Q: My mother is always on my case. If she’s not criticizing my clothes, then it's my schoolwork or my friends. I can’t take it any more. My friends’ mothers seem so much nicer and more supportive. I think it's gotten worse now that I'm older. Maybe she's threatened by the fact that I'm as tall as she is now. How do I deal with this ongoing nagging?

A: Ouch! My sympathies are with you. If the situation is as bad as you describe, you are really living in a boxing rink. I hope you're not responding with verbal barbs, because that only escalates the situation and makes life even more unpleasant for you. I will try to help you address all this, but first I would like to clarify one point.

Comparing your life with your friends is not worthwhile. You cannot have an accurate picture what is going on behind their closed doors. Maybe they have other stresses that make their life even more intolerable. And besides, it is an exercise in futility. You cannot switch moms. So focus instead on making your situation more livable.

Let’s try instead to make real improvements in the situation, and to upgrade your living conditions.

I know that you are thinking that in order to create this change, you mother is the one who has to change. However, you approached me, not your mom.* She might not even sense how you are feeling.

If you feel that an honest chat with your mother might be beneficial, then that is the most direct first step. Rehearse your “speech” carefully in your mind and make great efforts to assure that it does not come out accusatory. Try to put yourself in your mother’s place; hearing your criticisms and think what approach might work. It might go something like this:

“Mom, I know that you love me and care about me and want to help me improve, but I find it really difficult to hear your ongoing criticisms. I appreciate if you could only share one or two criticisms a day, and rather than mention a topic several times, can we sit and discuss whether it is something I can change at this point. Your opinion is important to me, but I can’t change everything at once.”

Some warnings about your “speech:”

  1. Make sure that both you and your mom are in a good mood when you have this conversation.
  2. Don’t tell your mom that you think that she is unfair, inconsiderate, nasty etc.
  3. Throw in a compliment.
  4. Don’t compare your mom to others in this chat.
  5. Don’t threaten [If not I will run away from home] or generalize [“You always criticize me”].
  6. Don’t analyze your mom. “I know that you are feeling inferior…”or “I know that you had a difficult relationship with your parents.”
  7. Acknowledge that parents have the “right” and responsibility to correct their children.
  8. Pray before you begin this chat. “Dear God, please help this conversation be productive.”
  9. If you see matters improving even a bit, mention it to your mom

If you think that nothing good can come from this speech, you might try to write a note instead. A note has the advantage of not sounding emotionally charged, but it also may not sound warm and loving. Remember to re-read the note several times before presenting it, trying to look at it through your mom’s eyes.

Other options are to discuss the situation with Dad (you didn’t mention if he is in the picture) and ask him how to proceed. Hopefully you have two parents that are both interested in your welfare and between the two of them they can work on a new system that will be more pleasant for you. When you speak to your father, don’t insinuate that your mother feels threatened, or is uncaring (whether or not there is truth to these claims, but just focus on enlisting his help in limiting your mom’s critical barrage.) It is possible that your dad will say that you are supersensitive or that he cannot get involved, but you won’t know until you ask him. Dad might explain to you that Mom has a critical nature, but that she really does approve of you, even though she has trouble communicating her approval.

It is possible to give yourself the positive strokes that you are missing.

Whether or not you are successful in arresting the criticism, learn how to survive a critical parent. Parental approval is tremendously valuable in creating a positive sense of self-esteem, but it is possible to give yourself the positive strokes that you are missing. When you hear your mom’s criticism, remind yourself that you are a worthwhile human being, and that you have positive qualities as well as negative ones. Accept that these negative comments will leave her mouth, but filter them so they don’t invade your inner calm. For example, if you hear Mom say that you are irresponsible, remind yourself that despite the fact that you could improve in this area, you have a track record of usually being responsible, and your mother is just sharing her perception of a recent event.

Create a mental shield that protects you from suffering the effects of continued criticism. Imagine yourself opening up a mental umbrella, protecting you from the harmful effects of the negativity that is being rained down on you. At the same time, remember that Mom cares about you and pray for more positive interactions between the two of you. Good luck to you in your efforts.

Note to moms and dads: You are the most significant people in the lives of your children. Bathe your children in love, approval and emotional support. Make sure that compliments outweigh criticisms by at least three to one. Communicate to your children that you believe in them and that your criticisms stem from a sincere desire to improve your wonderful child. If constant harping on a specific area does not produce positive results, consider changing your approach. Best of luck in the challenging but rewarding mission of raising children.