“Are you really saying you'd cut off contact with your son just because you're unwilling to stop criticising your husband in front of him? Seriously?”, I counter.

“Look Graham,” Dad says angrily, “You can't dictate what other people do. We've been relating like this for 50 years and it's not about to change. You've got problems, and it's time you grew up and sorted yourself out. Don't go telling us what to do!”

He's got a point there: My biggest problem is that in the past I haven't stood up for myself; but that's changing now. It is time I grew up and that's exactly why I'm having the conversation.

We grow up by confronting our emotional issues in the present moment when they get triggered, by learning to deal with the inevitable conflicts in our relationships as they come up, and by facing the uncomfortable situations we used to avoid.

Dad is clearly very angry at being drawn into conflict over this; a conflict he's been avoiding for 50 years. He stands over me menacingly, clenching his fists and hissing through his teeth. My inner child is terrified by his aggressive stance but the adult voice inside me thinks: “What's he gonna do? Hit me right here in the lounge, like he used to hit Mum? He's 82 now. He'd probably break something, and it'd most likely be something in himself.”

It's common in toxic families for other abuse victims to turn on the whistle-blower, so I'm not surprised when my father displaces his anger at my mother, towards me.

Still, that doesn't make it any less frightening. My limbic system is triggered as I feel my deepest fears of conflict and abandonment; but I know if I just breathe, I'll survive.

I'm very tempted to start firing back with some hurtful criticism myself. But since my primary aim is to heal my own internal wounds around criticism and conflict, I need to avoid saying anything I'll feel guilty or ashamed of later. Instead, I stick to expressing my feelings and needs as assertive as I can.

“Look, let's all sit down and get this sorted out so we can go home in peace”, I say. “Mum, I'd like you to commit to not criticising or belittling my father when I'm around.”

I am so triggered that I can't hope to remember what is said accurately. No wonder most of my parent's arguments over who-said-what in a previous argument were so pointless. Accurate recall is one of the first things to go when we're in fight-or-flight mode.

What sticks most in my mind most though is when my mother says sarcastically: “Look, I'm sorry. I won't criticise or belittle him in front of you any more. In fact I won't say anything in the car on the way home. Is that what you want me to say?”

My mother's begrudging apology doesn't sound at all sincere and feels manipulative, which makes me even more angry. Although I'm not really ready to hear it, she is at least verbally agreeing to my request.

“Thank you Mum, I'm grateful for your promise to stop criticising and belittling my father in front of me, and I intend to hold you to it. This isn't about getting you to say the right thing just so we can get in the car and go, it's about sorting the issue out so we all feel it's resolved. I'm glad you've agreed to my request and I intend to hold you to your commitment.”

I'm still really pissed off though.

I can also see that Mum and Dad are also still very angry. So we're still a way off sitting comfortably in a car together for two hours yet.

“Don't you see that you're doing exactly what you're criticising your mother for?”, says Dad.

There is some truth in that, since everything is a projection and my parents are just mirrors to me. But he's only partly right: Rather than just delivering more belittling, personal criticism, I am being very specific about the behaviour that is triggering me, and I'm owning up to the emotions involved. It's the difference between being assertive and being aggressive in a conflict.

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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