Lessons From a Hypercritical Mother

I was raised by a mother who found fault in everything I did. Even my most painstaking efforts to gain her approval were completely futile. She was impossible to please, so I eventually stopped trying and ultimately stopped caring. It’s a wonder that I learned anything positive at all from the woman, but I did, and I would like to share a few of the things I learned from a hypercritical mother:

Children are worthy of respect.

Novel concept, eh? Children are individuals; they are thinking, feeling human beings with minds and ideas of their own. While we may have no idea where they’re coming from sometimes, or why they do some of the things they do — especially during adolescence — children and teenagers deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect afforded to those members of the human race who just happen to be older than them.

Being an adult does not entitle me to belittle or devalue someone simply because s/he is a child.

My son will be thirteen in less than four months. He is experiencing a lot of physical and psychological changes, and sometimes I feel like I don’t even know him. He is moody and cranky a lot of the time, even rude and disrespectful. Much of what I say to him goes in one ear and out the other, and sometimes his logic fails me. But snide, condescending responses to these things will only drive a wedge between us and broaden the gap in our communication.

It is my responsibility as an adult and a parent to model the type of behavior I expect from my child.

Adults are not automatically worthy of respect from children.

Respect is earned, and that applies to adults as well as to children. I will never insist that my son respect someone who disrespects him. That is not to say that I will allow him to behave disrespectfully toward another person, regardless of age. Not respecting someone and behaving disrespectfully toward that person are two different things. We can be courteous or civil to people whom we do not respect — it’s an important part of functioning in society. But if you want to be treated with respect, which I believe goes above courtesy or civility, then I’ll need a reason other than your date of birth.

If you want respect, then behave respectfully and respectably. Talking down to people, making them feel stupid or embarrassed for not seeing things your way or for not knowing or understanding something that seems obvious to you is not only disrespectful and hurtful, it is a form of emotional abuse that can permanently damage someone’s self-esteem, especially a vulnerable child.

Questions are good things.

I’m glad that my son is inquisitive, and that he comes to me with questions. I have always encouraged this and will continue to do so, regardless of how difficult his questions may become over the years. It keeps the communication flowing, and that is a vital part of any parent-child relationship. It’s important to try to give honest, straightforward answers whenever possible — even if the answer is, “I don’t know, but let’s look it up and see what can find.” I think this shows children that we’re interested in them, even if the topic doesn’t interest us that much.

On the flip side, my mother seemed irritated by questions. She seemed to regard them as some sort of intrusion, like answering to the likes of some snot-nosed kid was utterly beneath her. Even questions designed solely to make conversation or show interest were met with obvious annoyance and sarcastic responses. I learned at a very young age not to ask questions unless I wanted to be hurt and humiliated. I will not pass that lesson along to my son!

Different just means different.

Try telling that to my mother. She never seemed to understand that individual people have individual preferences and ways of doings things.

Wait, I take that back. She does understand that. What she does not seem to understand is that these kinds of differences do not make anyone inferior to her. Different just means different, and preferences cannot be incorrect by definition. There is more than one way to fold a bath towel, and none of them are right or wrong. They’re just different. Some people prefer mayonnaise, some prefer mustard. Neither preference is incorrect or inferior.

With my mother, there was never any room for individuality. As for me, my son’s emotional well-being and self-esteem are far more important than what he prefers to put on a sandwich, or having my dishes stacked to precision.

These are just a few lessons I learned from my hypercritical mother. I no longer have a relationship with her. The last and final straw was when I took my son back to my hometown and stupidly attempted to reconcile with her.

Nothing had changed. If anything she had become even worse over the years. She was just as controlling and critical of me as she had always been. But when she started directing her venom toward my son, I knew that it had to end. I simply refuse to subject my son to it. Shared DNA does not equal a healthy relationship and I will protect my son in every way possible from the effects of abuse in any form.

Do I always get it right? Absolutely not! I am talking to myself here as much as to anyone else. I hope that sharing this publicly will help to make me even more conscious, and accountable as well. I love my son more than anything in this world, and I want to do right by him in every way.

17 responses to “Lessons From a Hypercritical Mother

  • Christina

    Thanks for your entry. As the daughter of a very hypercritical Mom, I can identify 100% with what you wrote.

