#997: Anxious Parents & Freeing Yourself From Constant Contact

Dear Captain Awkward,

I did not grow up in a house that did conflict- I joke (but not really) that I wish my parents had fought in front of their children. Because there was never an emphasis on healthy conflict, all conflict equals bad conflict. While I feel that I can talk to my dad about issues, the real problem is my mom.

When my mom calls (every day/every other day), I go through a nerve wracking thought process. If I don’t pick up the phone (because I had a long day, because I don’t want to talk to her or anyone), she’ll become more and more anxious and escalate communication attempts. I find myself yelling to the phone, ““What do you need!?!” as it rings and before picking up. If I do pick up the phone, immediately she’ll ask, “What’re you doing?” in a tone that implies I’m doing something bad. When she calls, it’s rarely about anything time sensitive or an emergency- it’s mostly just to chat.

If she calls when I’m in traffic, and I pick up the phone and say I can’t talk, I’m dealing with driving, her tone is disappointed. However, sometimes driving is the best time to call her, because I can say that I’m home now so I have to go.

For example: I had a very busy day at work. My mom texts me a general “How’s your day going?” type of text. Nothing time sensitive, not an emergency. I see the text and ignore it because I’m in meetings all day and don’t have the brain space to deal with it right then. That evening, I go to a bookclub that my mom and I are a part of. She sees me, and immediately has a wide eyed expression, and exclaims, “Didn’t you see my text? Why didn’t you answer???” Then I have to reassure her that I was busy all day, and besides, I would see her that night.

Recently her most passive aggressive text: She posted in the family text chain, “Any recommendations for a Pandora running station?” at 5:00pm on a Sunday evening. No one responded that night, and the next morning, she posted, “Thanks fam!”

I feel that I’m good about getting back to her- I usually respond to a text within a couple of hours, and never more than 24 hours.

I’ve seen her and my dad every weekend for the past month (which is way too much in my books, but it included some family event things). When I’m at their house with my brother and sister, I find myself constantly making sure that she doesn’t feel neglected or teased. If she feels that we are not bonding as a family as she’d prefer, she lashes out and becomes mopey and angry.

I’d like to not go full nuclear and destroy the relationship, but I’m tired. I’m tired of constantly checking my phone, because if I miss a call I’m going to hear about her anxiety and how much she freaked out. If I miss a text and don’t respond for a couple of hours, I’ll get a “You ok??????” type of text and escalating from there.

What I really need: a way to tell my mom that her constant need for contact and communication is too much. Basically my mom has no chill and low boundaries, plus a heaping dose of mother anxiety. Help me!

My shoulders are going up around my ears reading this! Also, you and about 20 other people have sent me a version of this letter recently so I’m glad for the chance to summarize a method that many people can apply. Here are your steps:

First, recalibrate “normal.” 

In a perfect world, how much you would visit your parents? “Not every g.d. weekend!” sounds like your starting point, but quantify it even more than that. One “family dinner” or weekend activity per month? Choose what works for you and what you can reasonably sustain, and then commit to that and follow through. When you go, strive to enjoy yourself as much as you can. Turn down additional plans or invitations if you wish and when you do, do not give explanations beyond “I can’t make it this weekend, have fun.” Your plans could in fact be “I will be busy reading silently alone in my house with my phone turned off” or “Swiping right” or “Climbing rocks in the middle of nowhere” or “Reorganizing where I keep my collection of antique spyglasses.” Express all of the details of that as “Sorry, I have other plans this weekend, but enjoy yourselves!”

Two important things:

a) Once you say no thanks, follow through on the “no thanks.” You are re-teaching your mom and yourself that “I can’t make it” is not the beginning of a negotiation. Every “Okay, FINE, I’ll stop by for a little” when you already said you didn’t want to restarts the clock on how long this whole recalibration thing will take.

b) Watch/lock down/be aware of your social media postings on a weekend you said you couldn’t make it. If your mom and your siblings monitor your feeds, posting “A day of glorious nothing!” and one of those photos of your feet and the horizon when you said you couldn’t come to this week’s family barbecue will invite discussion and drama. Give your folks less information while you re-negotiate these boundaries.

Second, create a ritual. 

You are already in the same book club. Awesome!

In addition, institute a once-a-week phone call with your mom at roughly the same time and day every week where you catch up for a little bit. Script: “Mom, my schedule’s kind of all over the place right now, I want to make sure I set aside time for you. Can we make a plan to talk for a little while on Sunday mornings?” At the appointed time, call her, chat for 15 minutes or so, ask her lots of questions about her week, make it as pleasant as possible, say your goodbyes and I love yous, and then give yourself permission to disengage until next week’s call.

Throughout the week, redirect all communications to that weekly call. “Got your text – let’s talk about it on Sunday!” “Can’t talk now, but I’ll catch up Sunday!

Why this works:

A) Avoiding her just makes her chase you more. If you want to keep a relationship, do it on your terms.

B) If you consistently follow through, by calling when you say you will, it gives her an anchor to know she won’t lose touch with you. Over time it can help her be less anxious.

C) If you control the schedule and initiate the weekly call, it can remove some of your anxiety. You can start giving yourself permission to disengage the rest of the week because you know when you’ll fully engage.

For people with a contentious relationship with a parent, if you do the weekly (or monthly – the interval doesn’t matter as much as consistency does) phone call (or Skype), make sure you have some down time or something really pleasant to do afterward.

Declare independence from your phone. 

Don’t pick up the phone when she calls. Let it go to voicemail. If you don’t already, pay for one of those services that transcribes your voice mails to text so you can quickly glance at the content. You can always reply “Got your msg, let’s talk about it Sunday! Love you!

If you think it would help to set expectations in advance, you could try saying “Mom, I’m going to be turning my phone off when I’m at work so I can concentrate better during the day. I wanted to let you know so you wouldn’t be worried if I don’t get back to you right away.

Or, “Mom, I have been trying to have less screen time lately and do more reading/exercising/relaxing/meditating in the evenings, so I’m going on a cell phone diet for a little while. Don’t worry, we’ll still talk on Sundays!

Then, actually turn your phone off for some of those chunks of time. As much as you’re training her not to ping you there constantly, there’s an aspect of training yourself to let yourself be untethered.

Also, no more phone when you’re driving! When you’re driving, put your phone in a backpack or purse and put it in the back seat. Or if you’re using it for GPS, mute all notifications. Anything else is actually dangerous!

Prepare for a short-term escalation.

She will not like the new system, at first. She will escalate attempts to contact you. Non-emergency things will become emergencies. “But what if I need to get a hold of you in an emergency and your phone is off?” “Can’t a mother talk to her child?” She will try to slide the times around, or test whether you’re really turning off your phone.

If she’s feeling lonely or anxious (or in an actual emergency )she could call your dad, your siblings, a friend, her priest or minister, a therapist. It doesn’t have to be you, so, HOLD FAST. Stick to what you said you’d do, be active and reliable about the weekly phone calls, commit to and enjoy your planned visits, and leave your phone off or on silent when you need a break. If you are consistent, she will adapt.

Also, that night she asked for Pandora running station recommendations and nobody replied to her? She was passive-aggressively annoyed, but note: your siblings did not respond to her immediately and also THE WORLD DID NOT END.

Prepare for her to deputize others. 

When she can’t raise you, get ready for texts from your siblings. “Hey, text Ma back, she’s texting me looking for you!” They know her, so hopefully they can be allies and y’all can present a united front. I bet they don’t like this behavior either, so, ask how they deal with it.

Prepare to feel guilty and weird. 

HOLD FAST. You love your mom, you’re making an effort to communicate regularly with your mom, you’re not doing anything wrong! This is hard. You’re doing the right thing.

When you do respond to a text barrage, respond *once.*

Your texts from her might look like:

“Hello daughter!”

“Are you coming to the pot luck on Saturday?”

“I saw some fabric you might like for curtains – what are the measurements for your windows again?”

“Hello? Are you there?”

“Your dad asked me to ask you if he should pick up that wine you like for Saturday”

“Hello, should I be worried?”

“Are you hiding from me?”

“You’re probably watching the Thronegames or whatever, sorry to bother you, ha ha”

“Did you see the weather? You’re going to want to wear a sweater if you’re going out today!”

“Okay, text me back, I’m starting to get worried”

“Wow, ignoring your Mom much? Thanks alot LOL”

Your text back at the end of this can be:

Hello lovely mother! Got your texts. Won’t be there Saturday, so don’t worry about wine. Let’s talk about fabric & measurements Sunday – thanks so much for thinking of me. Love you.”

Break the apology cycle and be very boring.

Do not address the “I’m worried” comments, at all. You’re fine, and her worry is not actually your problem. Make all “We used to talk more?” or “Whyyyyy don’t you ever want to talk to your mother anymore” or “It’s just that I worry about you” conversations super-boring for her to have. Keep it short and neutral, like “I’m here now, what did you want to talk about?” or “We’ll talk Sunday!

Don’t apologize for not being tethered to your phone 24-7. You didn’t do anything wrong.

In fact, start keeping track of the number of times you say “I’m sorry!” to her about stuff that isn’t actually wrong or hurtful. When you do call on Sunday (or whatever day you mutually nail down), is the first half of the conversation an Apology Dance? Take note of it for now and over time do what you can to stop feeding it.

By way of example, my job(s) mean fielding an overwhelming amount of email spread across about 7 different accounts & systems. I realized a while back that every single reply I wrote started with a paragraph worth of “Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner.” I decided to stop doing that so much – I replaced “Sorry …” with some version of “Hi, so nice to hear from you” or “Hello, thanks for your email” and skipped directly to answering the question or giving the person the information they wanted in the first place. I don’t know if the recipients like it better but I feel better not doing 20 little shame dances every time I try to climb Email Mountain.

Give it time. 

Give her some time to adjust and give yourself time to adjust.

Eventually things won’t have to be so stilted and locked down and adversarial, we hope. You’ll enjoy your interactions more when you have more control and agency in how you communicate. Think of this as a temporary resetting period – hard, but necessary.

It will most likely get better if you stay consistent. 

I’m descended from people who used to email me to ask if I got their voicemail and leave a voicemail to ask if I got their email. I once had to fax something to my dad’s former office that involved a full three days of communications. “Are you sending it now?” “No, tomorrow, when I’m at work.” “Well I’m checking the machine now and nothing’s here.” “Dude, I know.”

Every call home started with them saying some version of “Wow, we hadn’t heard from you for so long we thought you were dead!” (said in a joking tone, but still) or “It’s about time you called!” and then once I said “Um, phones work both ways and I haven’t heard from you in a while, either!” and interestingly enough, now we don’t do that anymore.

They also, when learning to text message, used to sometimes spell “come” in a horrible way,  like “We’re downstrs r u cumming down?”


And if it doesn’t get better, at least you have some boundaries for yourself in how and when you respond.

P.S. I want to push back on the idea that your Mom doesn’t “do” conflict. She does do conflict – by constantly poking you and responding passive-aggressively when you don’t immediately answer or give her the attention/answer she wants – she’s just the only one who is currently allowed express negative emotions or “do” conflict, and you’re expected to quietly eat it and give her what she wants. Setting and enforcing some boundaries here isn’t you creating conflict, it’s you putting guardrails around the conflict that’s already happening.






316 thoughts on “#997: Anxious Parents & Freeing Yourself From Constant Contact

  1. All of this is good advice, but I just wanted to say Google voice (and I’m sure others) will transcribe voice mail for free. You don’t have to pay for a service, necessarily. Also sometimes it is a source of great amusement. (It thinks my dog’s name is Mr. Butt Jingles.)

    1. Google voice once reported that my mom asked if I was going to my cousin’s pre-wedding “cock tasting” party. Which. I mean. I’m intrigued.

      1. That’s hilarious. I’ve used Google translate for my Etsy shop and I sometimes wonder if someone in Quebec is double over in laughter reading the French version.

        1. The great thing is that French dialect is different from Quebecois dialect, so utterly harmless expressions in Paris can be used as incredibly profane rants in Montreal. 🙂

      2. One of the great joys of my life is Google Voice’s transcriptions of my Irish mother in law. They are not informative, but they are *really, really funny*.

        1. …..I need to go see how google voice translates my Glaswegian mother, like, yesterday.

        1. Probably *cake* tasting. Sometimes it doesn’t quite catch the exact enunciation of the dialect and fills in with what it thinks it heard, much like humans do with misunderstood song lyrics.

          1. That (substituting the song lyrics people think they hear) is actually a thing. A “Mondegreen.” From some old folk ballad with the line “And laid him on the green” (presumably because he was dead, I forget the plot) and listeners heard “And Lady Mondegreen.” Since folk songs were not written down but passed on orally, the error persisted. At least that is what I read on the Internet, so I am sure it is true.

      1. Yeah, I figured it might be limited, but surely there are others that you don’t have to pay for? Maybe I’m being naive in that “everything on the internet exists and it’s freeeee!” way.

        1. last time I looked into it (less than a year ago?), it was still hard enough that even the free *trials* of paid services produced entertaining nonsense. transcribing a stranger’s voice into anything understandable still seems to require humans.

        2. I think this is still in beta, so it might not be on every model/service, but my iPhone provides voicemail translation. It’s not perfect, but it’s enough for me to get the gist of what a message is about and whether or not I need to a) respond to it immediately, b) respond to it eventually, or c) not even listen to it before I trash it. YMMV.

      2. Yes, and it doesn’t *tell* you that either, it just removes the buttons that the support pages say to click on.

  2. “However, sometimes driving is the best time to call her, because I can say that I’m home now so I have to go.”

    This stood out and I know you’re an adult who handles their own, and I’m really sorry to sound like a PSA, but please don’t be on the phone while driving. Unless, you have a hands free kit?

      1. Safer! Good to know! But you can also stop talking to her on car rides if you don’t want to.

      2. If hearing the phone ring while you’re driving makes you anxious (it does me), you can put the phone in the trunk so you can’t hear it.
        Or turn it off, I guess, but I found that having the phone truly not available stopped me in the early stages of developing a very unsafe habit of “just checking,” and if the phone had been accessible, I would have turned it on.

        1. I’ve tried urning off my phone or putting it on airplane mode while driving or teaching. I kept forgetting to reconnect it, which made me miss truly urgent calls. Solution: found a ringtone manager app with timers for automating unavailability. One even sends a text like “Sorry, not available) to callers and texters.

          1. I really want someone to make a driving mode for phones that will answer calls while you’re driving with a message like, “Sorry, but I strongly not to talk on the phone while driving. Please leave a message or text me and I will respond as soon after my arrival as I can – or maybe I’m coming to see you, in which case, I’m on my way!”

          2. (trying to reply to garlicknitter but I think I ran out of nesting) – Vicroads has created Road Mode app for android, which replies to everyone while you’re driving letting them know, then summarises your ‘missed’ calls and messages when you’re stopped driving. I haven’t tried it though – I don’t drive often.

      1. Hands free texting still involves some hands on stuff (at least for me) but talking doesn’t. I push a button on my steering wheel and say “call mom” and then it does. No different than if she was sitting next to me in the car

        Captain I’m glad you answered this question, I have a similar mom. Every time I talk to her she asks if everything is okay because I didn’t answer the first time she called and she was just sure something was wrong. Like no, I’m at work in a meeting. Chill. Husband and I are trying for a baby and I just know it’s going to get a million times worse when there’s a baby!

        1. I’ve heard though that hands-free talking is still dangerous. It might seem as safe as talking to someone in the passenger seat, but when someone is in your passenger seat and the car in front of you brakes suddenly, the passenger automatically stops talking and usually says something like, “Look out!” which refocuses your attention. The person on the phone keeps right on talking…

          1. Then I guess you shouldn’t talk to your passenger if they are blind, if that’s the case. Driving is never going to be 100% without risk but I have trouble believing hands-free talking is anymore dangerous than, say, having a kid in the backseat or drinking Starbucks while on the road.

          2. Or if it’s because you’re be too focused on the conversation at hand, then turn off the radio because that can be distracting too. Anything can be distracting if you are a bad driver.

          3. Anna, no one’s suggesting driving will be 100% risk free, but there’s plenty of research supporting the idea that talking on the phone while driving is quite risky regardless of whether or not your hands are physically occupied. If you have trouble believing it, reviewing some of that literature would be a good place to start.

          4. Yep, this. Talking on the phone hands free carries almost as much risk as holding the phone, because of the attention it takes away from driving. It’s significantly more risky that listening to the radio (which doesn’t require responses) or talking with a passenger who can respond to external cues. The Times did a series on it in 2009 and the subsequent research has supported those conclusions. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/technology/series/driven_to_distraction/index.html

    1. Even with a hands-free kit, it’s dangerous to not have your mind on driving.


      Right after I got a cell phone, I realized that I could call my mother on my walk home from my therapy session. That gave me a weekly time to talk with her (and bonus, I know she was worried about the depression thing, so I could give her a report from therapy, which made her feel good). My mom is great, so it wasn’t that I was avoiding her.

      In fact, I’m so glad I set that up, because before I did, I usually called every two or three weeks or whatever (she didn’t often call me, so it was all up to me). And otherwise I might not have spoken to her for a couple of weeks, and she died suddenly. At least I knew she wasn’t feeling well, and I’d also spoken to her on the Wednesday before she went into the hospital on Friday and died on Monday.

      so….having a regular time that you call your mom is good for ALL of us, even those of us trying to maintain closeness instead of distance.

      And, that brings me to…Maybe you can call your mom while you’re on a walk–pick a set route, and then call when you start, hang up when you’re done. You’ll get out in the fresh air, move some muscles around, etc.

  3. I should have done this with a sister but didn’t know how. It ended in a complete breakup. It’s like a divorce.

    1. Yeah. I should have done this more effectively with my mother and it ended in me not talking to her anymore at all.

  4. Captain, I have to admit that I see a lot of myself in this mom. I struggle with Depression and Anxiety, and can absolutely see myself escalating from “What are the measurements to your windows?” to “OMG ARE YOU DEAD IN A DITCH OR WHAT?” Strangely, as I read this my initial reaction was to think I don’t want to be that kind of mom to my kids (currently 17 & 19 years old, but both still living at home) and resolving to work on this. My second reaction was immediately to start overthinking the whole process and now I am full of anxiety that I will be so anxious I will push my kids away and they will never want to speak to me again so now that gives me something new to talk to my therapist about. SIGH.
    But I digress. The point I was originally going to make is that I think LW’s mother will be comforted by the assurance of regular contact and the steps you recommended (because I would be). HOWEVER, also speaking from my own experience, I really hope LW’s mom is seeing a therapist because anxiety like that is something that is MUCH easier to work through if you have some coping mechanisms and a professional to help you process it.

    1. At least you are seeing a therapist! I’ve recommended it to my mother for years, but it’s difficult to find one who speaks her native language, and then the last time that I found one she anxietied that it might be someone from her church and THAT CANNOT HAPPEN

      1. I could see that being a barrier. There are services now that allow you to receive counseling by text/online, which was a literal lifesaver for a couple of people I know. Maybe there’s something that would work for your mom. I hope she does eventually take your advice, because the help of a professional was leaps and bounds ahead of what I was trying to do on my own.

    2. It’s really easy to think of boundaries as a distancing mechanism, as a rejection, especially when you’re in that anxious headspace. What they can really be is a *healthy structure for staying close.* If when your children grow up and move out you set up a regular, relaxed way to stay connected you can have the closeness you hunger for without trampling all over them or setting yourself up to always feel left out.

