is foolish, wrong or otherwise in need of correction, I become increasingly agitated.

In my ideal world, all the years of therapy and emotional healing that I've had would insulate me from the effect of this and I'd be free to let them relate however they choose without me being triggered.

But in the real world, I'm not that enlightened. Not yet, anyway.

The formal party on Saturday night goes well and for the most part everyone has a great time during our extended family weekend in the country. Yet within me is a growing resentment towards my mother for the way she is treating my father, and towards him for his passive response. On the last evening I have a bad headache and retire early.

The next morning, I am feeling pretty groggy after a bad night's sleep. I still have a headache and I am not looking forward to driving my parents home again. When I wonder what the headache is really about, I sense that deep down I'm really angry. Having had poor experiences of the way anger was handled by my parents when growing up, I developed tremendous shame about being angry and repressed this normal emotion so hard that I rarely even felt angry as an adult. Instead, it came out as headaches, anxiety and fatigue.

I cannot remember as an adult ever telling my mother that I am angry with her, and I suspect that this is just the tip of a deep iceberg of resentment still trapped deep in my psyche and physiology. A voice inside tells me it's time to face my primal fear around my parent's relationship and reveal to them for the first time the full extent of my anger about it.

I have occasionally tried to tell my mother the way her behaviour impacts me, but she has always brushed me off, dismissed my feelings or generally avoided the conversation altogether; leaving me feeling even angrier, more hurt, and with no emotional resolution.

So I know I'm probably in for the fight of my life and I'm physically shaking before the conversation has even started.

We are all packed and seated in the guest-house lounge ready to go when Mum says “OK, let's go!” cheerfully. I reply firmly: “There's something I want to talk to you both about before we get in the car to drive home.”

“Oh no”, my mother groans resentfully, “Do we really have to?”

My father looks concerned at my request, but doesn't say anything.

My voice is shaky, but assertive: “Yes, it's important to me. Are you open to talking?”

“Look Graham, we've had a lovely weekend, do you have to ruin it now?”, Mum says angrily.

“I'm not ruining the weekend; I just want to talk about what's bothering me.”, I reply as my body begins to shake even more.

“Oh... All right then”, says my mother unconvincingly. Nevertheless, it is at least a verbal buy-in.

“I've noticed a pattern in the way you both communicate this weekend that I've found disturbing, and I'd like to talk about it to make sure it doesn't continue on the drive home.”, I say as clearly as possible.

I can see that they really don't want to talk about this, but I know that not being heard will leave me feeling upset on the two-hour drive home. It's time for me to stop avoiding my own fear around upsetting them, and confront the issue.

Graham Stoney

Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.


Darkstar · November 21, 2016 at 3:09 pm

I can relate. My father (passed in 2009) was so hen-pecked it isn't funny. My mother will still nag, correct, and belittle people- especially him- all the time until she gets her way over the most insignificant things. My father's reaction was to try and keep the peace and retreat into his hobby, but there was no escaping it so he was constantly highly-strung and would lose his temper without warning and always had issues sleeping despite his physically-intensive job. The anger just kept building up in him.

Just this weekend, my mother tried to claim that me moving out of home 16 years ago (I was 20) broke my father's heart, despite it being very clear that she was the one upset about it, nagging me to move back home for 10 years until I lost my temper with her one afternoon (she continues to drop hints and tries to get me to stay over to this day). She has a habit of projecting her feelings and failings onto others.

    Graham Stoney

    Graham Stoney · November 22, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Your mother sounds like a real challenge! I'm wondering what you might be able to do to stand up to her next time she starts nagging you?

      Darkstar · November 24, 2016 at 3:39 pm

      Suggestions would be good! I did have one idea, but decently-priced flamethrowers are hard to find on ebay (jokes ;P )

      I am tired of being infantilized, and my sisters are little help- they feel I am the 'favourite' and appear to resent it. One in particular seems to think I had an easy, care-free upbringing when in fact I was stressed, angry, miserable, and desperate to leave school & home.

      I have looked up many sites on narcissistic, controlling mothers and their effects on sons, and they read like someone took notes on my life. I'm having issues at the moment with a few things and am left wondering what kind of person I'd be and if I'd be better off if I had a more 'normal' environment growing up.