    “She seemed to regard them as some sort of intrusion, like answering to the likes of some snot-nosed kid was utterly beneath her” I felt this regarding questions as well as any problems or interests I had. To this day I doubt she knows that I was followed by a gang of girls and got in a fight in junior high, that I tried out for varsity cheerleader (and failed), etc.

    To make it more confounding, sometimes she would be nice or tell me how much she loved me–but I never knew when it was going to happen, so I learned to walk on eggshells and kept hoping for acceptance.

    I am thankful that I am able to see what NOT to do with children. In the meantime, I am trying to stop taking the place of my hypercritical mother (harsh self-judgment) and learn to be more self-assured and confident on my own merit.

  • Lottie

    Thank you for commenting, Christina.

    To make it more confounding, sometimes she would be nice or tell me how much she loved me–but I never knew when it was going to happen, so I learned to walk on eggshells and kept hoping for acceptance.

    I can totally relate to this! Sounds like our moms are cut from the same cloth.

    I am thankful that I am able to see what NOT to do with children. In the meantime, I am trying to stop taking the place of my hypercritical mother (harsh self-judgment) and learn to be more self-assured and confident on my own merit.

    Same here! Absolutely!

    Thank you so much for sharing your own experience.

  • Michael

    Thanks for sharing. Came across you on google under hypercritical mother. So sad to be in a place like this, yet comforting to know that I can be different and not follow in her mistakes.

  • perdida summer

    now there is hypercritical and hypercritical. I have recently been acused of being hypercritical by my daughter in law. she feels that i have too many opinions on too any subjects. i think a mothers job is to be a sort of a guiding light for her children and assist them in what ever they need. if thery ask a question to answer to the best of your ability.
    please see the movie mars needs mothers to get an idea of what potentially could be a mother’s job.

  • Lottie

    Daughter-in-law? This tells me she is a grown woman. If she feels that you are expressing “too many opinions” to her, then you are.

    A mother’s job is to guide her children and prepare them for adulthood in a way that will enable them to function without a “guiding light” from their mother.

    Based on your own comment here, it sounds to me that whether you realize it or not, you may very well be hypercritical. My best advice would be to back off and let your son and his wife establish some independence before you lose him for good and/or contribute to destroying his marriage. You wouldn’t want that, I’m sure.

    Would you?

  • That Other Mike

    @ Perdida: It seems you missed the irony of coming here and commenting critically; and you also kind of missed the point of the post, too. Maybe you should respond to the words which are actually there next time, rather than those you think are there…

  • Dan

    I have a very hypercritical mother, and recently, after 40 years, decided I wasn’t, couldn’t, take it anymore. She once visited and, looking at my closet, said “Do you have enough clothes?” with this incredibly angry look on her face. I happened to turn on my projector a few moments before turning off the tv, and she said “Do you have to have two things on at once?” Same visit, my dad turned on the stove, and let it sit a millionth of a second before igniting the gas, and she said “Don’t you smell the gas? You’re going to blow us all up!” I didn’t smell any gas, and I have very sensitive nostrils.
    She back seat drives with my dad every trip the take, even a short one, I once boughta pair of shoes on sale for 50$, and she made a stink about that. First of all, what century does she think this is, that you can get a decent pair of shoes for less than 50 bucks, and besides, what business is it of hers how I spend my money?
    Another time I bought a meal at a restaurant , which was appetizer, salad or soup, entree, desert and drink, for 19.95. It was a price fixed meal. I told her, and she rolled her eyes like I was soooo extravagant.
    She once dressed down my father for I forget what in front of company, and the husband started to intervene, he couldn’t take seeing someone treated like that.
    I could go on and on. I’m glad to have her out of my life.

  • Lottie

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Dan. I’m sorry your comment was stuck in moderation for so long; I haven’t been checking in as regularly as I used to.

    I can totally relate to the things you’ve shared. I’m sorry to know that you were ever in the same boat, but glad to hear that you’ve also taken your life back. Good for you!