      1. Yes! When I moved out of state from my parents, I used to say sometimes, as sort of a joke, that “my mom and I get along okay, but we get along A LOT better now that I live 2000 miles away from her.” But the thing is, I moved back to my hometown about three years ago, and it turns out… the get-along-better stayed. It wasn’t the distance that made our relationship improve; it was the boundaries that the distance (and time zones, limited phone minutes (it was the olden days), etc.) allowed me to put in place, in a way that I hadn’t been able to do when we lived in the same house.

        1. I’m actually now back in the same house as my mom, after having lived on another continent, and can confirm: boundaries are a massive improvement. I couldn’t stand to live to close to her in college, but having that distance and learning to set boundaries (without having to Prove Their Need Beyond Reasonable Doubt) is what’s allowing us to live together without driving each other too far up the wall!

      2. Yes yes yes! I tell everyone I know that the only reason I have a happy and healthy relationship with my parents is because of the oodles of boundaries I’ve set. If I didn’t have them, I’d be resentful and lashing out and everyone would in a deeply unhappy codependent mess.

      3. Yup. What my mother doesn’t seem to get is that there’s no possible world where she gets everything she desires out of our relationship (partly because some of the things she wants are mutually contradictory, but ANYWAY). The more she respects my boundaries, the more she gets to hang out with and talk to me. The more she violates them, the fewer opportunities I will give her to do so.

      4. This is a great point. My mom promised me when I went away to college that if I called her once a week, she wouldn’t call me unless it was an emergency. So I did, for the most part, and that habit lasted until her death. And, of course, once she felt confident I would call, she didn’t feel the need to call, and once I felt confident she wouldn’t harass me, I often called more than once a week. Win-win!

      5. *a healthy structure for staying close.*

        I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. I am a person who needs a lot of independence and differentiation in my intimate relationships (largely thanks to an intrusive mom with NPD), so the only way I can feel close to someone is if they give me a lot of space. Especially romantic partners and family. Seems counter-intuitive, but the people I feel the most connected to and comfortable around, are the ones who give me a wide berth but show up when I need them and vice versa.

        Thank you for putting my feelings into words.

    3. The “dead in a ditch” piece caught my attention here, and I know this is totally obvious, but: it’s not a child’s job to reassure their parents’ worst-case-scenarios anxiety. (I know you know this already. It’s up there in your initial reaction and resolution.)

      I say this as someone whose parents operate under a “no news is good news” mindset (though I know its work on their part not to worry too much); my husband’s family, on the other hand, is of the “if I don’t hear from you, you must be dead on the side of the road” and joking-ish “who is this? I don’t recognize the voice” (after one day without a phone call) camp. The way we communicate with our parents is different — good and loving, in both cases! But different.

      1. “it’s not a child’s job to reassure their parents’ worst-case-scenarios anxiety.”

        Yeah, thank you for this. My mother and I both have the same mood disorder. All three of her children live a full day’s travel away. I’m the one she’s closest with, and also the one with formal counseling training. Guess who she naturally wants to talk to when she’s feeling insecure about her children’s safety? Guess who is NOT HERE for that?

        My mom is a great person and wonderful parent, but we did fall into a pattern where I was doing a fair amount of emotional caregiving because of the dynamics I described above. Sure, I know that it came from a place of real distress on my mom’s part… but that doesn’t mean it was ok to put that responsibility on me. I’m dealing with my own anxiety, you know?

        My relationship with my mom will always be susceptible to this pattern; the reason we can stay as close as we are is because I’m (eventually) able to state and reinforce my boundaries clearly and she’s (eventually) willing to examine and adjust her behavior when she sees that it hurts me.

      2. My adult son is not much of a talker, but he lives alone 1,500 miles away and is an introvert and I just want him to know that we haven’t forgotten about him. So I just text simple things like the local weather report (We live in Wisconsin) and he mocks our winter weather (He lives in Miami)

        He knows he doesn’t have to call back unless I tell him that it is something he needs to know about and it’s too complicated to text about. This happens once or twice a year, so he doesn’t seem to mind.

        Although, I did just text him about being dead in a ditch and BTW are there ditches in Miami? Fortunately he knows I’m kidding and can be ignored. He might send a smiley face or actually say “Yes.”

        Five years ago I would have been serious, but I’ve adjusted. I still worry, but he’s grown up and someone would call me if there was something wrong with him.

    4. My mom is kind of like this (not as bad as the LW’s mom, though), and I think part of it stems from the fact that she doesn’t have a lot of friends or hobbies. Her life was centered around her kids and husband but now my dad is often gone for work and her kids live far away. I get the sense that she’s bored and lonely, which feeds into her anxiety issues. She doesn’t have much of a support system or many people to talk to, so sometimes she’ll pester us (her adult kids) because there’s probably no one else for her to go to.

      So, all this to say, maybe you’d find it helpful to cultivate a life outside your kids/family? (If you’re not already doing so.) Obviously this can’t replace therapy in terms of treating anxiety, but it might reduce stress, loneliness, etc., that could make your anxiety worse. Just a thought!

      1. LW – It must be so frustrating for you. I don’t think you mentioned your age, or how long you’ve been living outside of your parents’ home, but it must feel like you never left. My ex MIL was like this with her son (daily phone calls) and after he died, tried to pass it on to her grandchild (my only child). We did eventually convince her that one call a week was sufficient for an 8 year old kid, but there was a lot of kicking and screaming (by grandma) before it settled down. I admit that my suggestion that she make friends her own age wasn’t very kindly-phrased, but it was nicer than a lot of things I wanted to say.

        I really love Cap’s suggestions about focusing all future texts/calls on the weekly conversation. You’re still willing to speak/listen, just in a focused manner. Mom may threaten you with being a bad child – but I think that makes you a pretty awesome child! You’re being open and honest about how you feel and are putting things in place to make them happen. Best wishes to you!

      2. Maybe you can hook your Mom up with the local library. I know that’s almost a quaint idea these days, but I’ve found most a provide a great interface for “older” generation folks with meetings, classes, clubs, etc. not to mention contemporary literature and art. Free. What’s not to like?

        1. Hah, my dad was very worried that my mom would be depressed and at loose ends when the last of the kids moved out (SAHM in a rural area, and very introverted to boot). She went and got a part-time job at the library and started volunteering for programs, and now she has a more active social circle than I do.

          Libraries are awesome.

      3. Yes, my mother goes through phases where she texts me with whatever is on her mind — and then calls to tell me the same things. I know it’s because she’s lonely and a bit isolated, but it’s very wearing on me. I suggested she get Twitter, but she thought I was joking.

    5. My father was one of those no chill low boundry people. My brother was the Bad Child because he wouldn’t play those games, and my father’s favorite aphorism became “Your son’s your son till he takes him a wife but your daughter’s your daughter all of her life.” This despite the fact my mother was stuck taking care of his mother while his sister was “too busy.”
      Then my mother got cancer for the third time and they couldn’t get it all out. She started trying to explain to my father he had no dibs on my time, but she also made him start going to clubs and meetings with people she knew he’d like without her, she talked to his friends and asked them to spend time with him, and she told him if he didn’t find someone and get married again, it would mean he hadn’t liked being married to her and would be an insult to her.
      My mother really helped me deal with my Dad after her death. (and he found a girlfriend who liked to dance, which my mother never liked but he loved, at the widow/widower’s group at church. It wasn’t just me she helped.)

      All this is to say, your mother has too much time on her hands. She needs a hobby. She needs friends. Your dad can maybe help with that but if not, make a date with her once a month for a cooking club or yoga lessons or volunteering at the church or something else she likes with people more her age than yours she can make friends with without you. Ask her minister for help. Ask her friends. She’s bored and lonely, and while it’s not your job to solve that for her, you might enjoy helping your mother get her life back so she’s not so much in yours.

      1. Sarah, I just wanted to say your mother sounds like she was a great woman.

    6. In case it’s useful – when I first moved away from home, I used to get terrifying texts from my parents saying things like “please call us now”. There wasn’t an emergency, they just hadn’t heard from me in a while and were getting worried. Obviously, whenever I received one of those I panicked. So instead we agreed that they could send me texts saying things like “are you dead?” and I could text back – quickly – “nope”, and they would be reassured until I had time to catch up with them properly.

      I’m not recommending this to the OP as it only worked because my parents really wanted to let me be independent and work with me on how to achieve that, but it might be useful for parents like Karifur.

      1. Emma, I do find this useful. We have 4 people in our family who all approach communication differently, so we have a couple of rules. If we keep a reply we have to explicitly ask for a reply, and nothing vague that might be alarming. A text from me would probably look more like “everything’s fine but give me a call when you’re done with work” so no one panics.
        We have always wanted our kids to grow up to be independent adults who spend time with us because they enjoy it, not out of guilt or obligation. This has always been more of a challenge for me than for my husband, who grew up as the oldest of 6 kids. I’m glad I have him to gently point out when my anxiety is taking over and I need to take a few steps back.

        1. “We have always wanted our kids to grow up to be independent adults who spend time with us because they enjoy it, not out of guilt or obligation.”

          Keep that goal firmly in mind, be honest in your self-evaluation of motives, and listen to hubs when he says pull back a bit, and I think you’ll do just fine. This was always our same goal, and we were progressing very well when, just as our 3 kids were getting through the initial stages of driving age, where they could go out and do things on their own, there was a massive wreck (teenagers with fatalities) directly in front of our house, at a time when I knew my kids were on their way home, all three of them in the same car. It wasn’t my kids involved in the wreck, but I had good reason to suspect that it was, and that event understandably sent me into a massive anxiety spiral every time they left the house for a while thereafter. I had to check in with my goals a lot, and realize that most of the time when I wanted to reach out, it was only to get my kids to be a caretaker to my anxiety, and that wasn’t compatible with my goals. Hubs helped a lot with this too. Separation anxiety sucks, but it doesn’t have to ruin your relationships. We are now several years past that traumatic event and I’m happy to report that one kid dropped by with his girlfriend for a visit tonight, one kid called during a short break in his summer trip, and the third put up a post for parents so we could get a look at his adventure today in his far-from-home job. All are quite independent and still happy to hang out with us when they can. I’m a firm believer in goals instead of rules, for good reasons – they’re more malleable to individual situations and it works. Hang in there, momma.

      2. OMG the ‘hey, just want to talk to you’ messages packaged to appear to be emergencies. My dad did that, and it was for the most part only presentation on his part, but I finally had to blast him for almost giving me a heart attack one time. “TELL ME *WHY* YOU’RE CALLING.”

        1. Speaking as a kid who hangs out with her parents because she enjoys it: this sounds like you’re doing it all right. I call my parents to chat. They ask if we can skype some evening soon. I try to always pick up their calls, because they don’t call often, and if I pick up and it’s not a good time for a half hour gossip, I can tell them that and they’ll call later. I did call my mom a lot more while I was pregnant for emotional support, but I was always careful to let her know that I needed to whine, not tell her about a Thing That Was Wrong. My grandmother died some months back and it was more or less expected, so during that time we were more attentive than usual to calls, but we have now shifted back toward the casual calls that start off, “Have you got time to talk?”
          I will note that my husband and I have a rule that if we call, and don’t get through, and call again right away, it actually is an emergency of some kind, and the second call really needs to be answered. Sometimes the emergency is “Traffic is dreadful, can you pick up the baby?”, but we try to reserve that second call for really important things, and it works out pretty well.

    7. Anxious mom checking in! (Not only am I naturally tightly wound, I actually have a diagnosed anxiety disorder.)

      I’m here to say that we Worrying Moms can indeed learn to tolerate uncertainty and lack of control of our kids’ lives. Sometimes it’s hard, and I do somewhat live in fear of sending them off to college and beyond (especially my more impulsive 9yo). Because they don’t know as much as I do, and what if Something Terrible happens that could somehow semi-magically be prevented by me worrying and them running every worst case scenario possible in every situation, plus checking in with me constantly?

      The truth is, as they grow, they actually know more about their own lives than I do, and they’re intelligent and capable of performing their own risk assessments. Plus, if Something Terrible happens, they actually do have the ability to handle it and recover.

      As a mother I really do forget sometimes that they aren’t powerless marionettes I need to pilot safely through life. Sometimes it requires me to aggressively distract myself, or use judicious doses of wine or Xanax to get through letting them fly unattended or go to a sleep away camp. But it CAN be done, and honestly helping an anxious parent learn to tolerate less control is probably helpful to their stress level and happiness in the end!

      1. From one tightly-wound, massively worried, diagnosed highly anxious mother (whose impulsive 9y/o did actually make it to 19 and is away at college) to another, I second this completely. It ain’t easy, but it CAN be done.

      2. “The truth is, as they grow, they actually know more about their own lives than I do, and they’re intelligent and capable of performing their own risk assessments.”

        Exactly! At some point you have to realize that you did your best at parenting possible and trust that your children learned good lessons from you. 🙂

        And speaking as a healthcare provider that treats anxiety on a regular basis, one of the best things you can do is to do things like you are doing to train yourself not to engage in the anxiety as often. It is also a habit, like negative self-talk, that can be worked on over time in conjunction with other treatments (I highly recommend acupuncture).

      3. Love this, Christine! My mother said something that I always say to my friends with worried parents “I don’t have to worry about you. If something bad happens to, the first person they call is your mother. If no one called, you’re fine.”

      4. “they aren’t powerless marionettes I need to pilot safely through life” this description made me lol.

        Not a mother, but I did develop some fantasticly awful ruminating habits while in a dumpster fire of a codependent relationship with an untreated mentally ill alcoholic. Ruminating is SO ADDICTIVE and difficult to stop. And “what if Something Terrible happens that could somehow semi-magically be prevented by me worrying and them running every worst case scenario possible in every situation, plus checking in with me constantly?” sounds a lot like ruminating.

        I have found that therapy + distracting activities (what works best for me is martial arts or dancing – something that requires my brain to focus on my body) helps immensely with breaking those habits of constant catastrophizing. Plus reaching out to people who know I do this and can reel me in.

    8. The good news is, you’re aware of what’s happening and doing the work with a therapist, so you are already MILES ahead of my own mother with these tendencies. ☺
      Maybe if you could communicate to your children that you are feeling this anxiety, but that you are also working on it and don’t expect them to manage it? That way they might feel more empathetic and understanding if you have a flare up of anxiety. ❤

    9. It really helps you are aware of this. I have the same problem with people I date as well as my kids. But it really helps if you can talk about this to people! “hey kids, you are moving out, and you know I worry, right? And go straight to must-be-dead-in-a-ditch? Please let’s work out a timetable together / how to keep contact so I don’t annoy you and you don’t worry me. If I get to your nerves, please talk with me about it and don’t just let it fester.” People are really helpful and understanding when you ask for help and state your problems. Also if you have other people to tell about being anxious it helps, even anonymously online. If you worry about pushing your kids away, you are really far on not pushing them away!

      The key is clear guidelines on when to expect communication: if someone is leaving for the desert without a phone for a year, I will not worry until I would expect them to return home. If someone dear says they’ll talk with me the next day, I freak out if that doesn’t happen. In dating situations it is also a good test on is the other person really listening to what I say. There are some who have had a long talk about this with me beforehand, and are all “I understand”, and then are utterly surprised I feel terrible when they are out of reach for no reason when they were supposed to be. I can understand there are legit reasons to be out of reach, including just forgetting, and one can get far with an apology for those. But ignoring my clear statements that this will make me feel terrified, those people will get the boot.

      Once you have made this clear, it is also easier to ask after people without getting too anxious on bothering them. “hey, haven’t heard from you, are you dead?” is just normal communication in this household – I have no problems in sending that message and the recepients don’t freak out from these questions.

    10. My mom and my wife’s mom both have similar anxious conclusion-jumping hobbies. Where they diverge is my mom clearly thinks it’s my responsibility to fix her fears, while my wife’s mom is willing to send messages like “I know this is unreasonable, but I haven’t heard from you in a bit and am starting to fret. Could you reply sometime tonight so I can fret about something else?” They both want and get the same reassurance, but I prefer the latter’s willingness to take responsibility for the anxiety. It’s easier to sympathize with someone else’s unreasonable fears, which we all have to some extent, if they aren’t trying to make you feel bad for being the focus. Good luck!

  5. This is great advice, and I second establishing these boundaries – and the sooner the better. It took me a while, but I trained my mom to not expect immediate responses. We did have a stretch where she would be all, “Well, I haven’t heard from you in a while and I’m just worried because I’m your mom blah-blah-blah.” I gave her the same response every time: “Mom I don’t have anything to report. It’s same ol’-same ol’ around here. If I had something to tell you I’d tell you!”

    This has worked well for me. My parents are finally out of my bizness, and they know almost nothing about my personal life. They have never really known any boyfriend/lover since my mid twenties, and that’s how I like it. Intimacy is not something I give because it is demanded.

    Good luck LW! You can do it, just be a boring broken record.

    1. Oooh “Intimacy is not something I give because it is demanded” should be cross-stitched on a pillow! Or tattooed on my arm because I need the daily reminder.

      Although honestly? I don’t give when it’s demanded because I CAN’T give it really but hoo boy the people-pleaser in me tries to.

  6. I have the twin ‘advantages’ of aspergers and a native language that *literally* does not do rhetorical questions, so my response to,

    “But what would I do IF…?!”

    would be:

    *blink* “Well, what WOULD you do?”

    I am completely rubbish at reassurance and calming but I am the goddam Queen of Practical Solutions, and I find that – sometime, not always – pinning spirallingly-anxious people down to an actual answer helps cut the cycle. LW, if your mom breaks out the ‘what would I do if I couldn’t contact you in an emergency?!’ then take the (hopefully…) 5 minutes to go through it with her and work it out. I mean, 1) exactly what kind of an emergency would she have that ONLY you could solve, not dad / sibling / Mrs. Miggins next door? and 2) until the Cap’n’s excellent retraining works, you’ll still be seeing her texts in the event of an actual emergency.

    1. Buni, would you mind sharing what is your native tongue? I’ve tried googling it but to no avail. I find the idea of a language that doesn’t do rhetorical questions really interesting. Surely it must me cultural, as grammatically rhetorical questions are identical to question questions; it’s all about the intent, right?

      Sorry for going off topic, but the language nerd in me needs to know. 😉

      1. It’s a deeply weird tangled-up-with-Norse dialect of north Gaelic; And yes, grammatically a question is a question, but no one would ever ask a question and not expect an actual reply. I was raised bilingual and speak perfect English *words* but have a tendency to think in that grammar. Between that and the autism I know I can come across a little odd when speaking…

        It’s also considered rude to use filler sounds/words like ‘errrr…’ or ‘ummmm…’ or ‘ooh, well, let me think…’, so sometimes friends are thrown when they ask me something and I just stand there silently for 5 seconds ’til I come up with an answer.

        1. ooooh! thank you for answering. I was so curious too. Interesting that fillers are considered rude. I do the same thing, just *think* about my response and it really does weird some people out.

        2. Gaelic speakers *fistbump*. Perhaps less weird, but I get similar looks trying to explain that there isn’t really way to say “yes” or “no” in Irish.

          1. that’s really funny… I took Irish for four semesters and we didn’t learn that!! We also didn’t learn to conjugate verbs even though I kept begging him to teach them. But our teacher was this adorable burly bearded dude who loved telling stories and teaching us about random other stuff…. so basically we stayed because we loved Caomhan. I hardly remember a word of Irish but I still miss that guy.

        3. That’s so interesting, thank you!

          (Also I’ve just looked up this thing about how there’s no “yes” or “no” in Irish and my mind is blown.)