Etta · October 12, 2016 at 2:25 pm

Hi. I found your site by scrolling, and found it very sobering, albeit, biting.
I have a boyfriend that absolutely does not stand up to his mother. She continually belittles him, even in front of me. A couple of times she actually turned on me. She's controlling, manipulative, and narcissistic. One time, via telephone, she tried her best to get personal information from me concerning my boyfriend and I for which he told me it will not be talked about again with anyone. She tried everything, including the age old, I thought had died out "you don't love me." I stood my ground. She angrily hung up. Well, she's now trying to keep us apart, using another age old "it's not right for y'all to be together."
I had enough! Sooo, I called her, and began yelling at her. No it wasn't right, I could have used another approach. My bf, when it comes to her, is not strong. I'm not saying I was at that moment when on the phone, so I have to find a way to be assertive as opposed to being aggressive. Yet, I'm saying that at least now she knows that Im definitely not afraid of her.

    Graham Stoney

    Graham Stoney · October 14, 2016 at 9:51 am

    Hi Etta. Your boyfriend's mother sounds like quite a challenge! Good on you for standing up to her. I hope your boyfriend learns the skills to break the emotional umbilical cord and stand up to her as a man, too. I'm wondering if you've come across Marshal Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication? I think it could help you both deal more assertively with her. Cheers, Graham

Exotica · February 20, 2015 at 11:59 pm

I know you blame your parents for your lack of assertiveness but parental relationships or just a small part of a child's environment. Have you also considered that those you were around in school or other non-familial social contexts may also have had significant influence on your beliefs and ultimately your behavior? There may have been bullies or other callous assholes that you interacted with that also contributed to some of the fears and ultimately powerlessness that you felt when it comes to confrontation.

And the episode with your parents I think shows something that is endemic in our society: people can't take criticism nor do they take personal responsibility for their actions. If your mom said: you know what you're right and it's wrong of me to treat your dad this way, then there would have been no argument. But instead they stick to their guns and question your authority to categorize their behavior As wrong. Almost as if they're self-righteous and arrogant and can't see that alternative methods of behavior exist. But they aren't alone. Recently the NYPD got criticized for its sometimes overly aggressive behavior and they blew a gasket at the idea that someone dear criticize their behavior.

The real key of being assertive is knowing you are right, and sticking to your guns, even When others fume loudly that you're wrong. If you stand for nothing, you fall for everything. Good job my man, good job. Keep pressing the parents they'll learn eventually.

    Graham Stoney

    Graham Stoney · February 25, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Hi Exotica. Yes, I think you're totally correct about the parent/family thing being only a part of the environmental problem. With a powerless male role model father and dominating mother, I was conditioned to respond passively in the world; and that's a recipe for becoming a bullying target. I didn't know how to stand up for myself at school, or at church when I was taught negative things about myself that weren't true. Nobody had taught me how to communicate assertively, and I internalized all the fear and anger as these things compounded each other. And yes, you're spot on about my parents taking my expression of how I feel around them as deep-seated criticism. Over time I'm learning that them blowing a gasket doesn't make me wrong about how I feel, nor about my desire to express it to them when their behaviour triggers me. Thanks for the feedback! -Graham

Trevor Stripling · February 20, 2015 at 5:41 am

Hello, Graham. I can relate to your situation because those kind of arguments happen all the time here, If I an assertive, confident, self reliant, or pretty much anything else that someone who will be 18 in 3 months should be I get the insults and verbal abuse. Your program has really helped me a lot and I can see how I've changed for the better in the short time I've used the wisdom and knowledge that you teach and I am forever grateful for that. Honestly, I'm glad I didn't wait until I'm 30 to stand up to my parents, I don't feel the guilt or the shame that they want me to so desperately feel, and that might be different if I was older. It's a shame that those who supposedly love us the most are the ones that show the least love when deeper issues come to the surface.

    Graham Stoney

    Graham Stoney · February 25, 2015 at 9:15 am

    I'm really glad to hear you're making great progress Trevor; good on you for getting onto this so early in life. It is unfortunate that insecure parents get triggered when their children start being assertive; some respond to the challenge by tackling their inner issues, while others use insults and abuse to shut us down to avoid their pain. We're biologically wired to want our parents love and approval, so it's challenging to stand up to them when their behaviour is destructive but I also believe it's the path to freedom. 🙂

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