  • Tanja

    I took my life back when I was 40. For so many years I wondered why I felt like I had failed childhood and adolescence, why I could never please my mother or make her proud. It became so stressful that I was making excuses to not have anything to do with her. I started spending holidays elsewhere instead of with her and the family. She hated my boyfriends, more to the point, she expected them to be worth hating before she even met them. She despised my female friends, especially pretty and successful ones. For as long as I could remember, she stole my things from me. If she gave me presents (and they were very shabby, eventually they would end up back in her possession. She lived with an critical and angry man and he directs his anger toward her leaving her walking on eggshells. She directed the frustration toward me, telling me in her own insidious way that I was a loser. She even used her female friends who were my age to exemplify my failure by showing me how wonderful they were.

    For forty years I was very sad and angry and felt that I was a failure in life. It was at Xmas when I was 40 that I realised that I was not a failure at all. I had been trained to fail and became a fawning obsequious daughter who went to extraordinary lengths to please a person who would never be pleased with me.

    The last straw came when I attempted to show her my xmas photos of friends and she just was not interested. That was all I needed to tell me that she would never love me in a healthy way. She is a jealous mysogynistic woman who hates hates hates. And all she does is take take take. She used to assess a boyfriend and then put him to work with my stepfather, who has a foul temper when confronted by someone supposedly less competent than he is.

    Five years later and I am getting help for all this and I am lucky to be young enough to know that I was not a bad girl who made my mother’s life Hell. I feel I will be recovering from it for the rest of my life and never feel the freedom of being myself.

    To end on a funny note I have an anecdote. My mother and I were in a little seaside shop together while I was trying on a swimsuit. The woman in the shop asked her “You must be looking forward to your grand daughter starting Uni this year.” Hah! I was 38 at that time. The tension was palpable and for the rest of the weekend I was chastised in a passive agressive way for anything and everything.

    Goodbye by Birthing Unit. You did your most important job for me 45 years ago. I don’t need you now.

  • Lottie

    Thanks so much for sharing some of your story, Tanja. I can relate to so much of it! Congratulations on taking your life back. 🙂

  • Xanthe Wyse

    I am estranged from my family. The main problem is my hypercritical mother. My family have never been able to accept me and my choices as an adult. To me, it’s less painful to have no family at all, than a (very religious) family that think it’s okay to call me immoral, crazy etc and then to expect me to keep it quiet (I’ve been blogging about it under my pen-name, which is getting them in a flap). They see me as being negative and unforgiving. I just can’t handle being abused anymore, I’m sick of the hypocrisy and I’m doubtful things will change.

  • queen

    I’m so glad to hear I am not the only one that has gone through this. My mother is a very judgemental, hypocritical, and hypercritical person, O also very into the Church. I lived 32 years to finally realize that nothing I did or ever will do, will ever be enough for her. I feel so much better not dealing with her, relieved of a lot of stress.

  • Michael

    I feel the same way. I am 21 now and I hardly ever talk to my mom anymore. Every since I was 10 years old, I remember my mother always belittling me for anything and everything I do. I remember myself always trying to avoid her as best as possible. My father was fine, he can get mad , but at least he wasn’t the degrading women I had to live with for 18 years of my life.

    She would constantly mock me and say that other children of her friends or kids she would see on television are always better than me. Every time I try to ask a question, she would reply in this really annoyed voice, like she can’t believe I had the audacity to ask Her Majesty a question. I actually don’t think I have heard her “nice” voice since I was 12. Every time she would talk to me, it’s in that annoyed voice complete with the disgusted facial expression.

    I know for a FACT that an average parent would love to have a son like me. I got perfect grades (4.0 GPA), did a ton of sports, had a lot of friends, participated in clubs and competitions, and even played 3 instruments! I had a ton of patience, which was why I didn’t break until around 15 or so and start screaming curses in her face. She can’t see the good in anything I do. It’s like, “Good for you that you did that. Now get the hell out of my face you annoying brat.” I volunteered at my church, hospital, school, everywhere, and the only person out of everyone I had come in contact with that didn’t treat me with respect was my mother. It was like she thought I HAD to give her respect because she was my mom, and she thinks I owe EVERYTHING to her.

    Why should I give her any respect? She had never supported me, always gnawed at my self-esteem and patience, probably shortened my life by 10 years with all the stress, was always hypercritical, never thankful of anything I done, always comparing my faults to other people, and to top it all off, every time I would get in a fight with her, she would blame ME, even though I NEVER yell unless I go through weeks and weeks of unrelenting criticism. My dad would also take her side and say I should be more grateful. It was really frustrating because he was never in the house when she yells at me, so he never did understand.