          1. The same is the case in Latin. That is, there are some words you can use, but that’s not what you’re supposed to do.

    2. I’ve done those answers. “Um, if I’m dead in a ditch, I’m sure the police will notify you. I won’t be any deader if you find out thirty minutes before they find the charred wreckage of my car, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be just as sad.” Or, “I don’t really think we can hang my continuing to live on you checking in frequently enough to send an ambulance just in time. Do you want to start discussing a heart monitor or something?”

      I probably didn’t do much to relieve the person’s anxiety, but I definitely marked myself as Person Who Will Not Participate In Illusions Of Security, and I get far fewer requests to play along.

      1. “I don’t really think we can hang my continuing to live on you checking in frequently enough to send an ambulance just in time. Do you want to start discussing a heart monitor or something?”

        😂 Tucking in pocket to run away with this, but having to stop multiple times to pull it back out and read it again and laugh some more.

        Adding to my toolbox, Hbc. Thank you for the laugh, as well as the example of calling someone out so eloquently on what they’re doing. To me, the tone comes across as gentle and humorous but also completely matter of fact, with such solid boundaries.

      2. This was what my mother said to ME. Almost word for word. I’d asked her if I should call to let her know I was OK when I got to whatever out-of-town activity I was going to.

        So she programmed me to not worry.

        I have this fight sometimes w/ my MIL, who insists I should call her when I get home.
        One time I got REALLY mad bcs it was rainy and windy and dark, and I had to drive home from her house, over the highway for a bit, etc. She was insisting I should call her because she would worry, and she wouldn’t let go after the normal pushback.

        I finally realized why I was fighting so hard, and said, “You make me feel unsafe and afraid. Right before I’m getting in the car for a slightly difficult drive. I don’t need to get in the car with that thought in my head. Do you EXPECT that I will have an accident? Do you WANT me to be nervous while I’m driving? You’re jinxing me even by having asked.”

        We ended it finally by me saying, “Fine. I’ll call you this time. Never, ever ask me again.”

        She doesn’t ask often anymore.

        (My fiancé and I almost had a huge fight right before our wedding because she wanted us to call and tell her we’d landed safely in England on our honeymoon. On our honeymoon, we were supposed to check in with Mommy to tell her we’d landed safely. He didn’t see what my objection was–and I’ve spoken to other people who didn’t either. We ended that by me saying, “Fine. You can call her. I can’t tell you what to do. But you will do it when I am not around, and you will never, ever mention that phone call to me. You will not say, ‘Mom says hi,’ and I would prefer that you not say to her, ‘Wife is OK,’ but of course I can’t dictate what you say to her.”

        She calls daily. She asks, “What did you have for dinner?” I say, “Food. Did you need something?”
        I really like her–I just can’t do the daily conversation. Especially not about dinner, or the weather. Those are the things you talk about with people you don’t even know. It’s like shining a klieg light on the idea that we have nothing to talk about.

      3. Yes! This is what I do as an anxious person who tends to jump to the worst conclusions. I was afraid to keep my phone completely silent through the night and kept jolting awake to random texts and notifications. Then I went through the mental process, that if it’s an emergency I can help with the person calling can call someone else (or an ambulance etc.), or the emergency is out of my hands (say if someone has passed away) and me knowing the instant it happened would not make a difference. It has helped me quite a bit!

    3. This suggestion is kindly meant but participating in my own mother’s anxiety spiral does not actually assuage it and ends up being a giant waste of my time and emotional labor, so your mileage may vary. Proceed with caution.

      1. Yes, this has been my experience with my own anxiety. Reassurance feels very nice in the moment, but is 100% NOT HELPFUL in the mid or long term. I have this very distinct memory of the first time my now-husband tried to reassure me about a social even the previous day by starting to dissect it, and being super proud of myself for cutting him off with “I know you mean well, but this actually won’t help me and will probably push this anxiety into an actual panic attack.”

  7. Friends, I am here to testify. I used the Captain’s method to retrain my narcissistic, manipulative mom and IT WORKED.
    Now let me be clear – this is sort of like training a dog or toddler. You have to be firm and consistent over time and it takes way longer than it seems like it should. Sometimes they backslide and you have to start over. But again, IT WORKED.
    I trained her that I would call her every Sunday morning, and that got me down from the Bad Place of multiple voicemails weekly, and emails if I didn’t respond asking if I was mad or she’d done something wrong or really she didn’t mean anything when she said $SuperProblematicThing, and phone calls at my job if I didn’t respond to those. She pulled back to a few calls a week once she started to trust that I would call her every Sunday.
    After a few years (literally: years) I was able to mix it up and sometimes I would call her on Saturday morning instead, and over time she got used to that. And after a few more years I could sometimes even SKIP A SUNDAY. And now I don’t even have to call every single week and she doesn’t freak out. I know it’s hard to believe but it’s just not a huge deal anymore.
    You can do it! It will be hard and sometimes you will slip up and that’s ok! Sometimes you’ll be like “OMG are you really doing this again, I thought you had LEARNED” and you’ll have to start over at zero. But you will get there.

    1. This is super awesome! Also, I kinda started picturing the opening line as an infomercial or something on a good Dr. Phil show. Can we make that happen? Where’s the CA talkshow with beige arm-chairs and success stories?

      1. I would wear my good suit for that! “When I first heard about Captain Awkward, my mom was driving me crazy…”

        1. I want to apologize for my use of ableist language in the above comment. I will try to edit it when I have access to a computer.

      2. Better yet – the infomercial can start with OP’s mom (in black-and-white) Doing Phones Wrong – I’ll let imagination run wild here – and then, full color, BostonCandy steps in with a wide smile and the Perfect Solution To All Your Problems!

        The best part of infomercials was always someone, like, overpouring cereal or not being able to pick up a snuffbox because their hands were coated in Vaseline, or whatever. You don’t need an expensive product, you need common sense!! :’D

        1. Side note, since you bring it up: http://imgur.com/gallery/LXkeq “Like, 90% of infomercial style products were designed by/for disabled people, but you wouldn’t know that, because there is no viable market for them. THey have to be marketed and sold to abled people just so that any money can be made of off them and so the people who actually need them will have access.”

          1. Thank you for this. I can be a kinder person now that I have this knowledge.

          2. yeah. little things like easy-open prescription bottles become a huge relief when your hands don’t quite do what you tell them to… it really is hard to understand how important muscles are when they’ve been working automatically as long as you can remember.

          3. I did not know that. I don’t infomercial, but it’s good to know, just in case.

            (Am I wrong for being sad that spellcheck recognizes “infomercial”?)

          4. I saw a lot of mocking on Facebook of pre-peeled oranges sold in containers until someone pointed out that not everyone’s hands can peel an orange if they’re disabled, and disabled people deserve to be able to eat an orange when they want to if they live alone or don’t have someone around to peel it for them. It really made me rethink some of the things I’d assumed were ridiculous.

        2. Don’t forget, a lot of these products were actually designed for people with disabilities. You don’t need an expensive product, you just need common sense and standard muscles in your hand / both hands / etc etc

  8. It does get better! As an only child of two extremely overbearing parents (especially on my mom’s side), I can personally attest that the Cap’s advice is pure gold. Stick to it and you’ll see results. It will take time and there will be backslides, push-backs, backlashes etc., but ultimately – you will have a better, and above all – healthier, relationship with your mom. Healthier for you *and* for her. When I feel guilty, I remind myself that both of us enjoy me calling her when I want to talk much much more than her hounding me every day.

  9. Hello from the other side!
    I went through something like this with my mom, and I can share some experience.

    First of all: It definitely works! You have to stick with it and not let her trample your shiny new boundaries and that is HARD for a while, but it really does become the new normal and takes much less effort once that sink in.

    However, you might have to restart the process when life goes through a big change.
    Maybe you move house/get married/have a kid/get ill and that changes your dynamic with your parents, and requires you to put in the boundarification work with the new setup. Maybe your PARENTS go through something that requires a reboundarization.
    It can happen.
    The good news is, it will be easier the second time.

    As a concrete example, as the eldest child, I had to reset boundaries around communication when I moved away for uni.
    There were tears.
    “HOW COULD MY OWN DAUGHTER JUST HANG UP ON ME!?” months later, when the reason I had to do that is because she doesn’t let me get a word in edgewise and I was going to be late for class.

    Then I moved countries, and that was a GREAT excuse not to have frequent contact, because Expensive!!
    And then Skype became a thing and I had to reset boundaries again.
    There was a period of dreading even opening the skype window because mom would call (always video! without asking first!) as soon as she saw my icon in green. So I did a version of the Captain’s advice, set up a standing skype date that I could prepare for, and that eventually worked well. I could also finally use skype to talk to friends again.

    Then I moved back to my hometown, and had to reset boundaries AGAIN, because mom assumed that being in the same city meant it would be ok to constantly call “just to chat”*. I spent a lot of time declining calls, deliberately not replying to text, etc., and did at one point explicitly say DO NOT CALL ME, but it sort of works.
    I fully expect to need to reboundarize again if/when the next life shakeup happens, because she will never default to a communication frequency or style I prefer, but I have years of practice at this point.

    (*with my mom, “just to chat” means “you give her full an undivided attention while she rambles about whatever she wants and never asks about your life or gives any indication she’s heard your replies”)

    Oh, and getting your mom to respect your communication frequency and format boundaries does not in any way guarantee she will learn to actually CARE about you and your life. It will just get her to stop invading it a little.

    1. (*with my mom, “just to chat” means “you give her full an undivided attention while she rambles about whatever she wants and never asks about your life or gives any indication she’s heard your replies”)

      THIS. This is 100% my dad. He and I have always had a complicated relationship but after he retired he got REALLY needy and seemed to completely forget what it was like to work at a job. For example, he would decide at 9:56 on a Tuesday morning that he needed to talk to me. He would call my desk but it would go to voicemail because I was in a meeting. Then he’d call my cell phone, which, again, would go to voicemail because I was in a meeting. Then he would text me. If I didn’t respond, he’d call my brother to see if my brother knew where I was. (Answer: Yes, she’s AT FUCKING WORK DUDE.) If that didn’t satisfy him, he’d then call my office back on our main line and randomly pick extensions of my colleagues (we’re a small office so he knows pretty much anyone could see if I was at my desk and/or would know where I was if I wasn’t at my desk) so he could talk to an actual person and confirm that I wasn’t, in fact, at my desk and, you know, IN A MEETING. Then he would finally leave me a message. When we’d talk later he’d say (in an accusatory manner) “You are ALWAYS in meetings!” Like I took meetings specifically when he called to talk to me just to frustrate and/or thwart him.

      The last straw was when he called me one morning at work and I picked up the phone (we didn’t have caller ID at that point) and he starts with “Do you have a second?” I said not really because I had people in my conference room waiting for me to start a meeting. He was like “But it will only take a second! It’s important. I really need to ask you something.” So I caved and said “OK, but literally you get like a minute because I have to go.” His question was (HAND TO GOD):

      Are refried beans always that texture? Because I had some at dinner last night and if they are, I don’t think I like them.

      That is the kind of thing my dad thinks warrants interrupting me at work for. On a regular basis. My dad is one of those people that thinks that he needs to share a thought in his head the moment he has it and has ZERO ability to self-reflect and say “is this important enough to call someone at work about?” After the refried beans incident of 2014 I sat down and told him that I had to put a moratorium on calls from him at work – and that it needed to be a TRUE emergency if he was going to call me during work hours. (Defined generally as bleeding and/or death and/or winding up in an emergency room or ambulance). I told him he could email me as many times a day as he wanted whenever he thought of something as long as he understood that I would respond ONLY when I had the time. If I had time during the day I would answer something but if I didn’t, he would have to just wait until that night or my next block of free time. I would answer everything he sent me (generally I would combine my responses into one email at night or after a couple of days depending on my schedule) so he knew I wasn’t ignoring him and was validating all the little thoughts in his head. I did have to have a conversation where I articulated that if I didn’t take a call or sent him to vmail when he called or didn’t respond to something he sent (voice, text or email) right away that he needed to understand it wasn’t a statement about our relationship writ large. It was a statement about my availability to talk to ANYONE in that moment and my need to talk to him when I wasn’t busy with work. It was hard and he was pissed about it for awhile, but now things are good. And on the rare occasion he calls me during work hours he will always preface it with “I’m really sorry to bother you at work but this is time sensitive/an emergency (whatever). Can you talk now or do you need to call me back?” So he gets it and it isn’t a point of contention anymore!

      Boundaries in other places are still a regular struggle – baby steps! – but I did win this particular battle while maintaining a relationship with my dad. OP, it is possible! As others have said it will be hard on both of you but it is totally feasible. Imagine your life where you don’t have to navigate this minefield every day. That life could be yours!!! Good luck – you got this!!!

      1. I spit water on my monitor thanks to your father and his refried beans.

      2. “the refried beans incident of 2014”

        I am laughing so hard at this phrasing… Also congratulations on setting boundaries and staying strong!

      3. I love this comment. Dying. Ded.

        Also, your dad needs a Twitter account, like, now. Instant sharing of his refried beans thoughts with the entire internet! Yesterday I told the world that I almost left a voice mail for someone. No topic too trivial! I would follow him for the LOLs and promote him to a wide audience. “Y’all, y’all, it’s Refried Beans Man!”

        This goes without saying, but he can never know that you have a Twitter or that you even know what it is or his calls would become “Did you see my Tweet?” But yeah, there is a medium out there for him.

        1. We’ve literally JUST crossed the Facebook hurdle. He’s struggling with understanding the whole concept of social media, but he’s getting there. He loves that the universe has given him a mechanism to share even the tiniest of thoughts with the world in a place where that is both appropriate and often expected – and any feedback makes him downright blissful. An unintended (but happy!) side effect of him being on Facebook now is that once he started having real content in his feed and seeing what other people posted he asked me if it was weird or rude if he didn’t comment or like (or provide some kind of response/acknowledgement) because – ha! – some of what people post on their timelines is “really inconsequential.” (My dad is frequently blissfully unaware that he is a living, breathing version of the pot/kettle scenario.) Like would people know that he saw their posts but declined to react to them in some way? We were able to have the talk about how people don’t check their feeds every day or even see every single post made by people they are “friends” with so no, they likely wouldn’t notice (unless he was specifically tagged) and that he should remember the same would be true for his posts. So he gets the satisfaction of being able to vomit his every thought onto the internet without feeling like everyone HATES HIM* if they don’t respond in some way. It’s been a really, really good thing for me as the number of random refried-bean-level missives have been drastically reduced. I do still get the occasional nudge of “Did you see *random thing* I posted two and a half seconds ago?? Are you going to comment????” but understanding the format has greatly reduced the general size of the feelingsball he hurls at me on a regular basis.

          I am afraid to show him Twitter. Baby steps, friends. BABY STEPS.

          * a.k.a.: Dad’s default setting to not getting a return email or call in what he deems an “appropriate” period of time

      4. This reminds me far too much of my Dad, who used to call me every single time their dog was even mildly ill, because I worked in several different vet offices / animal shelters, and therefore needed to know every time that yellow lab was not 100%. This included several calls about her diarrhea where he would. not. stop. giving me details, no matter how many times I told him I was eating dinner and that he could do the same thing I always told him to do when her stomach was upset.

        It was a plus and a minus when he started texting… fewer phone calls, but he eventually figured out how to send pictures…

  10. This is super advice. How about when the person who wants more contact just stops by? How about when you are outdoors a lot, so even staying in the house pretending you are in the shower doesn’t work? And you know (from experience) that they’ll be terribly hurt and flip out if you ask them to call first? But their schedule is unavoidably unpredictable so suggesting a regular check-in plan will not work?

    1. You tell them “Please do not stop by without calling AND being told ‘yes, it is a good time’ first ” and/or “Sorry, I’m in the middle of something and it’s not a good time” and/or “This thing where you stop by unannounced really bothers me, I don’t want you to do it anymore, ever” and you weather whatever hurt and tantrums come. Don’t invite them inside or to sit down when they come. Don’t give them something cold to drink. In extreme cases, try “Oops, I was just leaving, sorry” and get in your car (or walk to the eL or bus) and LEAVE for a bit. Teach them that stopping by does not get your compliance and attention. And then, if you want to keep a relationship with them, you check in semi-regularly (perhaps inviting them over) and if their schedule is irregular and doesn’t allow it, cool, you’re still going to check in every Saturday for a few minutes and they should still never stop by unannounced. It’s not easy, but if you’re consistent, and if they want to keep a good relationship with you, they can learn.

      1. Years ago when my husband and I were newlyweds we worked on establishing boundaries with both sets of parents. My mom didn’t love them, but respected them. My In-laws were another story. My mother-in-law once sent my father-in-law to our house (over 100 miles away from theirs!!!) to “check in” on us. We pulled into the parking lot at our apartment and there he was, sitting on the hood of his car, pissed that we weren’t more happy to see him. I yelled at him, he yelled back, I went inside, and hubby and I had a conversation that night about even more firm boundary settings. His parents continued to resist to the point where when we moved, the only piece of information that we shared with them was my husbands cell phone number. My husband has his parents and brother blocked on all social media and has expressly told extended family that they’re not to share our info with them. Our attitude is if they won’t respect our boundaries, then they get nothing.

      2. I bought a house, and am doing a lot of work, both inside and outside. You show up unannounced, I’ll put you to work! I have massive quantities of rocks that need to be picked out of the flower beds, go work on that 🙂

        1. Oh yeah. I’ve started going thongs like that. Actually, even if I wasn’t “about to start weeding” or “cleaning out the shed” (for wet weather), I suddenly am if someone rocks up unannounced. That’s how the fruit trees *finally* got pruned last weekend.

      3. I once woke up at 6am and wandered into the kitchen in my underwear for a drink to find my mother-in-law gardening (in OUR garden) right outside the kitchen window. At 6am. I turn round, my father-in-law’s reading the newspaper at the dining table. At 6am. IN OUR HOUSE.

        I screamed so many swearwords I’m amazed the neighbour’s didn’t call the police. Even now a decade later they still tell people about my ‘weird insistence’ that visitors call before coming to our house like it’s not entirely justified.

        1. My mom has often told me about how when she was growing up, in a tiny rural community lost to time, her grandma (my great grandmother) could and would show up unnannounced, and so her mom (my grandma) would constantly ensure that everything was clean, that there was enough food for an extra person at dinner, etc etc.
          Usually this story gets brought up in a context of how I just don’t ~share enough of my life~ with her.

          I have always answered that if she tried that, I just wouldn’t let her in – I live in an apartment with a buzzer entry, she doesn’t have a key, and even if someone let her into the building I would not let her in the apartment uninvited. I also have a pet she’s allergic to (which I wanted regardless of anyone’s allergy status, but it’s nice insurance).

        2. Okay, I get that there are people who live in places where “just swinging by” is normal, and they don’t mind if you rock up without calling or texting first.
          I might even go so far as to possibly grasp that if you had come by without letting the residents know, you could perhaps just come into their house without knocking or ringing the doorbell, if it was someone you were really close to. Maybe. I’d never be okay with that kind of relationship, but I suppose some people somewhere might be.
          But there just isn’t a universe where I can accept that any human being would respond with equanimity, let alone enthusiasm, to people strolling into their house and hanging out and NOT TELLING ANYONE THEY WERE EVEN THERE, no matter how much they loved them.

          1. “Visiting unannounced” story!

