When you and your mother struggle to get along

What are some ways to protect your well-being in the mother-daughter relationship when you struggle to get along?


“I just feel guilty all the time. I feel like she needs me so much, but I can never quite meet those needs. I’m always trying to make her happy, yet she never is.”

These are the words of my latest client and the words of many more before her. Rachel (not her real name) was feeling desperate to understand the confusion that she felt around the relationship that she had with her mother.  

She had tried every way she could to make her mum happy and yet she was constantly belittled and criticised. Rachel felt that in her mum’s eyes, she could never do anything right, no matter how hard she tried. Rachel felt that she was always there to soothe her when something had gone wrong in her mum’s life. Rachel was treading on eggshells for fear of upsetting her.

Added to this pressure, Rachel was running a busy full-time business and single-handedly raising two young children. She was spinning plates and, unfortunately, those plates had come crashing down when one night Rachel had had enough and told her mum some truths about how she felt.

Her mum’s reaction was to storm off in floods of angry tears. Rachel felt terrible and even worse when her mum said that she didn’t know what she had done wrong. Her mum then placed herself as the victim and Rachel had been trying to make up for her own honest words since.

She’s always provided for me.  She was constantly there for me as a kid.  She ran her own business.  But I knew that she was unhappy with Dad, and I just wanted to make her happy.

And so, Rachel had become the quiet studious one. She never stepped out of line, becoming the fixer, the healer, and the mediator. As long as she could make her mum happy then she would feel loved and approved of.  

She felt that she could never quite reach these self-imposed goals since these goals were coping strategies. All Rachel wanted was to be accepted for who she was. But her mum was the centre of their relationship with Rachel fluttering around the edges soothing her mum, doing things for her mum, helping her mum. 

Unresolved trauma

This article is not to lay blame or parent bash. When we raise awareness about how we feel in relationships, and how we react the way that we do, we can begin to make changes. When we dig deep, we often find that our mother had unresolved trauma from how she was raised and parented. Shining a light on generational trauma can help us to not only understand why Mum is the way she is, but it might allow us to replace our intense emotions of guilt, shame, or anger with compassion.  

What is an emotionally immature mother?

The emotionally immature mother (EIM) is one who:

  • struggles to regulate her own emotions
  • struggles to put in place healthy boundaries
  • makes every issue or event about herself
  • thrives on drama and often puts herself at the centre of it
  • is unable to empathise or understand the emotional needs of others
  • overreacts and becomes over-emotional
  • expects her daughter to soothe and calm her

Any major events in the daughter’s life (wedding, graduation, etc) become about the mother; what she will wear, where she will sit, who she will go with, and how she feels about the event.

How can counselling help?

Coping mechanisms and role-playing

We might find that as a child of an EIM, we have had to push down our ‘true self’ in order to fulfil a role. Our true selves can become lost in this role play. This is when we become unhappy because we aren’t meeting our own needs.

One of the things that I explore with my clients is the role that they have had to play throughout their lives to ‘live up to’ or ‘meet’ their parents’ expectations. In therapy, we might explore who they would be if they allowed themselves to fully emerge from their role as ‘good daughter’ or ‘helper and fixer’.

We do this by exploring the emerging ‘true self.’ In therapy, we can be fully accepted for who we are, without judgement. Over time this can allow us to let go of any roles and to reflect on who we were before we felt that we had to fix or please.


Many people struggle with the idea of compassion towards themselves even if they can feel compassion towards others. It’s particularly hard to feel compassion towards someone that we are having a difficult relationship with. When we begin to understand how people become who they are and how they too put different coping mechanisms in place then that understanding can bring about compassion.

We might begin to feel a softening towards our EIM which can help us to feel compassion towards ourselves too. After all, we have had to put coping mechanisms in place in order to meet the needs of our EIM.  

Letting go

Alongside this comes the idea that Mum will never change. Letting go of the mother figure that you wished and hoped for is not an easy process. This might be the fantasy of having a mother who listened to you, who is there for you and takes an active role in your life. Letting go of this 'fantasy mother' is difficult and takes time. There might be a grieving period and a coming to terms with the acceptance of Mum and who she is.

Take control and take back your life

This idea of taking control may feel like an alien concept if you feel like you have never had control. After all, for many people, we have been reduced to mother pleasing. And this might have felt like your life revolves around your mother and her needs. How might it feel to have your needs met? How might it feel to set boundaries with your mum?

A boundary is a cue to others about how to treat you

 Nedra Glover Tawwab from Set Boundaries, Find Peace. A guide to reclaiming yourself

You might be thinking right now, “Oh no, that would never work.” And like Rachel your guilty feelings would override any boundaries, finding yourself back at square one. But know that whenever we set a boundary to have a healthy relationship, there may be feelings of guilt. After all, guilt has been your ‘go-to’ emotion; it feels familiar to live in this space of guilt and appeasement. Not forgetting too that EIM can manipulate you in order for you to feel guilty. This might be by using passive-aggressive language or placing themselves into victim mode.


How would you like your relationship with your mother to look realistically? Would you like more emotional distance? How often would you like to have contact with her and how can this be implemented? How you can say no to demands, social events, meeting up and still feel ok about this?

In summary, we can say that no mother-daughter relationship is perfect, and we will always have our ruptures within this relationship. When this relationship is hurting you over and over then it might be time to seek an understanding of what is playing out. We can learn to protect our emotional health by exploring our emotions, and thoughts - allowing our true selves to fully emerge. Placing boundaries in the relationship can feel healthy. Learning to let go of the ‘fantasy mother’ and accepting the mother that you have with compassion can be difficult, but ultimately helpful in managing your own emotions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23
Written by Samantha Flanagan, Anxiety Therapist (PGDIP, Registered member of BACP)
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23

I am a registered member of BACP with a level 7, Msc in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. I am qualified to work with many issues which include but are not limited to: emotional abuse, trauma, relationship issues, anxiety, depression, substance mis-use, boundaries, self-esteem, work/life balance and life changes.

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