    I was so glad when I went off to college. I would have gotten therapy for my family when I was younger, but I didn’t have the money to get it. I know it’s not my fault, even if I do have my downsides, it was always my mother who would start every argument, every fight.

    For anyone with the same problems as me and everyone else here, just remember that drugs and suicide ARE NOT a solution. Really, I have thought of doing both, but realized I WAS NOT going to let my mother ruin the rest of my life. I would tell you to just wait it out. Go out for a stroll if you feel the urge to fight back, ignore whoever is bothering you, etc. Of course you should get help first (friends, other family members, etc), but if that’s not possible, the next best thing is to just completely cut yourself from all contact with your parent(s) until they realize what they are doing wrong. ONLY call the social services if they are threatening to hurt you, or are pushing you to the point of suicide. I hope all goes well with your life. My childhood was a tough time, but I did learn some lessons on what NOT to do with my children.

  • Margaret J. Pederson

    Thank you for writing this because it really does help to know “it’s not just me”.

  • Brooke

    I don’t normally comment on articles but this really hits home. First off, Dan i completely identify with your experience and empathize. My mother has questioned everything i do for as long as i can remember. I am 37 years old and she does it constantly. This past weekend she took notice of these brown riding boots ive had for a year and wear constantly “Are those LEATHER??”. Bracing for a comment on how much they must have cost i said “yes” and walked away. She would have a fit if she had been purchased by my dad during a trip together to Nordstrom Rack. Its like shes implying that im frivolous or that i dont deserve nice things, yet she comes from an affluent family herself and has been retired for 20 years.

    I constantly share positive happenings in my life with her-work, diy home decor pics im proud of, etc… and she always seems disinterested by rushing me off the phone, barely looking at the pic or just saying “okaaaaayyy…” like “whats your point?”. I recently got married to an amazing guy and shes always finding fault with him and with his family (who are great people). The whole weekend of our wedding she was negative and controlling with me, my husband, his family and the groomsmen. She has this attitude that younger people should go out of their way to respect their elders, yet she treats them like servants.

    She has never treated my younger brother this way, always been supportive and more than encouraging and accepting of his accomplishments and decisions, including his wife. She ADORES her.

    This has led to a negative self-image and view of life, awkward social skills, and already caused some issues in my marriage (2 months) we are seeking counseling for. Shes basically, as one close friend put it “poisoned me with her negativity”. What i dont get is why, when my grandparents were loving, amazing people.

  • Helen Meuser

    I was just reading your article about hypercritical mothers. I feel that my mother is that way to sometimes. When I get upset about something she tells me to stop acting like a bangi. She also recently got on my case about my bad handwriting, which is a problem I have had since I was in Kindergarten-some 40 odd years ago,. Also, she compares me to little kids. No matter what I say in a situation like this, she will say otherwise.

  • Dee

    Wow…great article. I can relate! I am an only daughter now 57 years old and my mother is more hypercritical of me than ever. This despite the fact that she lost two sons so far, a husband, and I lost 2 brothers and a husband. Now my little brother and I and the sisters in law are supporting her, and she still treats me like crap. At Easter,, she complained to me in front of the entire family about my weight several times, my side dish (which others loved), my glasses (she claims they make me look old), etc. etc. It never ends and it is the only communication that occurs. I tell her to knock it off and she responds with “I’m just trying to help”. I told her it isn’t helpful. I told my brother I have a hard time helping her financially anymore, but his response is that I shouod just ignore her and not helping her would hurt him and my sisters in law. So I haven’t decided what to do about helping her but I won’t be spending holidays with my family anymore, sadly. It is just not fun anymore. At least while she is around. I told her off on the phone a few days ago and told her that she should think before she opens her mouth. I suspect having two drinks never helps her to control her outbursts. And I don’t think I can blame her age entirely either. She always wanted me to be a girly girl, never supported my career interests or husband, or anything I did for that matter, and still treats me like I’m 6 yrs old. I never respected her (she has been financially supported her entire life by others) but even less so now than ever.

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