            My mom’s mom has fairly severe general anxiety disorder, so for one family trip to visit grandma my mom’s plan was not to tell her the whole family was coming so she wouldn’t worry about it leading up to the visit. There was also some excusing about how back in grandma’s day, folks dropped in on each other unannounced and besides we are family!

            I drew a pretty strong line that if my mom didn’t tell grandma I would. I was *horrified* at the thought of surprising a 92 year old with anxiety with 3 unexpected guests behind her daughter at the door. The only way I can personally feel comfortable going to someone’s house is if I’m invited/expected. The Polite Vampire of houseguests, if you will.

            This was kind of a fraught decision, because my grandma did end up worrying a bit more leading up to our arrival (email tone was easy to see), but I could only imagine the shock and powerlessness she’d have felt if she hadn’t been granted the option to prepare herself how she does, how I do the same: by worrying. We did compromise and let her know a few days rather than weeks in advance, and that seemed kind.

          2. I *almost* did this to a friend’s son (without the underwear ZOMGNO), but that was a matter of miscommunication: my friend told me she and her family were out to breakfast but that the front door was open if they hadn’t gotten back by the time I arrived. They hadn’t, and I let myself in, and about ten seconds later was apologizing profusely to the child she hadn’t thought to warn me had *NOT* gone to breakfast with them.


          3. See, I’m just learning this. I grew up in a “call first” family/friends group. Now I live in what I call a cabin community. People have literally told me to stop texting and just come over, and of course I get people just stopping by now too. I hate it, and how I handled it was by announcing to visitors that they are lucky I had clothes on when they showed up.

            People call before coming over now.

        3. Holy CRAP that’s horrifying! I don’t blame you for yelling and swearing! If I were in this situation, that behaviour would get them a permanent ban from EVER coming to my house.

        4. That. Is. Horrifying. I can’t even believe you had to deal with that. You have my condolences.

          I was thinking about how on AAM, Alison often talks about how working in a bad/dysfunctional/toxic workplace can skew your norms over time and distort your thinking. When you hear about something like this you have to wonder what kind of insane place did these people live in during their formative years to decide that their behavior is totally normal and *YOU* are the weirdo for, you know, not wanting to wake up to unexpected visitors in your house at 6 in the fucking morning??????

          (Side note: While the underwear thing sucks, I might be willing to experience that trauma to know someone was out doing the gardening for me. I hate yard work so much that might be an acceptable price to pay. Maybe. I think.)

        5. I found my brother having tea in my kitchen at 6am once. I was only wearing knickers. And I was bleeding and my boobs were leaking: I had given birth three days before. His only reaction was “do you have anything for breakfast”? I just walked upstairs and my partner threw him out. My entire family is still upset about the incident because “even though he was out of line, we could have handled it better” and “we were both so touchy for the three months after having the baby”. I put so much work to establishing some rules prior to birth but my family is not good with boundaries. Needless to say, none of them has keys anymore (not even the ones who respect the boundaries, because they don’t have their own so they will not say no to the rest of them).

        6. My dad’s mother had a habit of just walking in without knocking. (This was back in the day when we didn’t lock doors.) When I was an adult, Mom revealed a fun story: Once my grandmother showed up super-early and walked in, and when she didn’t see anyone in the kitchen she opened their bedroom door and walked in.

          Yes. Didn’t knock, didn’t say “yoo hoo, anyone home?” Just opened THEIR BEDROOM DOOR and walked in.

          Nothing was actually going on at that time. But still.

          The woman had no filters.

        7. My parents and sister have keys to our house because I wanted them to have them. And they STILL don’t drop by unannounced!

      4. Yup. I had to do this when I was younger and first moved out of home. My mother would turn up unannounced. I asked her to call first, and she was very upset, but agreed, then she would call from about a block away – this is when she lived an hour’s drive away from me so there was all this pressure to be OK with it because she’d come all this way. One day I answered and told her it wasn’t a good time and had to literally hang up on her because she wasn’t taking no for an answer. She was super mad at me and stopped talking to me for a while, but it did the trick. Sadly I only did it because I was literally in the middle of an argument with my boyfriend and was super upset (the idea of my mother turning up in the middle of that was horrifying) but on hind sight I should have done it right away because after that she did in fact arrange visits in advance rather than from the end of the street.

        Basically, you have to do it even though you know they’ll be terribly hurt and flip out. There’s no other way. They’re using the threat of their tantrum as a way to force you to comply with their wishes – the only way out of that is to just trigger the tantrum and insist on what you need. It’s the consequences that help set the boundary – the consequences of turning up unannounced are that they don’t get a visit with you, they get a lot of inconvenience and wasted time. Yes, that takes drama and tantrums and accusations that you’re a terrible person, unfortunately. If people you have to do this to were reasonable people, you wouldn’t need to set the boundary in the first place because they’d already be considering your wishes, or at least it wouldn’t be a big deal to just gently ask for what you need.

    2. Scream. Move house and don’t tell them the address. Get a pet they’re allergic to.

      More realistically, practice ignoring them really really hard.
      Maybe loud music while you’re working outdoors could help, act REALLY REALLY SURPRISED to see them turn up unannoucned, and – do not stop what you’re doing – when they show up. Ignore them and keep weeding. If you must respond, tell them you’re busy with No Apologies.

      Sounds infinitely harder than phone/text versions but holy potatoes I do not envy you the dropbys.

      1. get a pet they’re allergic to

        My mother is deathly terrified of birds.

        If it weren’t for the things I know about how pet birds are obtained, I would 1000% have one of the smarter birds in my apartment.

    3. When they flip out are they dangerous? I’m serious.

      If they are, then I’d read Gift of Fear (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56465.The_Gift_of_Fear), and Getting Free (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3016620-getting-free) and Why does he do that? (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/224552.Why_Does_He_Do_That_?from_search=true) for helpful advice.

      If they aren’t dangerous, let them flip out.

      Walk away. Get in your car and drive (or hop on the subway). Close the door.

      They are at fault here. Not you.

  11. OP here! Captain, I have to confess something- I cried a little when I read your response to my letter. I cried because you confirmed I’m not crazy and gave me reassurance that my feelings are legit and that it can get better. Thank you for responding and giving me hope!

    1. You’re needs are real and not unreasonable. Your mother is waging a war of death of the relationship by a 1000 paper cuts.

      I get anxious. I have done some not cool things because anxiety told me I NEEDED to do X right now! So I understand and empathize with her and know on some level she may think this is what she has to do but she is killing your love and stressing you out to no end.

      Best of luck getting to a space where you don’t feel so hounded by FAAMILLY. I got there early on by basically ignoring my mother for years. Not the best approach but it really reset the relationship.

    2. You are so not crazy. Or alone. I pretty much could have written your letter. And “Don’t apologize for not being tethered to your phone 24-7. You didn’t do anything wrong.” is something I’ve been working on for *years* in therapy. That and untangling the programming of “but what if she’s calling about something URGENT??” that my mom instilled.

      For me it’s amplified because I’m disabled and don’t work — though at least she’s gone from “isa isn’t answering her phone therefore DEAD IN A DITCH” to assuming my phone was silenced for an earlier activity and I just forgot to turn it back on — but *so* much of your letter resonated with me.

      Unsurprisingly, there have been several wtf moments along the road to establishing boundaries. (Anecdote: two hours after I woke up one day, I get a “Please just tell me you’re okay” text, because she’d sent several emails (which I hadn’t checked yet) and several gchats (which I hadn’t seen because I’d turned off notifications because she chats so often that the *ding* made my blood pressure ratchet up) and hadn’t responded to either.) (Anecdote: Once when she was visiting me, I told her my battery was low (which we’d established in joint therapy was something I could use as a “please go away” thing that she wouldn’t take personally). She said yes of course, and then went over to my dog and started petting him and talking to him. I reminded her I needed to be alone, so she left … and later started asking my sister if something was wrong with Yahtzee because I “shut down” as soon as she “mentioned him”.) (Anecdote: my parents divorced about 10 years ago. At one point my dad set a boundary that she should only contact him for urgent issues. After which she sent an email, subject “URGENT!!!”, asking … where the best place to buy paperclips is.)

      Anyway. Sorry for the rambling — but, uh. If you want someone to vent at, feel free to contact me — my sister and I use each other as omgwtf sounding boards, and it really does help.

      Good luck.

      1. Many years ago I was in a voluntary simplicity group, and someone said that they often didn’t answer the phone, or only did so within certain hours, because “I have the phone for my convenience, not theirs.” It was a revelation to me and something I still remind myself of (and should probably do so more often).

    3. You’re not crazy. Worry is a chain that some people try to hook to you because it’s the only way they can feel connected. But she can learn another way.

      1. That seriously just blew my mind. Soooo much of my relationship with my mother is now clear.

    4. OP, your feelings are so totally legit, you are so totally not crazy, and it can totally get better.

      I’ll join the chorus of saying that I know these things because I’ve been you. In my case, I grew up in a boundaryless family and during my teens and 20s, was perfectly content with Mom as “best friend” with whom I shared absolutely everything, in whom she confided everything, and talking sometimes multiple times a day by phone or IM or email even when I lived out of state.

      In my 30s, I started to chafe at that and wanted more space. It did involve retraining via stern repetition and therapy for me (also therapy for other issues I had, but I probably would have gotten therapy just to figure out how to detach myself from her). I got rid of the instant messenger altogether, and told Mom it was causing me to get spammed (true: by her). She fretted that she worried when she didn’t hear from me every day. I firmly told her that I wasn’t always going to be available for contact every day, and developed a warning phrase: “Mom, do we need to talk about boundaries?”

      We had it out a few times where I politely but sternly called her out on her guilt trip efforts (e.g. “Please don’t lay guilt trips on me. It’s unfair and it will not work. I am not going to do xyz” or “Do we need to talk about boundaries, Mom? I’ve made my decision about xyz. I don’t need any more advice/don’t want any intervention.” Also “Mom, please do not unload on me about your marriage stress/emotional issues/etc. That’s a therapist’s job, not mine, and I don’t have the capacity to absorb all your stresses on top of my own.”)

      Mom whined a lot about how she felt like she had to walk on eggshells around me now and was always having to watch what she said. Firm repetition was my response: “Well, this is how it is” and plenty of “I’m sorry you feel that way, but that’s my position.”

      It took several years and a few awkward-as-hell conversations both on the phone and by email/IM, but It. Did. Work. Mom now calls me roughly once a week. She does not guilt trip if I don’t respond to every casual email or Facebook post. We’re reached a good equilibrium – I send her stuff on Facebook if I think it interests her, she does the same for me, we’ll “like” things, sometimes I call her on the weekend, sometimes she calls me.

      I’m rooting for you, OP. Captain has laid out a great plan and some good scripts. Every person and every relationship is different, so you may have bumps in your road that you don’t anticipate. There are lots of resources out there as well as here – do give us an update on how it goes!

  12. Dear LW,

    I love the Captain’s advice. I’d like to add a story of how I managed a similar call situation.

    For awhile in my 20s my mother would call me at home when I was at work. (She had my work number.)

    She’d start calling at around 10am, and finish around 4pm. The messages on my answering machine would get progressively more upset (both worried and angry). Her thought process was that it would be interrupting to call my office, and surely I picked up the messages from my answering machine. (I didn’t)

    Eventually she stopped. Instead she’d call me at work, we’d chat for a few minutes, and that would be that.

    I no longer have an answering machine, nor a land line. Even so, if she wants me she calls only once.

    Here’s my end of the conversations we had:
    – I screen my calls.
    – I only answer the phone when I have time to chat.
    – If you don’t leave a message I won’t call back.
    – No I don’t pick up messages during the day, I wait till I’m home.

    Here’s her end:
    – I worry when I don’t hear back.
    – I don’t want to interrupt work.
    – I always answer the phone why don’t you?
    – I think it’s mean to let the machine take a message instead of telling me you’re busy.

    Here’s what I figured out as helpful:
    – I do love you Ma.
    – I ignore everyone, it’s not you.
    – I think of the answering machine (and now voicemail) as my assistant who checks whether Mrs Morley is home before admitting guests.
    – When I’m not at home to callers, it’s about me, not the callers.
    – I will get back to you. But quite likely tomorrow or the day after.
    – If it’s time sensitive, tell me, I’ll get back to you immediately.
    – I love you.

    I wrote this screed as solidarity. Good luck. Jedi hugs if you want them.

  13. When I had recently moved out of my parents’ house, my mom once sent me a text, something like “the weather is good and we are working in the garden, the dog is happy.” I didn’t respond because at that time, texts were (for me) for information only, pre-flatrate and all.

    Three days later she called, totally livid: “Why haven’t you responded?! I am dying from fear! (…) I sent you a message and I’ve been waiting for an answer for days!!!”
    I was pretty puzzled and answered: “Well, there was no question in the text. What should I have answered, in your eyes?”
    to which she answered verbatim: “Well, when I wrote it to you, of course I meant “call me and tell me how you are!”
    I started laughing and told her that I had neither understood that at that moment, nor did I see where I had gone wrong.
    …She changed her communication for way more direct after that situation.

        1. It seems like this should be something both parties adjust to. How hard is it to realize that a chatty text is an outreach for communication, and text something chatty back now and then?

          1. For me, the answer to that question would be “Impossible.” If I got that text, I’d shrug and move on.

          2. How hard is it to realise “chatty texts” are a lazy way to start a conversation, and instead text a question every now and then?

          3. @shaneyagh: that’s what she does today.

            @TootsNYC: To me it’s really hard because I take things quite literally, e.g. I often don’t get it if someone is passive aggressive because if they say they everything is okay, then everything is okay, right? Often I get it in hindsight after some time (after someone exploded and told me they were in fact angry) but hell, I wouldn’t have noticed at that time.
            This is not strategic. This is me not getting a certain subtext. I really thought she wanted to let me know that the dog is happy, full stop. I would never have guessed that it meant “call me or write me, I’m worried about you” which it meant to her.

          4. Nope. I am not a mind reader. If you want something, tell me that you want it. When you perform a symbolic act that says one thing and means another, and then get mad that I didn’t respond to what you meant instead of what you said, that is passive aggression, and I don’t reward it at all, and certainly not by changing my communication style.

          5. @Lily, you know, your mother only had literally your entire childhood to figure out that you have a hard time picking up on subtext and need direct communication, so I think it’s on her if she communicates in a way she could reasonably have figured out doesn’t work for you. I mean, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you didn’t suddenly lose the ability to catch subtext when you moved out 🙂

            That sort of thing irritates me so badly because of experiences I’ve had with my own family. I’m 34 and somehow it’s still a shock to my dad that I get HANGRY when I get hungry enough. I have literally never in my entire life tolerated low blood sugar well, so I don’t understand how on earth that could possibly be a surprise, but somehow when I’m visiting dad will refuse to stop for food when I say I’m hungry and then act surprised when I get very very cranky.

      1. At that time, I regularly called her to chat using the landline, and I would answer questions by text if they were time-sensitive. I didn’t text *because texting as method of keeping contact doesn’t work for me*. So, no, I didn’t change my style of communication, I think I was pretty on top of it already, so why would I?

  14. Oh, crap. I actually have a mother like this and I think…I THINK…I might have recently fixed the problem. This “technique” might be too far out for anyone else to use, but it worked for me.

    I should point out that my mother has serious guilt issues related to addiction and abuse (her own and others’) and that compounds the anxiety when I don’t answer the phone. I live out of state and she once called the local cops on me when I didn’t respond to a text. I think she’s trying really hard to be a “good mom” now that I’m grown and gone because she feels so keenly that she was a poor one when I was a kid. I’ve never said that to her, for the record, but I’ve never told her she was a stellar one, either.

    Anyway, for years I’ve dealt with the pressure of her constant, anxious calls and texts. Back when I used to check my voice mail, there would be ten calls in a row that began with the whiny word, “No…!” (If I listened to them all the way through, “No…” would always be followed by, “…I don’t want to leave a voice mail!”) The more she called, the more I avoided the phone. When the guilt began to crush me, I would finally call her. The first call would usually go well (she was pretending to be upbeat and so was I) and I would be suckered by the easy conversation into calling her again a week later. But during the second call, she would drop a nuclear guilt bomb about the “crumbs of attention” I throw at her. I would always end up barfing my feelings all over her, and she never acknowledged or validated them. The pattern always went like this.

    I tried everything. I tried conflict, actually. I tried making her understand that I’m avoidant at least in part because of manipulative childhood abuse, so she shouldn’t be surprised by my behavior. I tried telling her that I was going to counseling and counseling might help her, too. I tried telling her that I don’t listen to voice mail. That I’m busy. That I love her, but raising her grandkids was taking all my attention. I tried laying down for her the ultra-long list of things that take my attention: working, homeschooling kids, going to college, trying to get published, etc. I tried everything I could think of, and nothing ever helped.

    But then, recently, I got into Jungian cognitive functions. (Bear with me; I’m not saying the solution is MBTI.) I took the test, got INFJ. Okay, whatever. But reading about INFJs gave me a safe language and a framework to use when I was talking to my mother, and it really helped. If you don’t know, INFJs are supposedly the Myers-Briggs type that “has highly-sensitive emotions” and “absorbs the emotions of others.” Many INFJs are also HSPs. Anyway, I used this definition to describe my behavior in a way that was palatable to her.

    I told her that I was very sorry for not answering the phone more often, but that I felt trapped in a pattern. I explained that, as an INFJ, it was very difficult for me to deal with the strong emotions of others. (I made this very vague. I didn’t point to her as the specific source of the problem.) I explained that emotions are great things and there’s nothing wrong with having strong emotions. (True!) The world needs all types of people. But, for some reason, I was the type of person who hid my emotions and avoided the emotions of others. (True!) It made it difficult for me to talk to people very often or for very long, especially if they are the type to readily share their feelings. I told her that I actually wanted to talk to her on the phone a lot (Which is true. I long for a healthy, supportive relationship with my mom the same as anyone would.) but that NOT answering the phone started a pattern in me of guilt that actually made it harder to call back or answer the next time. (Also true.) I explained that I KNEW I needed to call her, and that I wanted to call her, but that I got trapped by my own fear of emotions and by guilt, and the more time that passed between calls, the harder it was for me to break the cycle. (True!)

    Now, you might think that a mother would become paralyzed by this information, or worried that her kid is damaged. Not the case! My mother only had one question: “Do you think this is because of your childhood?” (In other words, “Is this my fault?”) I kept it vague and said that “some scientists” might argue that nurture plays a part in it, but that it’s generally seen as a hard-wiring of the brain and that you’re born with it. (Also true, if you follow Jung or MBTI.)

    I know it’s a weird, super-specific example. But, you guys, it WORKED. She was so supportive and understanding of my, you know, personality brain “problem.” I almost feel like she needed a real “diagnosis” to hang her worries on, so that she could believe all the conflict we’ve had since the day I was a born was the result of me being an INFJ, and not because she’s a controlling alcoholic. I know, being an INFJ isn’t a diagnosis or a disease. And I don’t even really follow Myers-Briggs anymore, but I was completely sold on it at the time. And it worked for me, in that moment, and I’m still reaping the benefits. So I’m not suggesting the LW call his/her mom and claim to be an INFJ. But here’s what I took away from the success:

    1. I think Mom is the type to wish I had a real “problem” so that I would be more dependent on her. My entire adult life, she’s been waiting for my marriage to fall apart so she can swoop in and help. She needed an excuse to stop vaguely worrying and start actively helping. It helps her to believe that she needs to be careful with me. (To be clear, “careful” means not calling me first thing in the morning and spewing venomous, hateful angst about her mean coworkers or her ungrateful daughter, Me.)
    2. She needed to hear that it wasn’t all her fault. I’m an INFJ and an HSP! I’m born with it! Could’ve had healthy, functional parents and I’d still be sensitive! (Possibly true.)
    3. She needed my “problem” explained in a non-threatening, clinical way. This is related to #2.
    4. She needed to hear that I loved her and that I would call more often “if I could.”

