How to Talk with Mom

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Reader’s Question

I think my mom prefers my little sister over me. I am 15 and she is 13. This mostly has to do with grades and school, because this is where my mom and I clash a lot.

First off, our personalities are completely different. I am relaxed, calm, and happy; I just go with the flow. My mom is very uptight and stressed out (especially over little things that I don’t stress about at all), and she tries to be very organized and have things planned out perfectly. This might be an age difference, but my father is very similar to me.

I’m a high school sophomore and my sister is in 8th grade. We went to the same grade school, and we’ve had the same teachers. There were a few bad teachers, and when I was a kid and tried to explain why they were bad, my mom refused to listen. This still happens today. She immediately takes the teacher’s side, and that’s that. But when my sister says the exact same thing about the same teacher, she takes my sister’s side immediately.

My mom and I argue a lot, and my sister argues with her a lot too. She will yell at me, and I’ll take it nice and relaxed, and calmly accept it. My sister talks back to her (which I rarely do), and my mom just smiles at her and laughs and says “stop it.” I look at her in shock. If I talked to her the way my sister does, I might get kicked out of the house. I tell my mom every once in a while, “If I talked to you like she does, I wouldn’t be fed at night,” in a joking way (but I am serious), or “I had that same teacher two years ago, and although I told you over and over again they were bad, you wouldn’t listen. Now, she’s telling you, and you believe her, but never believed me!”

It is extremely frustrating for me, and a lot of things are getting taken away from me. I love golf, and I’m very good at it. All I want to do is practice, but my mom refuses to let me do anything because I got a bad grade on a chemistry quiz worth next to nothing in points. My sister gets a bad grade, and my mom says, “go ahead and go to your friend’s house honey; she’s a bad teacher anyway, don’t worry about it.” I have asked my sister if she also thinks that I get treated differently, and she agrees.

Any explanation for her doing this? Can I get her to stop? What should I do when things like this occur? I think it might be interfering with our relationship.

Psychologist’s Reply

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I always say that the Army got it wrong: parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever love. Parenting is a very tough job, not least because you have to deal with the expectations you have for your child, an intermingling of personalities and — when you throw in more than one child — fairness. All of these could be challenges your mother faces when parenting you and your sister.

While it may be difficult to understand when you’re in the thick of a disagreement, I imagine that your mother does have reasons for why she treats you differently, and I imagine they probably have nothing to do with not loving you and your sister the same. For example, it could be that you are the best student in the family, so her expectations for you are higher than they are for your sister. Thus, when you complain about a teacher, it’s possible that she wants you to just work harder, while she will make excuses for your sister. Or, it could be that because you are not as organized as your mom, perhaps she expects that your complaints are a result of lack of planning versus an honest assessment of a teacher’s skill or an assignment’s worth.

You mentioned that you and your mother have very different personalities and I’m guessing that this could be an important factor in how she treats you. It is very difficult to work with someone who does things differently from you, so just imagine how challenging it is to parent someone with such a dissimilar perspective! Many parents struggle to find the right ways to help their child, and get frustrated when they do not know exactly how to help. Thus, it could be that her feelings of distress and helplessness come across as irritation. The personality difference could also be a challenge if she feels exactly the same way towards your father (whom you said you resemble). This is often the case when parents are still together, but especially true if they’re apart.

There are other factors that could be at work here too, including birth order (parents are often tougher on older children), lack of stress management, and maybe some other challenges. Regardless of the reasons, it sounds like you just want to know what to do. Whenever children struggle with their parents, communication is key. Before you talk with your mom though, it may help to talk with another trusted adult. If your parents are still together, maybe you could approach your dad and ask him for tips on the best way to talk with your mom. He also could give you some feedback on your behavior. If your dad is not a good option, maybe there is another close family member or friend who could give you some advice.

After you have prepared yourself for a calm, rational discussion, it is time to approach your mom and ask if you can have a conversation about your relationship. These talks go best if they are conducted when both parties are in a good mood, and there are specific points to be covered. For example, it sounds like you want things to get better, so perhaps you could ask what you could do to improve your relationship. You also could ask for clarification on how she sees things. It is appropriate for you to ask respectfully for the things you would like to see be different, but be prepared for her not to change.

One of the big lessons of adulthood (one that some people never learn) is that you cannot change other people; you can only change yourself. Toward that end, figuring out how to have these difficult dialogues is a good skill to develop, and then it is a win-win situation. If both you and your mom are open to improving your relationship, then this will be a great place to start. If she is not accepting of your feedback and requests, then you will have gained valuable information, not only about your mom, but about what you need to do in order to get along.

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