Question: Dr. Townsend, my mother makes snide comments that she will threaten to harm herself if I don’t come home for every major holiday and her birthday throughout the year. How am I supposed to respond to her comments?
I’m sorry to hear about your situation. It’s not funny, and is actually troubling, for a mom to make these sort of comments, even if she says she is joking. A part of us will always wonder how serious this is. The great majority of the time, these “guiltifying” statements are actually indirect expressions of disappointment, sadness or frustration that the person does not feel safe admitting.
The best approach is to wait until a pleasant time (not in the heat of battle or an argument) and say:
“Mom, I know it’s sometimes hard that I can’t be home for some of our special family events. I miss you too, but my priorities are that I have to do other things. However, when we talk about it, you make jokes about hurting yourself. I know you mean well, but they come across confusing to me when you say them and they aren’t funny to me. I’d like to ask you if you would be more vulnerable and direct about how you talk about my schedule. Maybe that you’re disappointed, or sad, or frustrated? Those are OK feelings for us to talk about, and I’d really like to hear you out. I think us talking in this way would connect us better and deeper. What do you think about this idea?”
Most moms are happy to have their adult child welcome their own negative feelings and hurts, and that will help her make the change.
If you still find it difficult to have a boundary-setting conversation with your mom, I recommend reading these resources:
Chapter 7 – “Boundaries and Your Family”
How to Have That Difficult Conversation
Chapter 24 – “With a Parent”