    Is any of this healthy? I don’t know and I don’t care. I feel free for the first time in forever. I never get the guilt-trip anymore, so I call her more often and our chats are more fun and friendly. Certainly more shallow and, with our relationship, that’s a good thing.

    So I hope that there’s something, anything, that the LW or any other readers can take away from this. Because I will not be receiving a guilt call today or tomorrow or the next day. And that’s a great thing to be able to rely on.

    1. My mother is similar. Never had the time of day for me when I actually was a child and genuinely needed attention, suddenly got clingy and overprotective when I grew up and moved away. I learned never to relate any problems to her because she’d insist that I could move back home and not have to be an independent adult any more. She even convinced herself that moving back home was my idea.

    2. You know, I think that’s brilliant. You found a solution that took the “whose fault is it that we don’t talk more” conflict, and hung it on a neutral thing. It minimizes hurt in your relationship, and gives you blame-free space to set boundaries.

      I think I’m going to pocket some of that – I have a few people in mind who might be able to use that kind of solution.

    3. Agree that this is brilliant. She probably feels better now about you not calling her because it’s not her fault. (Sounds like it kind of is her fault, but you’re letting her blame your brain/personality type instead of her bad parenting, which helps mitigate her guilt and anxiety.)

      P.S. INFJ and HSP here, so solidarity on the whole absorbs the emotions of others thing.

  15. I will add the suggestion that if you know you won’t be able to call at the usual time one week, let her know well in advance with the time you expect to actually be calling*. The alternative is usually more of setback to instituting a schedule.

    *And “Next week, at the ususal time” is a perfectly reasonable time, if that’s what works for you, though she’ll probably disagree.

    1. Yes, for sure, treat it like you’re rescheduling a work commitment – proactively!

      1. Yes, this! Also works with my mother, who seems to be a close cousin of the OP’s mom.

  16. My mother sounds very similar. Instead of talking to her while driving (or biking, in my case), I call her once per week while I am walking to the train to go visit a friend. When I get to the station, the call is done, and she knows this. Setting a time that was naturally limited helped me disengage, and it also mostly eliminated the problem that my mom would literally pout and carry on if I called and she missed it.

    1. I tried this approach also, timing calls right before dinner time so I could have an end point by saying “welp, gotta go make dinner, I’m starving!” But I got a lot of push back on this about why can’t I make proper time for her instead of scheduling it right before other things. I wound up having to just be more direct about yes I am scheduling “only” half an hour per week for the phone call, and deal with the tantrums that came with that, and even hang up on her if she was continuing to try to manipulate me into talking longer. Once she realised it was a hard boundary but that I still did call her every single week, she settled down a bit.

  17. Another success story at retraining my mother. We don’t talk on the phone at anymore. She does get a great email once a week filled with chatty stuff and sometimes a photograph.

    Here’s some advice on helping you over the weird guilty inevitable feelings that will show up during the retraining period. Think back to some job or project or something where you were entirely in charge of everything, one where you had to do all the remembering, had to take all the responsibility, had to do all the planning. Maybe add a situation where the other people involved in the project were unreliable, one where they sometimes showed up and sometimes didn’t, sometimes followed through but just as often couldn’t be trusted. Not a nice feeling, right? Hard as it is to understand, that’s where your mother is right now. She’s a nervous wreck, and why shouldn’t she be? Sometimes her child answers the phone, other times not. She’s getting intermittent reinforcement for her anxieties, and we all know that’s the most powerful kind. It’s like you’re spitting out little treats where the reward is your calmness, and that has great value for her.

    So while your changing up the system will seem like a punishment to her at first, you’re actually doing her a favor! You’re helping her calm down. By taking the responsibility for the weekly chat off her shoulders, you’re making things easier for her. Don’t ask her to sign on. Don’t explain. Just put the new “rules” into effect starting now. Call during that convenient time

    Sometimes your mother calls because she’s anxious. Other times she calls because she’s bored. She asks what you’re doing partly because she suspects you’re doing something bad and she has to keep an eye on you. She also asks what you’re doing because she suspects all those “bad” things are more interesting than her boring life. She needs a hobby. What you see as a busy day at work, she (rightly) sees as an opportunity to be doing important cool things with interesting people and the sort of satisfaction one gets from working hard and working well.

    More thoughts on what to put in the weekly chats: Talk about the past, not the future. Have a trip planned? Think you’ll please her with how much fun all the preparations are? Forget it. Tell her about the trip when you get back. You have books in common. Talk a lot about books. And movies. And t.v. Those are generally safe topics. Recipes and food also tend to be safe. Don’t mention health at all, ever, yours or hers. Never reassure her on anything. Calming her down is not your job. Same for when she’s mopey and angry. These are behaviors and feelings that have won her rewards in the past. That’s over.

    Give it a short while. Once it’s done, you’ll be surprised by how easy it was.

      1. As others have mentioned, some of the best advice on training boundaryless parents comes from standard advice on handling young children. I don’t remember which child-rearing book it was that asked parents to look at things from a toddler’s point of view. How would you feel if you were 4 years old and you had to make every decision about your own well-being. If you had to decide when bedtime was, what a healthy diet was that would leave you feeling good, what was safe for you to play with, whether to take a foul tasting medicine, who you spent time with, everything. You’d feel overwhelmed, frustrated, cranky. That’s too much for a little kid! And yet that’s what too many well-meaning parents do. The child balks slightly at having to go to bed, and the parents give in and say it’s okay to go to bed later. Meanwhile, the parents who institute a firm bedtime (and firm bedtime wind-down ritual probably consisting of pajamas, toilet, brush teeth, story, lullaby, kiss) get happier children because they actually have less responsibilities, less important decisions to make, less to worry about. (All this is different from the overbearing parent who seeks to control a 20 year old’s choices on wear to go to college and whom to date.)

        My life got a lot better when I started thinking of my mother as an overwhelmed toddler. Therapy helped me realize all the things she got wrong raising me. I was on my own to realize all the things I was getting wrong raising her. Granted I shouldn’t have had to. I’m just saying things got better.

        Something else small children and boundaryless parents can’t handle: Knowing the difference between a life threatening emergency and a scraped knee. They both hurt! We think we can’t hide addresses and phone numbers from boundaryless parents because then they wouldn’t be able to contact us in the event of a real emergency, but they’ve already proved that they can’t tell the difference– or pretend they can’t. The only way they can learn, and this is a long shot, is through trial and error. With my mother, it took me the longest time to realize she can’t tell the difference between benign news about friends and gossip, so I had to err on the side of never telling her anything about people.

        I’ll correct what I said about mine being a success story. My original definition of success was a loving relationship with a mother I could confide in, spend joyful time with, get good advice from. Now it’s sufficient that she can’t needle me and invade my space and we can be in each other’s presence without open conflict.

  18. Lo these many years ago, when LogicMom was calling me daily, I followed the steps outlined by the Captain, with an added flourish.

    Whenever she called me at work, I would answer, but in the hushed, worried tones of someone who expected the worst news.

    Her: HI HONEY! 😀
    Me: Is everything ok? You’re ok? Dad’s ok? Brother is ok?
    Her: … Yeah?
    Me: OH GOOD. I know you know I’m at work, so I thought you were calling me with an emergency.
    Her: Oh… No, I was just calling about [haircut, weather, wevs]
    Me: Ok, can we talk about it in our Sunday call? I’m not supposed to use my personal phone here.
    Her: Of course! I just wanted to hear your voice! Bye!

    This made the boundary setting process take a little longer, but 1 – she has a very strong feeling for What Is Proper In The Workplace and answering personal calls isn’t on it 2 – it soothed her a bit to know that if there WAS an emergency, I would answer.

    Good luck!

  19. The Captain’s advice is spot-on. I read the book Mothers Who Can’t Love by Susan Forward and I HIGHLY recommend it. It is chock-full of scripts to use on moms who are overbearing, overinvolved, and overprotective. Check it out!

  20. Oh man, the Captain’s advice on this is so good. I would just add: when you tell your mom that would would like to set up a regular call with her at a certain time, she is probably going to get really huffy and refuse to do it (My mom said something like ‘I can’t be bound by schedules and anyway why doesn’t THE FRUIT OF MY WOMB want to talk to me!?!’). That is ok. Do it anyway. She won’t like it and she’ll do all the boundary-testing stuff the Captain putlined, but over time it’ll just be the status quo. It can be hard with low-boundary parents to remember that we don’t have to get their buy-in for these kinds of boundaries (and we might never get explicit agreement), but we also don’t need that to set boundaries for ourselves. Good luck!

    1. Right – call her every week when you said you would, and if she doesn’t pick up, she doesn’t pick up. Try again next week, and in the meantime, don’t get sucked into the flurry of communications that will come your way in the meantime.

    2. Related: I never explicitly TOLD my mom that I was setting up a regular call, I just sorta did it.
      I used a mutual interest and scheduled around that. At first I just asked if she would like to chat more at X Preferred Time, then again, and again, no more than once a week, until it became the new normal. I’m not sure explicitly telling her I was setting a schedule would have been better or worse, but just doing without explaining what you’re doing neatly avoids pushback on WHY SCHEDULE YOUR OWN MOTHER WAH I DEMAND ALL YOUR ATTENTION WHEN I WANT IT WAH

    3. Oh my god, I don’t know why I didn’t think of this when my mom had the same response. Just do it anyway… genius.

  21. Also, if you’re worried about the call running on forever and ever, it may help to coordinate with your siblings. If mom has a scheduled call with you at 1:00, with brother at 1:30 and with sister at 2:00, that gives her more of a reason to get off the phone. My husband and his sister have started using this method to great effect. My mother-in-law can take twenty minutes to say goodbye, but if she has something scheduled she’s better about just hanging up. Of course, whoever goes last may end up taking the hit. But perhaps one of you is better at getting off the phone. Or you could rotate through or mix up the schedule every so often.

  22. I am SO GLAD that texting and voicemail wasn’t around back in the 70s when I first moved out of the house. I can see my mother being just like this. I’d get the guilt inducing phone calls (“Just calling to tell you that your poor old mother hasn’t died yet”) and feel exasperated and angry and diminished at the same time. If only mothers like that could get it through their heads that endless pressure just results in their children distancing themselves even further.

    1. This! People need to be reminded that there was once a time when we didn’t have instant, constant communication and relationships still thrived. Sometimes I think cell phones/text messaging has increased anxiety in some people.

      1. Agreed. I remember not knowing who was on the phone when it rang, getting our first answering machine, getting call waiting and caller ID, and now cell phones and all that goes with it. Granted, I was fairly young when our answering machine rolled out (I was 12-ish) so it’s not like there were a ton of calls for me, but there was a certain amount of freedom to hearing the phone ring and deciding that I didn’t care enough to stop what I was doing to pick it up and find out who was calling. Nobody ever knew we were home or not. Now, we walk around with our phones in our pocket, leaving ourselves constantly available. It’s too much!!!

        My daughter got her first phone last August when she started middle school and had to walk to and from school alone. Before she got her phone I made her memorize all the important phone numbers: emergency contacts, parents, grandparents, and her two closest friends. She complained the entire time, but recently she and one of her friends had gone to the library. They were there until closing at which point a huge thunderstorm rolled through town. They needed a ride and the battery was dead on each of their phones and they needed to use the library land line. Guess which girl was able to call her smart, plans-for-an-emergency mom to come get them because she had her mom’s work number memorized? She actually told me that it was a smart thing that I’d done that. I wanted to do a little victory dance and say “See? I do these things because I want you to rely on yourself and not on some device!!!!” But she’s in middle school and would’ve just rolled her eyes at me, so I just said smiled and nodded.

  23. The funniest thing about all this is that when my kid was a toddler I was doing this same kind of training in the opposite direction. “No interrupting; it’s not polite.” “You can’t talk to me when I’m on the phone. You have to wait until I’m finished.” “No, no more ‘yook at me.’ I’m putting a moratorium on ‘yook at me.’ You can survive for ten minutes without being yooked at.”

    1. OMG, “yook at me” totally gave me a (fond) flashback!!

      A memory that always makes me laugh is remembering my daughter, around age 3 or 4, trying to get my attention when I was on the phone.

      She ended up tugging at the hem of my shirt and saying “MOMMY, I’m WHININ’ atchoo!!”

      (I did set firm boundaries about interrupting and “using your whining voice, I can’t understand you if you don’t use your regular voice,” and it worked… but this particular instance cracked me up!)

      1. This made me wonder whether “Positive Discipline for Preschoolers” might have any information that’s useful for adult children retraining their parents, because I loved it when I had a small child, and I remembered it talking about “the mistaken goal of undue attention.”

        So I found the Mistaken Goal Chart on their website, and I think it’s amazingly relevant!

        The belief behind demands for undue attention is described as: “I count (belong) only when I’m being noticed or getting special service. I’m only important when I’m keeping you busy with me,” and the parent/teacher responses are (emphasis mine): “Redirect by involving child in a useful task to gain useful attention; ignore (touch without words); say what you will do, “I love you and ____.” (Example: I care about you and will spend time with you later.”) Avoid special service; have faith in child to deal with feelings (don’t fix or rescue); plan special time; set up routines; engage child in problem-solving; use family/class meetings; set up nonverbal signals.”

        1. So, I actually love reading child rearing advice for this reason. Childless by choice; however the same methods work so well for dealing with difficult people and setting boundaries!

    2. When my cousins were little, my aunt taught them to hold her hand instead of interrupting if they needed something (non-emergency) while she was talking to an adult. I think she would smile and them or squeeze their hand a little to let them know she noticed they wanted something and that helped them wait until she could help them.

      1. I have been trying to get my daughter on board with this but have not been entirely successful. She has learned to say “Excuse me” when she wants to say something, which is a start but leads to some hilarious interactions like:

        Daughter, to herself: MEOW MEOW MEOW MEOW
        Me and Partner: Talking amongst ourselves
        Daughter: EXCUSE ME
        Me and Partner: Yes?
        Daughter, to us: MEOW MEOW MEOW!

        1. Okay, it has been a LONG time since I had a little kid around full-time (my kid is coming up on birthday number 25, and the young child I see the most of at this point is Kiddo’s now five-year-old godson), but the mental image of a meowing toddler/preschool-aged (I’m guessing) child at the dinner table (or in the living room or wherever) just has tears of mirth racing down my face! And excusing herself politely so that her parents might share in her meowing is the FUNNIEST!

          Hang in there. She’ll learn, bit-by-bit, how to be a more or less functioning adult member of society, and someday you’ll look back at the excused-meowing as the riotously funny, poignant memory of her little-childhood that it will be by then. (My kid had some hilarious ones related to the general all-around screwiness of the English language, which tickled English-major!Me but good.)

  24. “The phone works both ways.” I LOVE that line. It is guaranteed to shut down ‘whyyyyne didn’t you call me?’

    1. Unless your family is the kind where younger people always ‘need’ to call older people. Then you get an additional look of “what a disrespectful brat” on top of that, even if you’re 30.

      1. Ouch. Don’t have that in my family, so wow, yeah, you’re right, that wouldn’t work with that mindset.

  25. Oh, how I wish i had advice for this situation, but I’m stuck in something similar.

    I’m 32, and I’ve been living at home for four years (moving out in November yay!). My father has always been a paranoid person, assuming that people are going to die as soon as they leave the house. He wasn’t quite so bad when I was in high school, because I didn’t have a cell phone then. But when cell phones because a normal thing, he took that as “Oh goodie, I can get in touch whenever I want!” The problem is that if someone doesn’t answer their phone the second he calls or texts, he assumes they’re dead, and when they finally respond, he spends 20 minutes yelling about how we didn’t reply and he was worried, and then has totally forgotten why he called or texted in the first place.

    The last straw for me came when I went on a date that happened to be two hours away, and we ended up, well, sleeping together, because I’m an adult and can make those choices. I decided to stay the night, and I told him as much so that he didn’t worry (which, I feel, is at least courteous since I’m living at home right now and he would have a right to worry if I didn’t get home). But the next day, I hung around for breakfast and whatnot, and I was halfway home when I got a phone call screaming that I hadn’t let them know I was still okay (?!) and that I was on my way home. I ended up deciding that it was better to put an app on my phone that lets him see where I am at all times than to have to text him every time I change locations (and I realize this is still insane that I did that, but at least now he can just know that I’m in a certain place without bothering me fifteen times in a row).

    I have no idea how to break this cycle short of moving out, and even then, he’s going to be paranoid. I have to text him when I get home, when I go out, and even when he just texts me to say goodnight, or he freaks out and accuses me of not taking his feelings into account or not caring about him. This is especially embarrassing when I’m on a date and have to “check in” with him. I’ve tried breaking the cycle, but living at home has made it difficult.

    Hopefully once I move out, it’ll get better, but I have absolutely no clue how to handle this since he’s been this way from the time I went to college.

    1. One thing that my therapist told me a while ago is to remember that my phone is for MY convenience. Which means not answering is completely okay. You are an adult child and it is not your job to assuage his paranoia.

      Your father is using his paranoia to control your life. Delete the location app from your phone. If he complains, remind him you are a responsible adult. Follow the captain’s advice above about training him for boundaries. When you’re going out, fall back to the old grouchy teenager standby when he asks where you’re going: “Out.” If he pushes, “I already told you. I love you, and I’ll see you when I get home.” “Asked and answered, I love you and I’ll see you when I get home.”

      And if you get the “well, I’ll worry about you if I don’t know where you are and how can I help you if something goes wrong” line: “I have my cell phone on me, Dad, if I need you I’ll call. I love you and I’ll see you when I get home.”

      (Of course, “I’ll see you when I get home” only applies as long as you’re under the same roof as him.)

      It’s the hardest thing in the world, but you don’t owe him explanations for where you’re going or what you’re doing (or who you did!). Once you’re in your own place, make sure you (I repeat myself, but) follow the Captain’s advice.

      My mother and your father are clearly spiritual siblings but I promise you it can be done.

      1. One of the cardinal rules of my family is that the person who tells my mom that the google location app exists is dead to me. She already freaks out if I forget to text her back for 12 hours and starts texting me all “Did I do something wrong? Are you mad at me?”

        I actually see a lot of my life in this letter. :/ I need to have a think about that.

        1. You and me both, stellanor, you and me both. My parents still expect me to text when I arrive at home from leaving their house, but I’m willing to give them that little bit because it’s a TEXT and if I don’t want to answer any response I just don’t answer until the next day.

          1. It helps my mother when I do this. It helps ME to phrase it as “thanks for having me, my husband, and the Spawnlings over for dinner, we appreciate it and enjoy seeing you” – then it’s a thank-you text, which is polite, instead of a leash on my whereabouts, which is infuriating.

            And as long as she gets a text (any text, not even one that specifically says “got home safe”) she’s pleased, so… works for us?

          2. Ros, makes sense to me. Mine usually read “Home, love you, goodnight.” 🙂

          3. I have a close family member who died in a car accident so we always do that too. In my family’s case it truly is that we won’t be able to sleep until we know there was no car accident on the way home. Works for us although I know some people would hate it.

