Reining Mother in for the Holidays

Dear Dr. Hurd,

My mother is in her mid-70s, and both my husband and I have a great relationship with her. When she comes to visit, she’s always anxious to go out and meet our friends. Christmas is here and she’ll soon be spending a lot of time with us. That’s a good thing, except that she says inappropriate things to them. What’s even more embarrassing is that she’s mostly right. She’s kind of an Americanized version of the “Dowager Countess” character on Downton Abbey. Appealing, but blunt!

“Goodness, Murlene, you sure are a big girl for your height!” Or, “Chrissy, you’re so pretty. But your short haircut makes your face look fat.” (Both actually happened. I changed the names, but she was right – and everyone knows it.) Mom would be devastated if we didn’t take her out, but she’s like a benevolent time bomb, and we never know when she’s going to make her next “observation.” Help!

Dr. Hurd replies,

Obviously, mom needs to brush up on her social skills. But I like the fact that she doesn’t regard the truth as her enemy. A rare stance nowadays! My advice is to take a page out of her book: Speak frankly to her.

Start by telling her how much fun you have going out with her. But gently explain that some people don’t appreciate her well-intended advice. For example, if someone asks, “Do I look fat in this dress?” – and if they really want to know – mom is definitely someone they should ask. But she has to learn to wait to be asked.

Don’t expect one conversation to change her. But what other choice do you have? One alternative is to stop inviting her, and never give her the chance to change a behavior that she’s perfectly capable of changing. You’d hurt her feelings and she wouldn’t know why. The other alternative is to keep allowing your friends’ feelings to be hurt, and yourself to be embarrassed for no good reason.

I find it hard to believe that your mother doesn’t know what she’s doing. People are not stupid. They may use bad judgment, but they’re usually not stupid. She might have rationalized that she’s doing poor Murlene a favor by highlighting her girth “for her own good.” Oops…the biggest rationalization of them all!

Tell her that these are your friends, that you’re the one who lives around them all year, and what she’s doing is not appreciated. Be firm, strong, and calm. Expect her feelings to get hurt, but also believe in her enough to give her a chance to curb her ill-timed frankness.

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