My Elderly Mum is Really Nasty to Me - and I Have No Idea How to Handle it

As an eldercare coach I often get asked which problems are the most common for the grown-up children of ageing parents. Problems come in all shapes and sizes, but I'd say that juggling work and care, coping with dementia, and family dynamics are top of the list. And the most common family dynamics dilemma is: why is my mum so nasty to me? 

Of course, there are some lovely mothers out there too and some hostile fathers. But there seems to be a particular dynamic around mothers and daughters. In this article, when I talk about ‘mum' or ‘daughter', please read ‘dad' or ‘son' if that's more relevant to you.

From the daughters, I hear things like:

“She's always been really mean to me but it's getting worse and worse as she gets older.”

“She never supported me or recognised my achievements. It feels like she's jealous of my life.”

“I do my best to look after her but she just makes demands, criticises and complains.”

Sometimes, the daughter has put up with this behaviour since childhood, or feels it's disrespectful to argue with an older person so they just put up with the situation. The relationship declines and they feel guilty and resentful about the impact on their work, their lives and their mental health.

So, what's the best way to handle a mum who's constantly nasty and undermining?

Firstly, a caveat. If your parent has only started being mean since having dementia or some other illness that affects their personality, you will need a different approach. Try talking to the GP about medication or finding additional care and support for your mum. But if your mum is just being cantankerous, here are some steps you can take to help manage the situation. 

Firstly, ask yourself some difficult questions: 

  1. What am I willing to do, or not do, in terms of care and support?
  2. How much hostility and criticism am I prepared to overlook or ignore?
  3. What is the impact of her behaviour on my life. When do I need to take steps to protect myself?
  4. Can I understand what is making her the way she is. Do I feel any sympathy or is she just being narcissistic?

These are hard questions and there are no ‘right' answers. But it's important to know where your own boundaries are. Talking to someone neutral about this can help put it into perspective (you're over-reacting, or, no way should you be putting up with that). Try to think of specific examples for each point, such as:

I am OK to visit twice a week, but weekends are for me.

It's never OK for my mum to swear at me.

I don't want to hear my mum criticise the way I bring up my children.

Then, the really hard part: reinforcing the boundaries. Supposing you decide that it's never OK for your mum to swear at you. She phones you up and halfway into the conversation starts abusing you. You have to let her know, politely, that this is not acceptable and what the consequences will be if she continues, e.g. you will hang up or you will not continue the conversation until she apologises. In order to garner the respect you're after, you're going to have to follow through. She may escalate or try to guilt trip you, but you have to be firm.

Changing the dynamic will be hard and it may be a while before it takes effect. But it will get easier, and you'll feel better when it starts to work.

What if you find yourself fighting a losing battle? You still have choices. You may decide to restrict the amount of time you spend with your mum or find others in the family, social services or paid carers to look after her. If you really are the only person in her life and can't walk away, you will need to find ways to ‘not hear' her or distance yourself emotionally. As the saying goes: “You can't change how people treat you. All you can do is change how you react to it”. Please be in touch if you think it would help to talk your situation through in confidence.


Dr Lesley Trenner is an eldercare coach with extensive qualifications and experience in executive coaching and life coaching. Lesley provides one-to-one help for people who are struggling to cope with the 'emotional rollercoaster' of eldercare or balancing care with a busy career. She is available via Zoom or phone. See website and contact details below

Lesley is also an eldercare advisor for our ‘Speak to an Expert' service