    2. You can use the advice for this LW, recalibrated for more frequent boundary setting and enforcement.

      You don’t have to sit around and listen because someone else wants to berate you – for those calls, I suggest giving him one chance to drop it and then hanging up and not answering for the rest of the day if he won’t. State the boundary so he’s not surprised, and then follow through with it. As stated in CA’s reply, remember that if this feels harsh, it’s not actually harmful, it’s helpful – you’re training him to be ale to have a relationship with you at all, because his current behavior is destroying your relationship. Boundaries enable a relationship, and sticking to them helps him learn and adapt more quickly and easily; they are a kindness, even if they are disliked.

      And turn your phone off on dates, or at least silence your notifications if your dates involve sharing a lot of memes or playing Pokemon Go or something like that for which phone access may be necessary.

    3. With respect, your father is being absolutely ridiculous. You’re thirty-two! He doesn’t need to know where you are at all times, whether you live at home or not. Giving him a general idea of where you are is courtesy; him tracking you by GPS is invasion of privacy.

  26. I have an incredibly fraught relationship with my mother, and she is absolutely the “panicky” type (although in her case it’s about controlling my sister and I far more than mom being anxious).

    One thing I think cannot be emphasized enough is that while you are training your mom, OP, you will also need to ask your siblings to not forward her messages to you. My sister has long been more independent than I, and I cannot tell you the number of times mom has called/texted me (while I was training myself not to answer immediately) to ask me to “call or text your sister I contacted her this morning and she hasn’t gotten back to me yet.”

    These days I know and have the confidence to say “I’m sure she’s fine, she’ll get back to you when she can, [GIGANTIC SUBJECT CHANGE]”. Before that, though, there was very nearly a rift between sis and I because I would forward the messages as ordered (sis knew it was a mom thing but she got annoyed with me for not pushing back).

    Basically, OP, I feel you and the Captain, as always, has given good advice, but be prepared to hear more from any sibs you might have. (Also, my mother has been known to have my father call me when she knows full damn well I “won’t” answer her.)

    1. My mother is angry with me for not being attached and with my sister for being too attached, and the nice thing about that is that it demonstrates so beautifully that there was never going to be any “right” way to be. I once spoke with my mother on the phone for forty minutes and our entire conversation was: 10 minutes of complaining that I never call or tell her anything that’s happening in my life, 5 minutes of telling me about how the dog, cats, rabbits, chickens, and garden are doing, 25 minutes of complaining that my sister calls her all the time to tell her about what’s happening in her life and it’s boring and she doesn’t care and wishes she’d stop.

      Oh, and for the entire 40 minutes I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Which is why I never call my mother.

      1. We usually text; this takes care of the words in edgewise. I don’t call her very often unless we’re arranging something (birthday party, trip to a baseball game, etc.) that’s too complex for me to be willing to type in.

        My mother uses “Independent” like it’s a dirty word.

  27. Captain and others gave given great advice. I find myself (as a mom who can veer towards anxiety and who is furiously taking notes for when my offspring get a bit older) thinking a lot about the anxiety spiral your mom seems to get into. There was recently an Ask A Manager thread responding to someone with anxiety over nor being liked (s/he ended upbstalking a co-worker in response to that anxiety, talk about boundary-crossing in service to anxiety), and there was a discussion about reassurance-seeking behavior that feels really relevant here. OP, when your mom gets anxious*, she seeks contact/reassurance, and it sound like she has trained you (and maybe other family?) to provide that reassurance. The problem is, reassurance doesn’t last (since the underlying anxiety or other issues aren’t gone), so it becomes “get a quick fix and then being seeking the next hit.” Or, get more and more anxious as the reassurance doesn’t appear, and trample boundaries in pursuit of relief.

    OP, I think you need to put yourself for a while first and set boundaries because hoo boy do you deserve and need your own boundaries, but maybe it will also help to see this as a kindness to your mom? Or at least, a choice to actively model a healthy approach for your mom? Even if it’s one she doesn’t appreciate or like.

    1. “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” Sadly, one of my BIG parenting goals was to have a better relationship with my children when they turned 18 than I had had with my own mother when I was 18. Sadly, Mom wasn’t self aware enough to realize how lacking she was.

  28. My father has heart disease (5 heart attacks and a quadruple bypass in the last 25 years, and yet he still works at the local grocery store because he’s bored in his retirement). Over the last 25 years, I had trained myself (thanks to Caller ID) to jump to answer the phone whenever he called, because OH MY GOD WHAT IF IT’S A HEART ATTACK?!? Statistically, over the past 25 years, an infinitessimal number of those calls were actually about a heart attack or other trip to the hospital. But I was stuck back on the OH MY GOD WHAT IF IT’S A HEART ATTACK issue. And that led to seething resentment of his phone calls (because, again, they were virtually never an emergency…BUT THEY COULD BE, so I always answered the phone). (He doesn’t text, which is a glorious golden gift.) Let me tell you, 25 years of that was a soul-crushing burden.

    My therapist recently pointed out that I could just, you know, let the call go to voice mail. Then I could check it at my leisure and decide if I needed to call back, and how soon. When she said that, I was stunned into silence. And then I said “…but what if it IS a heart attack?” She countered with “What if he had a heart attack and called when you were out of the house? It would have to go to voice mail, right? And he would leave a message.”

    It was a goddamn revelation. I don’t HAVE to answer the phone just because of the fear of the nebulous hypothetical future heart attack.

    Now, if I let it go to voice mail, when I return my dad’s call, he always opens the conversation with “Where were you when I called?” He clearly has huge boundary issues, but I colluded in that by jumping to answer the phone every time he called for the past 25 years. I’m slowly breaking him of that habit, though, by not even answering the question and just saying “I got your message; what’s going on?” And he answers it and forgets to demand my whereabouts when I missed his earlier call.

    To sum up: boundary-less (or low-boundary) parents CAN be trained! Good luck, OP. You can do this.

    1. Not to mention: if it really was a heart attack, he shouldn’t be calling you, he should be calling the ambulance. Or the people at the grocery store would. And the doctors would help him, and you could arrive later.

      My retired dad works at Home Depot for the same reason yours is at the grocery store. He DID have a stroke at work. And the people at work held him, and one of them went with him to the hospital until my brother was able to get there.

      Your knowledge of his medical emergency isn’t going to change his physical health. It might make him feel less scared if he knows you’re coming, but I really don’t think it made that much difference for my dad. It might make him worry less, if he knows his son has been notified.

      1. I did unfortunately once have to tell someone, “Before you call me, ask yourself, would I call 911 in this situation? If the answer is no, it’s not an emergency. And if the answer is yes, don’t call me, call 911.”

  29. OP, you can also tell your Mom that your boss has ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN you to use your cell phone at work (whether or not that is actually the case). My last job had this policy, with the penalty of automatic termination for violating this rule.

    Why do people call/text other people when they’re at work, anyway? Don’t they know they could be getting their friends/family in trouble?

      1. I treat texting my boys like leaving a note with them that they can read when they have a chance and call me.
        “Hey, your dad needs help cleaning out the junk trailer so he can sell it. Sometime this weekend work? Call, we’ll sort it.” And they get back to me when they have a chance. It works for us.

    1. Various reasons, including: legit forgetting/not knowing that rule, being narcissists who don’t value their relations’ job over their own desire for immediate contact, thinking the rules don’t apply to them (because faaaaamily?), assuming it’s their relations fault for carrying a phone if they don’t want to be called, etc.

      1. Thanks for letting me know. I honestly had no clue as to why people did that. I am even more appreciate of my loving, non-narcissistic family now.

        1. Yeah… all those are based on real examples from people I know. X_X
          I suppose with increasing distance you can also get time zone mixups, and flexible schedules can lead to genuine accidents, but really. The solution is to text once, then wait for answer, as if asynchronous communication existed for the benefit of all parties using it. What a dream that would be.

          1. Ugh. If someone called me while I was at work, I’d tell them I’m going to get fired for taking personal calls at work and hang up on them. Second, I’d leave my phone at home forever after!

    2. The frequency of friends, but ESPECIALLY parents, calling my coworkers and supervisees at work for things that aren’t emergencies absolutely floored me when I started working in an office (I was previously a theatrical set carpenter, and trying to do this to someone who works in a scene shop would simply not work). Like, these people are at work, on the clock. People’s time is not their own at work (unless maybe it’s a worker’s collective), and I’m certain this isn’t some new norm that older generations never had to deal with. There’s a reasonable chance that the behavior will get this person you supposedly care about fired and left without a means of supporting zirself. Even at places like my office where this isn’t a strict fireable offense, extended personal calls aren’t exactly okay, either. I couldn’t believe anybody thought this was okay, let alone a large number of people.

    3. There’s also a possible gender factor going on: my mother, perhaps unconsciously, subscribes to the idea that a man’s job is the important thing (traditional breadwinner /provider role), whereas a woman’s job is something she does in between caring for family. So she’s respectful, if unhappy, if my brother can’t take her calls, help her, be at holiday dinners, and so forth, whereas my sister is the “Bad Daughter” for not having time for her family, take her calls, take her to appointments, and so on. I get to be long distance, ha.

    4. my family is lowkey and my understanding of texts is that they’re like placing a note in somebody’s inbox rather than interrupting them and speaking verbally. the point of the text is that it’s nonintrusive and will still be there when you have a minute. so i guess in answer to your question, because i figured if you had a second you would look at it, and if you didn’t, you won’t.

    5. I mean, I’ve always worked at jobs where I could make or take brief personal phone calls or answer texts. But I know jobs exist where that’s either not allowed or just not cool, and mercifully my mom has never flipped out on me for not answering the phone in the middle of the day (or any other time, really).

    6. Speaking from my experience, texting is something we (my friends and I) do when we’re able and we expect that the other person will do the same. Anyone who texts me during the day knows that I will respond on breaks and lunches, and doesn’t expect to hear back until then. As long as I have good self-discipline it works well. And of course it’s nice to have the phone for the rare emergency, although close people have my work # too. But it’s nice not to have to try to remember the other person’s work schedule and know they’ll get back to you when they can.

  30. So I was one of the many who wrote variations on this letter! Thanks captain 🙂

    I have two follow up questions. One is about family group texts. I suspect that severely limiting participation is part of the answer. Case in point: a family member had a birthday this week and all members of family group sent a voice recording of them singing ‘happy birthday’, which, no. I also left one of the many groups today which made me feel a) sick and b) relieved. But my parents regularly send messages to my child on these groups, and I feel frustrated and guilty and manipulated when I have 117 messages (true story) and one is a recording to my child.

    I should just tell them to send me those messages direct, shouldn’t I?

    The other part is oversharing- one of my parents in particular is terrible for telling me other people’s information.

    I should just call zir out on that too, shouldn’t I?

    Ok I think maybe I’ve answered my own questions but any other viewpoints welcome!


      Um, what I mean to say is a script of “I don’t have the bandwidth to closely follow the all the group texts, so if there’s something specific you need me, specifically, to answer, send me a message directly” and then give yourself permission to tap out.

      This is an update to my 1990s email policy of: “If you forwarded it, I probably won’t read it, or at least not any time soon, and I won’t answer. If you write your own words to me directly, I will gladly answer that!”

      1. As for the other people’s information problem, I suggest a policy of You Never Saw It, It Does Not Exist crossed with “Wow, that’s none of my business!” and a refusal to discuss it as necessary & most convenient.

        1. Wow Captain the first reply is really helpful and the second is absolute gold. I may write it down and stick it to the back of my phone. Thank you so much.

      2. Yeah, I just want to second that people have very different tolerances for group texts, and while your family may not like it, it’s totally normal to bow out. Me an my friends have a big group chat, but people have VERY different levels of involvement in it. A lot of people keep it muted, so that they can just check in when they want, other people don’t. No one is bothered that some people mute the chat, no one is bothered if someone leaves, we all know that it’s not for everyone. It’s TOTALLY fine to leave or mute your families group chat, and “I don’t have the bandwidth for that many messages” is fully sufficient explanation. If your family disagrees, that’s on them.

    2. If you’re on Android, you can mute the group conversation so you don’t get notifications but can still check in now and then to keep up on what’s going on. I do this sometimes with my little brother, who likes to send endless waves of bad memes and long messages where he only uses one word per text.

      1. and long messages where he only uses one word per text.

        You have more patience than I; I would straight-up block him, at least until he got over thinking this was hilarious.

    3. I don’t remember exactly when several of my siblings discovered group texting and started using it for family on holidays or for family-related communication, but I quickly learned that it is not for me, as I don’t really like the distraction of getting pinged with fifty alerts for messages that are not at all relevant to me in the span of twenty minutes. (See also: people Replying All on work e-mails with information that is only relevant to the sender, like when there’s an announcement about a successful project or promotion and people reply with congratulations. I actually brought this up at one of our biannual division-wide meetings, and got a lot of pushback at my suggestion that people NOT reply all, because a lot of them apparently think that the primary function of congratulations is virtue signaling, for third parties to see one offering congratulations, and not to give accolades to someone who has accomplished something.) My texting app mercifully has a mute function for conversation threads, with a few options ranging from an hour to a year, so I now reply promptly and then mute the conversation, checking back on the thread later if I actually was interested in other responses or if I get some independent prompt that there’s something important that was discussed.

      1. ” lot of them apparently think that the primary function of congratulations is virtue signaling”

        OH MY ATHENA that is one hell of a wisdom drop. I never realised people were really re-alling on Purpose, let alone why.

  31. “she’s just the only one who is currently allowed express negative emotions or “do” conflict, and you’re expected to quietly eat it and give her what she wants. ”

    This is an absolutely wonderful sentence that summed up my mom and me so very well. She thinks she’s achieved a point in her life where everybody is in dire need of her opinion, and if you want a really great phrase, now that I’ve decided that I get to say what I want in return, I’ve really started to “frost her flakes.”

    1. This is exactly why I told my husband that I refuse to hear stories about his mother. She is the only one who is “allowed” to express emotions in that family, especially negative emotions, to the point where he will start a story pertaining to *an entirely different family member*… and end it in his mother’s negative feelings.

      I pointed out to him that 1) his mother’s feelings on situations so far have been universally negative no matter what’s going on, and 2) ultimately, what matters in other people’s lives isn’t her feelings, but the feelings *of the person to whom the situation happened*. It’s more important to me to know how *they* feel about it – because it’s *their* life!

      I’ve seen that in their family, the fact that she is the only one “allowed” to have feelings has suppressed everybody’s else’s feelings about their lives. It’s not healthy for anyone involved. It doesn’t even help her.

  32. When I was in college, I took a nap. My mother called me 15 times, texted 9 texts, and then called campus police. In the space of 1.5 hrs. This wasn’t the first time she did that, and the police tried to tell me to tell my mother to stop calling. She had her reasons then, I was not an legal adult at the time. But she also did this when I was in law school, when I was a legal adult. She would not consistently behave this way and the reason was this: when my mother had nothing to occupy her brain but her anxious making circumstances she got anxious. And because I was the most precious thing in her life, she got anxious about ME.

    The only thing that helped me was that I did three things: 1) I told her that the consequence of doing these little welfare checks was that the police would be far less likely to help me if I DID need help and 2) I responded to her “you didn’t call me” when I did eventually call back (hours later when I thought her anxiety spiral has wound down) with “nope. what did you need?” and her “I need you to call me back” with “I can’t make sure of that, sorry” (this was said cheerily and my mom would have to force a confrontation to get more) and 3) I told her that this wasn’t normal/I am not an object/there was literally nothing she could do to change what happened to me in my life. The last one was harsh but important because it addressed what her anxiety was presumably about: my safety. She couldn’t ensure it, and I wasn’t going to change my behavior to make her pretend that she could. Bringing her worry out into the light cut down on a lot of this. And honestly, addressing it with her made her much more cognizant of what she was doing (she actually admits that her thinking is disordered in this particular way now, and that I feel more comfortable ignoring her).

    So for you OP, I would make clear what happens when she calls like this (my boss will get annoyed; I won’t be able to pay attention to the road, etc), treat every interaction with her in which you do not behave as if her need to contact you is paramount as normal, and finally tell her that you simply can’t promise that you’ll get to her when she contacts you. None of that has to be confrontational; I’ve found that the more matter of fact your are, the less argument you’ll get.

    Good luck OP

    1. Thank you for this tip. My mother has threatened to call the police on me multiple times before — she says it’s ~not threatening~, but considering that she never actually follows through and always makes sure to tell me about it in detail afterwards, it’s pretty clearly an attempt at emotional manipulation and not genuinely thinking that the police need to be called. Who knows whether logic will have any effect, but it’s something.

    2. This is great advice. My mom also has anxiety issues, and she had helpful therapists who were able to do most of this work with her (as opposed to me or other family members), but some patterns like this still emerge every once in a while. I, too, have found that naming the behavior, identifying the underlying problem, and setting a boundary has worked well, but then she’s already used to doing that and on board with the idea that she has some disordered thinking patterns. This strategy probably works best with otherwise-reasonable people who have some mental health issues of which they are aware, who will view these kinds of conversations and boundaries as helpful rather than hurtful.

    3. “there was literally nothing she could do to change what happened to me in my life. The last one was harsh but important because it addressed what her anxiety was presumably about: my safety. She couldn’t ensure it, and I wasn’t going to change my behavior to make her pretend that she could.”

      Carolyn Hax once said something like “Worry is your brain tricking you into thinking you can control things you can’t.”

    4. “..what her anxiety was presumably about: my safety. She couldn’t ensure it, and I wasn’t going to change my behavior to make her pretend that she could.”

      Carolyn Hax has said something like, “Worry is your brain trying to trick you into thinking you can control something when you can’t.”

    5. Hooooooo we have had a parent or two like this where I work. Showing up on campus and demanding dorm access after a legal adult child wasn’t taking your calls and refused to come downstairs to see you? Totally bonkers. Then calling the president of the university and DEMANDING it from him next? Next level stuff. That one we were all pretty relieved when the second child matriculated. Our receptionist is a SAINT.

  33. I find some of this quite similar to my situation, but what do you do if your mum texts and emails often because she’s worried about you? My mum doesn’t have anxiety or related issues in general at all, and she’s a reasonable, sensible person. However, if she doesn’t hear from me in a day by, maybe 7pm, she will send an ‘are you OK?’ text. In the past this has been followed up with emails and missed calls. Once I went on a date (I was staying with my mum at the time, but I had told her I would be home later than usual and didn’t have a signal in the bar most of the night) and when I got signal again I had four missed calls, some texts and emails on my phone. I live alone and work full-time during the day and don’t always have time to answer right away. Sometimes it’s weekend and I just am doing my own thing but haven’t emailed, so by 6pm she will be sending similar texts to find out if I am OK.

    Genuinely, she’s just worried. That’s why I feel bad asking her not to do it, because what if she is right to worry one time? I worry about her too and have behaved similarly in the past when she didn’t answer the phone; however, that’s unusual for her because she’s in her 70s and hardly ever goes out, so I do worry in case she’s maybe fallen or something. I guess we are as bad as each other! But how can I stop it? I want to just be able to go out without worrying that she is worrying, but I also don’t want to make her worry more.

    Some of what the Captain has said is useful, but I don’t think it all applies, hence my butting in…

    1. I think the LW’s mom would say she is worried about the LW sometimes, and uses “worry” as an excuse for her behaviors.

      Your mom’s behavior is not normal.

      You could, when she’s worried, let her be worried, tho? And she could self-soothe another way than demanding immediate soothing from you? You’re not causing her worry? There’s nothing to actually be worried about?

