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TODAY
updated 2/1/2006 11:04:44 PM ET 2006-02-02T04:04:44

Q. I am 63 and my Mom is 83. We have always had a strained relationship. She never wanted a child and has told me she doesn't like me and that I look just like my father, whom she hates. She is critical and has a hard time showing love. I know she loves me in her own way, but we have a hard time enjoying each other’s company when we are together.

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This is very sad to me as I have always yearned to have a loving mom who is proud of me. We both still would like a relationship of some kind now that we are older. Is this possible?

A. Yes, it is possible. You can improve a strained relationship with a critical mother, but you must be realistic about how much you can improve it. It will never be as idyllic as you wish.

It is normal to want love and approval from your mother. Everybody does. If you get it when you are young, you internalize those feelings and need less validation when you grow up.

But if you don’t get it, you tend to replay her harsh, critical words in your head: Your hair looks awful. You shouldn’t wear jeans. Did you gain weight?

And you internalize that nagging, hectoring voice, so it becomes your own criticism of yourself.

You must find a way, with professional help if need be, to rid yourself of that internal voice. In other words, you need confidence in yourself and your own value to have a decent relationship with a critical mother. Her negativity has far less impact when you truly do not believe what she says about you, and when you truly acknowledge that this has everything to do with her and nothing to do with you. At this elderly age, your mother’s negativity will not go away. But you can set limits and end the dynamic whereby your mother dishes out the nastiness and you accept it. Hurling accusations back is unlikely to help, but you can firmly point out to your mother that her constant criticisms do not improve your relationship, and let her know which accusations are unacceptable.

For example, you said your mother hates your father. It is not unusual that a child who strongly resembles the hated parent becomes a target. Your mother is expressing her anger at your father, not at you. You can even give her insight into this. Tell her that, if she wants to have it out with your father she can, but she must stop taking her anger out on you. You can’t help it if you look like your father. But you are not your father, and she must back off from her hateful expressions because of your looks.

Your mother tells you she never wanted a child. That is irrelevant. If she wants to maintain a relationship with you, you need to know you are wanted now. So don’t rise to your mother’s bait. Set limits. Of course, there are many gradations of criticism. If your mother says she hates your clothes — well, that is something mothers do. You can ignore it. But if she proclaims you are worthless garbage who should never have been born, her influence might be so toxic that you must minimize or even terminate your relationship with her.

It doesn’t sound like this is the case. It sounds more like you are locked in a dance of misery, where you get in a downward spiral of dislike toward each other. You can break this established pattern. Keep in mind that, at your age, while it is wonderful to have a relationship with your mother, this should not be your primary relationship. You should have moved on in your life, where important relationships include friends, colleagues or a family of your own. Women with critical mothers often find it helpful to seek approval elsewhere — from a teacher, co-worker, husband or friend. Those relationships will also diminish the intensity of your feelings about your mother’s negativity.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: If you’ve had a strained relationship with your mother for your whole life, it’s unlikely you can turn it into a completely harmonious one. But you can work to lessen the impact of a mother’s negativity.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book, "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts" (Penguin), helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.

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