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How do I set clear boundaries with a narcissistic mum?

Dealing with a narcissitic mother

When a mother is a narcissist, daughters can find the relationship becoming even more toxic as the mother gets older and less able to look after themselves. Dr Lesley Trenner offers advice on drawing boundaries and protecting yourself from hostility and ingratitude.

Dear Lesley

My mum has always been nasty to me and it’s only getting worse as she get older. She never shows any interest in what I do and it feels like she’s jealous of my life. She only wants to talk about herself and her problems. Nothing I do is ever good enough for her. She’s rude and ungrateful and often quite cruel. I’ve tried standing up to her, but she just ignores my boundaries. I know she is elderly but to be honest I feel like running away from everything.



Dear Jacky

Sadly, this  is a very common problem, specially with mothers and daughters. I hear so many stories about toxic, narcissistic and miserable mothers!  Sounds like you’ve learned, over the years, to dance to her tune and perhaps feel even more obliged now that she’s elderly. It’s completely understandable that you feel stressed and resentful but you don’t have to just accept the way things are.

Setting boundaries is definitely a good idea, but there need to be consequences if she ignores them. Here’s what I suggest.

Firstly, try to step back and ask yourself some questions:

  • What am I prepared to do in terms of care and support. What am simply unable or unwilling to do?
  • How much hostility and criticism can I take, or overlook?
  • What do I need to do in order to protect myself?

These are hard questions. The answers are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but will be based on your own circumstances and your personal values. It’s important to know where your own boundaries are as this will help you enforce them. Talking to a friend about this can help put it into perspective as we can all be quite hard on ourselves. Or ask yourself how you would advise a friend in a similar situation.

Next, try to think of specific examples, such as ‘It’s never OK for my mum to swear at me or belittle me’. Then the really hard part – reinforcing those boundaries.

Say your mum starts swearing at you, complaining that you don’t visit her enough, and telling you that you’re a terrible daughter and a useless human being. Take a deep breath, remind yourself of your boundary and let her know, politely, that this is not acceptable. Tell her what the consequences will be if she continues. For example, say that you will hang up the phone, end the conversation, leave the room/the house if she continues (assuming she isn’t at risk on her own).  You have to mean what you say and follow through. She may escalate or try to guilt trip you, but you have to be firm. This will probably feel hard because you aren’t used to doing it but it will get easier in time and you’ll feel so much better when it starts to work. Don’t berate yourself if you don’t have the courage the first time. Unfortunately it sounds like you’ll have plenty of opportunity to practise!

You may also need to involve others. Has your mum has got used to calling on you to cater for all her needs while she takes out her frustrations on you? If so,  you need to change this. Can you find others in the family, neighbourhood or social services to provide care or befriending? Can she afford to pay for care? She may not like this but unfortunately having carers can be a fact of life and again may involve some boundary setting and assertiveness from you.

Just possibly you might be able to feel some compassion for her. Why is she so frustrated and jealous? I wonder what  her own youth was like. Some mothers feel that today’s women have it much easier than they did, even though we know this isn’t true. Has there ever been a time when you were able to have an honest conversation or just listen to her grievances without getting wound up? Could this help?

None of these things will be easy unfortunately and only you know what might work with your mother and what you feel capable of doing. But remember that likely she needs you more than you need her.  You have a right to be treated with respect and to look after your own mental health. If not, you may end up giving up on her altogether, as you say, or getting ill.  That won’t make you feel better and won’t help your mother in the long run. If at all possible, could you take some kind of break so you can clear your head and think about how to create and stick to your boundaries?

Whatever you decide, I do hope you have the strength to make some changes and I wish you luck with everything.


Dr Lesley Trenner is an eldercare coach with extensive qualifications and experience in life coaching. Lesley provides one-to-one help for people who are struggling to cope with the ’emotional rollercoaster’ of eldercare or balance caring responsibilities with a  busy career. You can talk to Lesley via Zoom or on the phone. Email Lesley or call 07919 880 250 for a free introductory chat. You can also visit her Facebook page.

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Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash

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