      Maybe try the steps in the post, and set up a ritual of checking in once a day at first (if once a week is too long) and then ignoring outside of that ritual unless it is actually an emergency (like, someone is bleeding or on fire level emergency)?

      1. Oh, of course, I’m sure the LW’s mum has worry in there somewhere. I know mine definitely is rooted in that. She doesn’t exhibit this sort of behaviour in other aspects. My mum was a single parent to three of us including my sister who has special needs, so I think much of it is from those days when she had to be more overprotective that was possibly usual. I mean if anything happened to me while I was out there was no one to come and find me or no one to look after the other two (my sister needing full-time care). I empathise with her to a great extent, but I’m 33 now and I feel, for her sake as much as mine, she needs to ease off a bit. I don’t want to worry about her worrying, which is what I end up doing, y’know? If I let her be worried, she’d probably sit up at night rather than go to bed (and she’s exhausted most of the time at the moment anyway). I know it is partly why I worry and have anxiety, myself, but I don’t want to make things worse for her?

        Thanks for your input. I will re-read your advice and see what I could take into my situation. It’s been ongoing for so many years that I forget it isn’t normal. It’s only when others notice or comment that I realise it might not be.

      2. Oh, of course, I’m sure the LW’s mum has worry in there somewhere. I know mine definitely is rooted in that. She doesn’t exhibit this sort of behaviour in other aspects. My mum was a single parent to three of us including my sister who has special needs, so I think much of it is from those days when she had to be more overprotective that was possibly usual. I mean if anything happened to me while I was out there was no one to come and find me or no one to look after the other two (my sister needing full-time care). I empathise with her to a great extent, but I’m 33 now and I feel, for her sake as much as mine, she needs to ease off a bit. I don’t want to worry about her worrying, which is what I end up doing, y’know? If I let her be worried, she’d probably sit up at night rather than go to bed (and she’s exhausted most of the time at the moment anyway). I know it is partly why I worry and have anxiety, myself, but I don’t want to make things worse for her?

        Thanks for your input. I will re-read your advice and see what I could take into my situation. It’s been ongoing for so many years that I forget it isn’t normal. It’s only when others notice or comment that I realise it might not be.

    2. a) what the Captain said.
      b) one thing I have done with my mother is establish that she can text me in the mornings to say “Good Morning” and be reasonably sure I will respond to her (I established this by being very religious about responding to her good morning texts with my own good mornings and not always being quite so consistent about any other text she sent me). That way, we have a once-per-day check-in (NOT ON WEEKENDS, though, because), she gets to think she’s “helping” me by making sure I’m out of bed (I’m 47 years old, mom, by the time you text most mornings I’ve been up for an hour or so), and she doesn’t text me at work unless it IS something urgent. (I do, occasionally, get copied on group texts but it’s usually because my sister’s cats have done something entertaining or my parents’ dog has done something idiotic and so I ignore those until I’m leaving for the day).

      The reason we have this ritual in the morning is that I cannot guarantee I will be remotely awake enough in the evenings to remember to text her. If, however, a before-bed text would work better for you, maybe do that.

    3. If you were really generous to her and assumed that this was just about worrying, not about control, what would assuaging that worry look like?

      For instance, could you agree that you will text her by a certain time daily (e.g. 9pm) and if you haven’t texted by then, she has your permission to Worry, unless you’ve already told her that you won’t be able to text that day for whatever reason? And that text could be literally just a smiley face that indicates you’re alive and able to send a message? (And for your own purposes, you could pre-schedule that text… )

      Would that be OK for her? Or would she find other reasons to worry and make demands on your time? Because if that basic confirmation that you’re fine is not good enough, you might want to start thinking this is more about control than concern.

      1. I do think it’s about worrying, I honestly do. She isn’t controlling in any other aspect and she’s never pressured me to make certain choices or any of that. She is a really great mum. If you see my comment further up I’ve tried to put her worries in a bit more context. (I didn’t mean to post it twice, sorry everyone!)

    4. I think there’s two things going on here:

      First, your mom becomes worried after a certain period of time (ie, one day in this case) because she has the expectation of hearing from you after a day. In reality, it is that expectation that is making her worry, not the fact that she has actual reason to worry (like, you didn’t last hang up as you were running into a burning building, etc.). If I’m meeting my friend in one hour, I’m going to start worrying if I’m sitting in that restaurant for three hours and I don’t hear from her, not because I normally would worry if I didn’t hear from a friend in a period of three hours, but because I had the expectation of seeing her, and no explanation why I haven’t.

      So, that is why a lot of the advice is about re-setting expectations–to put to bed the “I didn’t hear from you when I expected, so I was worried!”

      What would your mom say if you told her that you would call her in three days, but had plans that would prevent you from responding to texts until then? What would you say to your mom if she told you “I’m going on a cruise for a week, no cell reception! Don’t worry, I’ll call when I get home.”? That’s a lot different then her not picking up the phone at 8pm when you thought she would be watching Jeopardy in her recliner.

      If she claims she still worries, well, that’s really something she needs to manage, not something you can manage for her. An adult being out of touch for a few days because they are going about life is normal, and if she is asking you to not have a normal life in that way because you need to manage her anxiety about you, that’s not fair to you and it’s OK to push that back on her and ask her to take care of her own needs herself.

      1. I think you’re right here. She has sometimes said ‘well, I usually hear from you by now so I was worried’. I don’t think this is *always* the case, but perhaps often enough that, without realising, I’ve set some kind of precedent. I do like to contact my mum a lot and I am close to her. I don’t want to stop regular contact but I might need to try to reset, as you suggest.

        I’m actually going on holiday next week for 2 weeks and I’ve told her already that I won’t be able to contact her every day, mainly because I won’t have WiFi all day anyway (too cheap to buy a data plan for going abroad!). She said that was fine but if I could let her know I get there safely on the first day and check in during the week. I really did think she’d find it hard to accept so it was nice that she seemed to.

    5. Your mum can worry all she wants without worrying *at* you.

      (…says the person who had an argument with their mom that boiled down to “are you saying I’m not allowed to ~care about you~???”)

      Unfortunately this does require insight on her part. Which you can nudge her towards but not actually force upon her.

      (I worry a lot, sometimes quite irrationally, about something horrible/catastrophic happening to my niece and nephew. I do not tell them this, because my worry is not their concern. I do not tell my sister, because ditto. I do not tell my mom, because ahahaha no. I *do* tell my therapist.)

  34. One extra thing (and I know the Captain doesn’t want this to be a technical advice column and the specifics don’t matter that much), but you may look into the technical settings and solutions that make it easier for you to keep the silence. Google your phone / email client / software on how to create the peace and quiet you need, so you can check the communications at a time that suits you, without being pulled in by having that unchecked ping of bleep in your head. (Because once you’ve actually heard or seen a notification, it takes effort to ignore, while you being oblivious to it does not.)

    Controlling what you see and hear will probably help in the execution of the plan.

  35. I can’t find it now, but somewhere in the comments someone mentioned something about parents going into helping overdrive when a relationship breaks up. I have serious problems with my mum having no boundaries, and I’m planning to leave my husband, and I hadn’t yet thought that this will almost certainly result in my mum going into Severe Helping Mode. So, whoever mentioned this, THANK YOU for the warning I’m sending Jedi hugs if you want them.

  36. I just want to jedi-high five everyone contributing DEAD IN A DITCH references to this thread. I come from a long line of ladies so quick to jump to that *exact* conclusion that my generation of sibs and cousins use it as a kind of shorthand: “Sorry, I was deadinaditch for a while there. What’s up?”

    …is there some statistical precedent, that makes expiring in a roadside drainage channel that very likely? Was it A Thing in the 50s? Are we all secretly related? 😀

    1. A little cursory research because your question made me curious suggests it’s probably a WWI or WWII idiom that came back to civilian life with the soldiers!

    2. As with so many English idioms, the likely popularizer is Shakespeare – Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 4:

      Then comes my fit again. I had else been perfect,
      Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
      As broad and general as the casing air.
      But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in
      To saucy doubts and fears.—But Banquo’s safe?

      Ay, my good lord. Safe in a ditch he bides,
      With twenty trenchèd gashes on his head,
      The least a death to nature.

      1. Banquo and his son

        Rode out for a mile

        Now Junior’s in Wales

        Dad’s in this defile


        (… i.e. I was gonna say Burma-Shave ads, but I think your answer is better)

        1. Amazing. I adore you all. Isn’t the Internet amazing? Remember how we used to wonder a thing, and then, shrug! oh well! We’ll NEVER KNOW. Also, Buni, below–incorporating “Ditch-Test” into the family vernacular immediately.

    3. When I lived together with a bunch of other girls we used to ‘Ditch-Test’ each other – i.e. if someone had unexpectedly stayed out all night they would get a text in the morning saying “I presume you’re dead in a ditch somewhere then?”. Usually the reply would be along the lines of “Yep! Dragging my corpse home now!”. It’s become a standard phrase in the friend group now – “Not heard from Sam in a while, has anyone Ditch-Tested her recently?”.

    4. My mom used the “dead in a ditch” phrase, but somehow my sister and I did not understand it as “dead and thrown in a ditch,” but as “dead because of a ditch-related accident.” So we figured that ditches must be inherently dangerous.

      I told my roommates about this a few years ago, and they still tease me about it.

      1. I’d always thought it was “car has crashed in a ditch”. So not so much that ditches were particularly hazardous as that that’s where cars would end up after particularly spectacular accidents.

        1. And cars in a ditch might not be visible from the road. And so you might not be found by someone until they go looking for you. It happens sometimes.

  37. I know the Captain already said this, and in bold no less, but it still bears repeating: do not give explanations.
    Saying “I can’t, because X” says to them “If you take care of/work around X, then I can.” They’ll do something about X and ask again – then, on top of passive-aggressiving you for saying no, they’ll passive-aggressive you for saying no after they changed their plans, just for you.

    An important corollary to this rule: Don’t let them play 20 questions for an explanation, either. I’ve learned that the hard way – they’ll come up an innocuous explanation, and want you to say “No, that’s not why”. They’ll then come up with progressively worse and worse explanations, until you finally say “I’m not playing this game” (which gets interpreted as “I found the right reason! It’s because I’m a horrible parent who screws up their kid’s life just by existing and wanting to talk to them!”).

    The other lesson I’ve learned from the Captain (and have had reinforced by my therapist) is to stick with whatever plan you make. (Or, if you change your plan, change it on your terms, not because they called and texted too many times). Otherwise, they learn that in order to get you to respond (or agree to go to something, or whatever it is they’re looking for), they just have to text and call you X times, or say Y in their message, etc.

    1. I’m curious how you manage the 20 questions whyyyyyyyyyyy game? I also face this problem and haven’t yet found an adequate way to skirt the inevitable questions when I say “I’m busy then”. “What are you doing? Where are you going?” etc etc. And basic stonewalling of “going out” or not answering just results in hurt huffing that she “can’t even ask a question”, or assumptions that I’m deliberately hiding what I’m doing because it’s something I wouldn’t want her to know about. :-/

      1. i’d try, “oh, you know, i’ve got a lot going on!” or “i’ve got some errands that have been piling up!” and if they press for specifics, act like this is strange and alarming, even if it’s par for the course: “uhhh? are you okay? what’s going on with the third-degree?” they will absolutely respond with huffing and defensive comments (“i was just wondering, just making conversation, guess you hate me“), trust and believe; but as the captain has pointed out, you gotta hold firm. “oh, huh! well, let me know how bowling goes!” “yeah? okay, well, i gotta run, but tell grandma i said hi!” “yep, i hate questions! i gotta go, talk later.”

        1. Thanks 🙂 those are good responses, I will try them. I feel like though I don’t have the confidence to pull off feigning ignorance or pretending to be fine etc, I feel like it would be obvious I am nervous and she would see right through it and keep interrogating. :-/

          1. Kitty, it’s okay to be nervous and not perfect when you start using new strategies to handle your mother. Her feelings are not your responsibility, although she seems to be trying to make them your problem to manage, at great cost to you.

            I have two parents with boundary problems and there was definitely an adjustment period when they realized I wasn’t going to answer questions any more.

            What I did was – stop answering the phone without screening for who was calling, and listening to messages at a time that suited me. I started replying after longer and longer delays when either parent was demanding or trying to manipulate me.

            I practised some standard replies to each parent’s favourite questions that I no longer wanted to answer in great detail, and stuck to them, even though at first I felt awkward. They had trained me to have no barriers to them, so of course it felt weird initially, but it wasn’t healthy for any of us to continue with the porous boundaries.

            I now reply to questions about my health with ‘fine, no worries,’ to questions about my work with ‘still the same, it’s going well,’ and questions about my finances with ‘all good, it’s under control’ followed by a return to topic like talking about weather, movies, or gardening.

            If questioned about my availability and my schedule I am consistently vague and never, ever give any information about where I am at any particular day or time. When asked about making plans I say ‘I’ll get back to you after I check my diary, but things are busy right now.’

            Your mother doesn’t have the right to treat you like this. It’s okay for her to huff and have tantrums when you stop reacting in the way she wishes you to. You have the right to determine how much or little information you divulge, no matter how cranky she feels about that.

            I speak to my parents probably once every 2 weeks, and see them about once every 3 weeks in person. I couldn’t tolerate speaking every day or every 2nd or 3rd day.

          2. @Saskia ran out of nesting comments, but thanks so much for your thoughtful and helpful reply ☺❤

      2. How do I manage the 20 questions game? Poorly, to be honest.
        Here’s roughly what I’ve done; as this is done mostly over the phone, it may be different from what you’re experiencing:
        I humored them the first time (not knowing any better). This predictably led to a long, drawn-out argument over, well, everything, including digging up corpses of previous arguments that I had thought long since dead and buried. Ruined everybody’s day. (Well, their day, my week.)
        Since then, if they don’t get the hint from the first few non-answers (like “I’m going out”, “I don’t know”, or “Ehhh *shrug*?”), I try to say something along the lines of “I’d rather not get into this. Last time we did, we got into a huge fight, and I don’t want to do that again.” If they take the obvious hint and let it go, then I call that a win for both of us. If they continue to push, I repeat less-polite variants of that.
        If they push too far, then I do what I can to cut off communications, up to and including hanging up on them mid-sentence. Because frankly, if they’re not going to listen to me, I’m not going to let them talk to me. And if getting hung up on ruins their day, well, if I’m at that point, then they’ve already ruined mine. Yes, it’s petty and escalating behavior, but it works for me.

        1. Thanks 🙂 I guess I just have to keep on guard all the time with her, and make sure I take a moment to think before automatically answering questions.

          I got so annoyed at myself last night when she managed to trick more information about my salary out of me with than I wanted to give. It’s like the more information she already has, the better she is at trying to get more information.

          She already knew I had a salary review coming up and that I might get a bonus. She kept asking about how much the raise was. I said a non-committal “I can’t remember exactly, not much.” then she kept questioning with X amount? Y amount? And I would say no. And she would get closer to the actual amount, and then started asking questions about how much my total salary is, guessing higher than it was and eventually got it out of me. I get caught off guard by all these questions and don’t really know how to respond without just giving her the information.

          Maybe I just need to be in guard about any questions about money ever, and just respond with a bland “I’m not going to discuss my finances”, repeat ad nauseas and hang up if not respected. :-/

          1. I’m sorry; I’ve had information weaseled out of me that I didn’t want to give, and I know how much it sucks.
            In my case, my mom was trying to determine why I didn’t want to go to a week-long family gathering. (It wasn’t just that she was going to be there; I hate the beach, and I’m not going to take a week of my limited vacation time to go be miserable in a hotel room away from my cats.)

            Two things I’ve found helpful (that I’ve learned from here and elsewhere):
            – Putting scripts in my own words, and actually practicing them in a mirror. Some of mine are “I’m sorry, I don’t want to talk about this.” “Please. Change the subject.” “I’ve asked you to let it go; because you haven’t, goodbye.” It’s awkward enough to try to enforce a boundary that my mom doesn’t want to respect; I don’t want to be stumbling over my words while I’m doing it.
            – Accepting that it’s going to be awkward, and that my mom isn’t going to react well to it, and call what I’m doing mean, rude, hurtful, etc. Part of what got me through this is recognizing that while, yes, I am being mean, rude, hurtful, so is she – I just haven’t been pointing it out. To quote the Captain (letter 409): “If it gets awkward, let it be awkward. That awkwardness is something they created. You don’t owe anyone a performance of being okay when you are not feeling okay so that they can feel better about themselves.”

            Best of luck!

          2. This weekend Drama loving sister conned me into giving too much detail about my divorce. And she wonders why I don’t want to show up at family events.

      3. Try “Sorry, I don’t have time for the ‘Guess what Kitty’s doing’ game today. Talk to you later xxx”

  38. “This one weird trick” I learned from an excellent-but-horrifying science fiction novella saved my sanity when going no contact with an abusive, non-recovering, alcoholic ex:

    Primates, when confronted with things they don’t understand, will alternate between threat-response and submission-response.

    Watching this not only turned his alternating threatening and cooing texts and e-mails into a rather fascinating game, it re-emphasized that this nonsense was not my fault, it was just his machine-brain performing to spec.

  39. Oh man, this is definitely similar to problems I have with my mom. Hits home. I’ve recently worked on some boundaries, and pointing out our phone calls are all about her needs and not about what I’d like from the calls / relationship. Towards the end of the conversation she said something like “but anytime I leave a message that you NEED to call back you have to call me back!” me: “that’s exactly what I was talking about in terms of you getting to define everything”.

    Unfortunately, I have tried bringing up the “set call once a week” thing MANY times and she always pushes back. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of the idea either, since lately I often have plans that would require me to change the time. But that also means we still aren’t at a point where how often we’ll talk is better defined than “a few times a week”.

    1. Instead of carved-in-iron day/time every week (which a lot of commenters have mentioned wouldn’t be feasible on one or both ends) what if you tried to do a weekly-*ish* call, and the last couple of minutes of said call involved picking a date/time for the next one (which ideally will not be significantly sooner than a week in the future, and which will *not* occur at an inconvenient time for you)?

      This could backfire into a lot of extra work and negotiation, but if she responds to ‘It’s been great talking to you! I’ve got a busy week coming, but can we plan to talk on Saturday so I have that to look forward to?’ with either ‘Sure!’ or ‘I’ve got Thing on Saturday, can we make it Sunday?’ or et cetera, it might be a good strategy going forward. Then you can follow the Captain’s advice of redirecting anxious calls or texts to Next Planned Date.

      If there’s trouble setting up a time that works for you (either because of genuinely packed schedules for both parties or a power play on their part), reduce the frequency. ‘Wow, seems like I’m going to be busy with X and you’re busy with Y for the next couple of weeks. I’ll call on the first of next month, hopefully we can chat but if not I’ll leave a message so you know everything’s going okay.’

    2. As someone upstream pointed out: you don’t need her permission to call her regularly every Thursday after your choral group, or every Sunday after she gets home from church, or whatever.

      Just pick the time YOU want to call, and always call then. She can answer, or not. If that call is when you are saying, “Hey, I want to chat,” and every other call is, “Sorry, Mom, I’m in the middle of something–I’m planning to call you after choir,” pretty soon she’ll be sure she’s around then.

  40. After splitting from an ex who would flip out if they couldn’t reach me on my cell, I went on a cell phone diet. Just having the phone on would stress me out, so, unless I was expecting a call, I shut it off. At intervals during the day, I would check for messages and return them, but it was on MY schedule. It was glorious. I let people know that my phone was off for long periods of time and not to expect an immediate response. I had a variety of ways to communicate this, but for people who pushed back more than once, I said, “My phone is a tool for my convenience, not a digital leash.”

    1. My business card lists a number and says ‘text only’. Which doesn’t mean I will never call, or that people who have a real need can’t call me, but it sets the expectation very clearly. It’s also on permanent mute: I will answer calls from exactly two people unless it’s pre-arranged. (Car in garage & me saying ‘please call me when it’s ready’).

  41. Captain, I was wondering if you had any advice for this portion of the letter, especially since this is something I experience ALL THE TIME with regards to how my siblings treat my grandmother:

    “When I’m at their house with my brother and sister, I find myself constantly making sure that she doesn’t feel neglected or teased.”

    One of my siblings, in particular, is obnoxiously MERCILESS when it comes to picking on my Abuela, and it is Not Okay, but any scripts for shutting that down would be so, so helpful.

    1. How about, “Wow, that was mean.” (subject change) or
      “That’s unkind. Knock it off.” or
      (since it seems to be one person and not a whole-family dynamic pf relating to one another): “Hey! That’s not how we treat people in this family. Cut it out.”

      1. Thanks, Karyn, that’s actually really helpful! I want to be more direct in addressing these moments, as he seems to just want to unceasingly hammer whatever mean jokes he’s making at her expense into the ground. To the point where she’s actually left the house in an unknown-to-her neighborhood — where no one could call her — and we finally found her sitting on the community sign and just crying. It’s so awful.

    2. One thing I’m wondering…your sibling is being an ass and intervention is required. But LW says that they’re making sure mom doesn’t *feel* neglected or teased. It could be that Bro and Sis are actually neglecting and teasing Mom, but it’s also possible that Mom has engineered the situation so that LW feels the need to protect Mom from something that’s not actually happening. Like, I’m maybe projecting a bit here, but my mother has a need to be the center of attention. We were at a family member’s house that she sees regularly, and I see once a year at best and she was incapable of letting me have my own conversation with Family Member. I’m sure she was *feeling* neglected when she shoved her way into our conversation and turned it into a topic *she* was interested in, but was she being neglected? Hell no! Similarly, I’m sure she felt neglected when I decided to spend a few days in nearby Major City, both on my own and seeing family I rarely got to see, after my brother’s wedding and didn’t tell her. Actually, I know she felt neglected when she said something along the lines of “You should have told me, I would have set stuff up.” (subtext: we can spend time “bonding” while I dominate your adventure.) I also know she’s going to *feel* neglected when I decide to go to my sister’s house to visit her and her family, instead of having sis, nephew, and SO all pile into her house. Because G-d forbid I interact with any family members without her presence.

      Ironically, the more she tries to shove herself into my relationships with other people, the less I want a relationship with her.

    1. I can’t listen to stuff like that at all. Brings back much too strong memories of my younger mother at her best steamrolling, where you didn’t respond, you didn’t get ANY sort of rebuttal, you just became a limp doormat and quivered until she was finished with you. It wasn’t just directed at me either, she did the same thing to her own mother! Who did it to nobody, I don’t KNOW where mom got it. Gah! Horrible memories.

  42. The most useful things I have found for avoiding being pestered are: generally take a leisurely approach to replying to things, and just because technology exists doesn’t mean I have to be at its beck and call. I rarely have my mobile phone switched on, and even if I’m at home if I don’t feel like answering the land line, I don’t. I’m not great at checking the answerphone, either, so people who need to contact me reliably know to email me. And I’ll get back to emails when it’s convenient for me. Sometimes a mail comes in and I reply right away. Sometimes it will take me a day or two. I make an effort if it’s genuinely urgent, but actually mostly it isn’t. Mostly things can wait for a while. I don’t apologize for this, and I don’t make excuses. It’s just the way I do things.

    Modern technology places a burden on people to be available at all time because now it’s possible. But you don’t have to pick up that burden if you don’t choose to.

  43. So many anxious parent questions lately!

    I’m not sure if my mother is actually anxious or likes to mask her need to control my life under the pretense of “anxious,” but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter much. I just wanted to add to CA’s excellent advice: prepared for the “fake” emergency that suddenly might arise when she has information that you are not available, but could possibly be reached in an emergency. Or a related tactic my own mother has used–creating a situation where she can try to claim she HAS to be in touch with you or see you. For my mom this has included creating fake medical needs/doctor’s appointments or including me in financial transactions that I don’t really need to be included in. I’ve found that just plain calling this out in a matter-of-fact way is pretty effective. If you see her trying to manipulate situations in this way, it isn’t out of line to say, “Mom, it seems like you are creating this situation to try to override my schedule and get access to me when I’ve said I’m unavailable.”

    I once left a message on my voicemail that I was taking a screen break and would respond to all messages on X day (a long weekend). My mom FREAKED OUT and left me several more voicemails and also sent emails saying that this was an EMERGENCY would I PLEASE make an exception and pick up. Turns out, she wanted to make some plans for the following weekend. “That was not an actual emergency, that was just something you wanted” is how I responded to that, which shut it down pretty fast.

    I set up “I won’t be in touch for X time” boundaries fairly often, and my standard response to my mom’s inevitable “But what if there’s an EMERGENCY?” is “If there’s an emergency, call 911.” It’s a little bitchy but I think it gets the point across of what I consider an emergency.

    1. “If there’s an emergency, call 911” is what I used on myself when my husband replaced his phone with a tablet (and it turned out android disables calls and sms on tablets, wtf). 🙂 it worked pretty well; anxiety couldn’t get my imagination to come up with anything plausible to refute that, and its attempts just made it more noticeable that it was an anxiety thing, not a rational thing.

      1. It is pretty hard to refute! It’s also a good reminder, I think, that knowing about emergencies is not exactly an emergency. Sure, someone could be having a medical emergency. Let’s say that were the case. A few hours, or even a couple of days, isn’t going to change that. I can’t help anyone having a medical emergency. Yes, it is normal to call family if someone has a major medical event. Yes, I’d probably go to my parents’ if one of them was having a medical event or if someone died. But not knowing about that right away isn’t going to prevent it from happening. And no matter what we do or how reachable we are, it’s always a possibility that someone will die and you don’t get the chance to say goodbye. For me, I’m a day away from being able to be at a parent’s bedside if they were about to die. Would I be a bad person if I moved further away, so that it would take me two days? Am I obligated to move closer so I would always be only an hour away? Fifteen minutes? Where does it end?

        At the end of the day, being able to reach someone isn’t going to keep them safe.

  44. I don’t have a whole lot to add to this LW except SWEET FORCE ALMIGHTY I cannot imagine being in phone contact with my parents every day. That sounds exhausting and unnecessarily time consuming. I talk to my parents like, once every 3-4 weeks. (It took a little while to get them used to such infrequent contact, but going to college halfway across the country and double majoring in two very time consuming majors was great for that.)

    The one thing I might suggest is that if you’ve ever had an interest in backpacking, or any other activity that will take you out into The Land Of No Cell Service, this would be a great time to start. It’s pretty hard to argue with “I’m in the woods for 5 days, I’ll call you when I get back.”

  45. Wow, this letter could have been written by me last year.

    My mother is also anxious (about my well-being but also about our relationship and getting the attention/validation she wants) and it drives me up the wall. If she actually acknowledged and took responsibility for her own feelings and actions, I would be able to tolerate it and have more compassion for her. But instead she deflects any and all blame onto others (usually me) and makes herself into the victim, and uses extremely manipulative and controlling methods to get what she wants. It has pretty much killed most of the empathy I have for her. I still want to maintain a relationship for various reasons, but boy is it hard.

    BUT, with the Captain’s advice about setting boundaries (and the important part of actually enforcing them), it has gotten better. Much much slower than I would like, and with some worse escalation stuff before it started to improve (tirades over messenger and email about how I am mean and bullying and all the problems in our relationship are my fault), but still. I am here on the other side of boundary tantrum city to tell you that you can do this. 🙂

    She still sends me walls of text messages like the Captain’s simulation above, and I still get regular passive aggressive comments like “I’ve almost forgotten your phone number since we hardly talk anymore” [I call her once a week.] and passive aggressive text messages about how it’s been “four days with no response” [in reality maximum two days, since I check and respond on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.]. I still filter and don’t read any emails from her because of how they were used for manipulative tirades and deliberately hurtful statements. And I have had to create a second Facebook account so I can browse in peace without her constant scrutiny or comments about how if I have time to post/comment on Facebook, why can’t I respond to *her* messages. (Yes, I considered just unfriending or blocking her on my main account, but that would cause more drama than I want to deal with right now.)

    But it has gradually reduced over the past year and a half since I started enforcing the boundaries. She now mostly accepts that I will only call once a week for 30 minutes, and sometimes even starts to wind up the conversation herself at the 30 minute mark because “you must need to go”.

    Whenever she behaves better I’m still kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop and for her to backslide into tantrums over not getting her way again, but at least I can kind of enjoy these respites.

    And I am feeling a lot better overall like a competent adult in control of my life, and like I have my own space that is not constantly scrutinised by her, so that’s good.

    I don’t know if she will ever acknowledge or even understand why her behaviour was problematic and how it hurt me, but at least she seems to be accepting the fact that if she does these things I am fully prepared to hang up or leave. At least she can understand consequences for her actions!

    Anyway ramble over, good luck LW with your mother!

  46. Wow, this letter could have been written by me last year.

    My mother is also anxious (about my well-being but also about our relationship and getting the attention/validation she wants) and it drives me up the wall. If she actually acknowledged and took responsibility for her own feelings and actions, I would be able to tolerate it and have more compassion for her. But instead she deflects any and all blame onto others (usually me) and makes herself into the victim, and uses extremely manipulative and controlling methods to get what she wants. It has pretty much killed most of the empathy I have for her. I still want to maintain a relationship for various reasons, but boy is it hard.

    BUT, with the Captain’s advice about setting boundaries (and the important part of actually enforcing them), it has gotten better. Much much slower than I would like, and with some worse escalation stuff before it started to improve (tirades over messenger and email about how I am mean and bullying and all the problems in our relationship are my fault), but still. I am here on the other side of boundary tantrum city to tell you that you can do this. 🙂

    She still sends me walls of text messages like the Captain’s simulation above, and I still get regular passive aggressive comments like “I’ve almost forgotten your phone number since we hardly talk anymore” [I call her once a week.] and passive aggressive text messages about how it’s been “four days with no response” [in reality maximum two days, since I check and respond on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.]. I still filter and don’t read any emails from her because of how they were used for manipulative tirades and deliberately hurtful statements. And I have had to create a second Facebook account so I can browse in peace without her constant scrutiny or comments about how if I have time to post/comment on Facebook, why can’t I respond to *her* messages. (Yes, I considered just unfriending or blocking her on my main account, but that would cause more drama than I want to deal with right now.)

    But it has gradually reduced over the past year and a half since I started enforcing the boundaries. She now mostly accepts that I will only call once a week for 30 minutes, and sometimes even starts to wind up the conversation herself at the 30 minute mark because “you must need to go”.

    Whenever she behaves better I’m still kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop and for her to backslide into tantrums over not getting her way again, but at least I can kind of enjoy these respites.

    And I am feeling a lot better overall like a competent adult in control of my life, and like I have my own space that is not constantly scrutinised by her, so that’s good.

    I don’t know if she will ever acknowledge or even understand why her behaviour was problematic and how it hurt me, but at least she seems to be accepting the fact that if she does these things I am fully prepared to hang up or leave. At least she can understand consequences for her actions!

    Anyway ramble over, good luck LW with your mother!

    1. Oops, looks like I accidentally posted twice! Captain if you wouldn’t mind deleting second one it would be much appreciated ☺

  47. “I find myself constantly making sure that she doesn’t feel neglected or teased. If she feels that we are not bonding as a family as she’d prefer, she lashes out and becomes mopey and angry.”

    This is controlling behaviour. I wanted to point that out. I’m a bit surprised that it hasn’t been mentioned already. If you’re walking on eggshells to keep somebody happy, their behaviour is unreasonable & manipulative.

  48. LW, I was in a similar situation a few years back with my mother (who is a narcissist and a gaping hole of emotional neediness). She would text me multiple times a day, expect me to pick up when she called (and passive-aggressively snark me if I didn’t), and I saw her once a week on her own, then also went out to the family home on the weekend. She’d just invent reasons to contact me and I got so, so sick of it, especially when I’d talk to my friends and they’d tell me they spoke to their parents like…once every fortnight. And I thought ‘oh, this SO isn’t normal’.
    I used to feel physically ill the whole time I was around her, which convinced me that it needed to stop.
    She did the whole ‘I’m so worried’ thing too.

    Anyway, the boundaries the Captain has suggested WORK, but yes, it does take time and persistence on your part, and in my case, resisting the urge to snap back to the passive-aggressiveness. Some tools – use your phone’s settings to mute her calls (and hers only) or put her on a silent ringtone. You can even block them completely if you need to.

    It’ll suck a bit in the meantime (and she will escalate for a while, mine did) but it’s so, so worth it.

  49. I feel a lot of pity and some self-recognition for the mom in this situation because her attempts at creating connection are, ironically, driving her daughter away. I wonder whether the mom could handle hearing that?

    1. People like this have so little self awareness that they really *can’t* hear or understand this, which is why the daughter needs to write in to CA, because an honest and productive conversation is just not possible.

      When I tried to tell my own mother this exact problem, that the actions she used in trying to keep me closer were actually driving me further away, she rejected any responsibility for her actions and said it was me creating all the distance and problems in our relationship. Yeah.

  50. WOWIE WOW WOW. This all makes me SO GLAD I am old. I went to college in 1988 and didn’t have a phone and long distance was expensive! So they heard from me about once a week. And there was lots of worrying, and lots of “did you brush your teeth?” (OMG REALLY?) and lots of “oh no you went to a PARTY?” but over time the low contact trained them that they’d hear from me sporadically . . . and survive. And then I got out of college and moved 2000 mi away, without a phone, and with an oddball busy schedule . . . and again WAY before cellphones, texting, and when long distance was still expensive! I eventually got a phone but still was pretty much never home. So we talked every week or 2. And now that’s still pretty much the schedule thank god, because if cell phones and texting had been around then I am 100% positive I’d be in the same boat as all y’alls sad boundary challenged stories! The good news is that it DOES WORK, you can retrain your worrywort parents, have faith!

  51. Oh look it’s my mum. Wonderful advice Captain, I will be trying my best to do this!

  52. This thread has reminded me of a funny story. I got a call from my dad once when I was somewhere in my 20s – not a anxious one, so sorry to all the many people here who have to deal with that, but no rather the opposite. At the time we spoke every couple of weeks, usually when we had something to tell or ask and it was all lovely and chill. Dad called because he had spoken to a women at his work who called her adult children every single day. She was shocked and dismayed that Dad hadn’t spoken to me in several days. Dad wanted to reassure me that he loved me and ask if he should call more often! Needless to say I told him I knew and would not really want a daily call and we agreed that would be unnecessary. I had no idea so many people had parent who would want a daily call. Good luck to you all recalibrating to the level you want.

  53. These tactics do work, OP. I started learning how to set boundaries with my mom more than a decade ago. It was slow and tedious and she continues to try to find new ways to attack them. And me.

    You said something I wanted to address: ‘I’d like to not go full nuclear and destroy the relationship.’ A thing I have found useful in the process was to remember that I was not (and am not) destroying the relationship. Good relationships require two people to participate and I have the right to dictate terms of that relationship. I wouldn’t tolerate a boss or boyfriend who treated me the way my mom treated me. Why the hell would I consent to this shit?

    Boundary setting in relationships with your parents are hard because, for the first two decades of life, kids don’t really have the capacity or right to consent. We get taught what normal is by our folks and it’s very hard for kids (and I guess for parents) to adjust to the reality that adult children have the right to have a say in our relationship.

    I had to remind myself this a LOT because I didn’t blow up the relationship with my mom. But setting boundaries did make her lash out and attack me, quite viciously, often. That did change (and worsen) the relationship. But that wasn’t because of my actions — it was because of hers. I hope this doesn’t happen to you — your mom sounds different than mine — but I thought you might find it a useful mindset to deal with the rocky bits.

  54. Starting to feel a lot better about my text-free life. I have an old flip-phone and have sent, no joke, only about half a dozen texts in my life. Apparently this dinosaur attitude has been shielding me from tons of potential issues.

    I have a daughter and she has a chronic illness. Although I worry about her a lot, I am making a conscious effort to let her set the tone for our interactions. Some weeks we do multiple e-mails, some weeks it’s only one. I may not hear from her by phone for a couple of weeks, or I may hear from her weekly.

    My reason for not wanting to call her isn’t just that I don’t want to interrupt her (she works at home) or smother her with attention, but quite simply that I’m afraid of disturbing her. If she’s having a low- to no-spoons day she might be lying down and I would feel rotten about the landline phone* waking her up.

    When we do talk it’s great. But I’ll let HER decide how often that should be. She knows I’m always delighted to hear from her, but she also knows that I understand if she doesn’t have the energy to make a call.

    *She doesn’t text, either.

  55. One suggestion to consider, write down your progress in a daily journal. It really helps me. Write down the goal, how you’re feeling about it Write down your negative thoughts and then dispel them.

    For example: “What happened: Mom called and I sent a text that I’ll talk to her on Sunday, which is 6 days away. Negative thought: If I don’t answer calls every time my mom asks, I’m a bad person. Positive thought: I’m a good person and am an adult. I’m allowed to have a life separate from my parents because I am a separate and free person. I’m a good person for being independent, which is a great quality, and it’s awesome of me to show my mom what that looks like.”

    Writing things down really helps me see the progress, helps me see my goals, and is really powerful. Especially when emotions make thinking difficult

  56. (Altho in hindsight, I’d ever edit my example to further the dispel that there are “Good” people. Probably better to say “I have many good qualities like all people, including being caring””)

  57. This could’ve been about me and my mom. And I did pretty much what captain advised, except it took me YEARS of trial and error and being pretty miserable with the way things were; and now that I have my own kids we’ve reached an uneasy impasse. She continues to push boundaries (“I want us to spend ALL our free time together and talk daily!) but I no longer get the “are you alive???” Texts when I don’t respond within the hour. She used to recruit my dad to give me guilt trips when I didn’t reply. Anyway, I don’t know how long you’ve been dealing with this, but kudos to you for recognizing how unhealthy your mom’s behavior is and reaching out for help.

  58. I’ve found it’s really helpful to have a reputation of being bad at phones. My mom and I have a weekly scheduled phone call, which is mostly to keep her from worrying that I’ve died and somehow no one thought to notify them. Other than that, no one expects me to pick up calls or call them back later, because I just don’t most of the time and they’ve gotten used to it. Similarly, no one expects instant responses to texts–I have a reputation for being Bad At these things.

    At first, people were upset when I didn’t answer/didn’t call back/took three days to respond to a text/etc. Then, over time, they adjusted. Now it’s mostly treated as a funny, lovable quirk of mine, and I’m not expected to be on call for social-ness 24/7, and it’s great. I love being bad at phones.

    Worth noting: If I get a text/voicemail/whatever that really does require a fast response (whether it’s an emergency or a scheduling-plans kind of thing), I’m actually pretty good at giving that response. I do check my phone when I get messages; I just don’t necessarily respond, or even feel like I should respond, which takes a lot of the pressure off. Somehow (thankfully) this hasn’t destroyed my hard-won reputation, and it means I can still be responsive when I need to be.

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