I Wish My Mother Would Just Listen to Me Once in a While
When you can't get what you need from the person you need it from.
Posted February 4, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Some people never got what they needed from their parents, while some parents who were once good caregivers stop giving to their adult kids.
- Children tend to blame themselves when their parents are unkind or ungiving.
- Children also tend to believe that parents are capable of doing whatever they need them to.
“I wish my mother would stop talking and just listen to me for once,” Alicia* said.
She used to be a good listener when I was young. But now she just wants to tell me about her trip to the museum with her friends, or her girlfriend’s new boyfriend…I don’t mind listening some, but shouldn’t she want to know something about what’s going on in my life? Can’t she stop long enough to give me some sympathy, maybe, even some advice?
Alicia is married with young children.
I feel like I’m always supporting other people. Don’t get me wrong, I love my children and my husband, and I’m happy to give them what they need. But I don't want to take care of my mother. I just want her to mother me a little bit. Why can’t she do that?
It’s a great question. So often, in my therapy practice, I work with people longing to get something like what Alicia wants – support, love, pride, sympathy – from their parents. Sometimes these are things their parents once gave freely, like Alicia’s mom. And sometimes they are things that parents never gave their children.
The question I hear over and over again is, “Why? Why couldn’t they just say or do what I needed? It wasn’t so much.”
This is how it was for Gabe*.
My dad never gave me the time of day. I could win a tennis tournament, bring home an award for best English paper, or break a leg. It didn’t matter to him. He worked, came home and had a drink and dinner, and went into his home office and did whatever he did until he went to bed.
For many years Gabe wondered what he had done wrong and why his father didn’t love him.
Like many children, Gabe thought it was his fault because he believed that his father could give him what he needed, that he simply had decided not to.
In therapy, he learned that his father had some serious problems, that relationships were very difficult, perhaps even impossible for him, and that it wasn’t Gabe’s fault that his father ignored him.
With this new understanding of his relationship with his father, Gabe realized that he would need to find someone else to give him what he had always wanted from his father. But without realizing it, Gabe seemed to keep choosing people who, like his father, couldn’t give him what he was looking for.
Both Gabe and Alicia kept trying to get what they wanted from people who they believed were unwilling to give it to them. But maybe, I suggested, they can't give it to you.
Alicia’s reply was, “But my mom used to give it to me. Why can’t she do it anymore?”
And Gabe’s was, “But they should be able to give it to me. Why can’t they? I can do it for them.”
Many years ago, the self-psychologist Michael Basch wrote about a case in which a young woman kept experiencing herself as weak and helpless. During her therapy, she began to connect this pattern with her father, who had always seemed to see her as inadequate, always pointing out what she couldn’t do. For a while after making this discovery, she was angry with her dad and started arguing and fighting with him.
On the one hand, standing up to her father for the first time gave her a sense of her own strength; on the other, it drove more of a wedge into their relationship and seemed not to help with her relationships with other men. With Basch’s help, she eventually started wondering how her dad had come to be the way he was. She began to ask him questions about his childhood and listened carefully to him – not as the parent of her childhood, but as an adult talking to another adult.
She and Basch began to see that her father had been hurt in life and was afraid she would be. What she saw as his attempts to point out her failures and inadequacies were actually his attempts to help her protect herself, like when a parent tells a small child, “don’t climb so high on that tree – you’re too little, and you could get hurt.”
With this understanding, the young woman began to respond to her dad’s comments by saying things like, “I appreciate how much you want to protect me, Dad. I’m taking your concerns seriously, but I think it’s going to be okay, and I really want to go ahead and try this.”
Her relationship with her father began to change. He told her how proud he was of her and even offered a suggestion that she found quite useful.
Something similar happened to Alicia when she realized her mother needed her support and attention. “I had been wanting her to be the mom she was when I was little,” she said. “But I guess as an adult, you have to come to grips with the fact that you’re both different now. It's sad, but I get a lot of my mothering needs from friends. Maybe I should ask for more from my husband,” she said. “Mom doesn’t have anyone to mother her anymore. She was a great mother when I was little. I guess maybe I can return the favor to her now.”
Because Alicia’s needs were generally met by her mother when she was a child, it was not too hard for Alicia to let her off the hook and to be more giving to her as an adult.
For Gabe, who never felt that his father was responsive, it was harder to be empathic. When he tried to reach out, Gabe’s father was still unresponsive. During therapy, Gabe realized he was in a perpetual search for someone unresponsive, like his father, to try to make them give him what he wanted. Over time, he began to realize it might be more satisfying to find someone who already was responsive, to see if he could enjoy what they had to give without the fruitless battle to turn an unresponsive person into a responsive one.
The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut once wrote that the goal of psychotherapy is to help us know what we need, find people who can meet that need, and ask for what we need in a way that will help them give it to us. Perhaps we should add to that list the goal of being able to accept when someone cannot meet those needs, to decide if we value the relationship enough to remain in it despite that disappointment, and if, in some cases, we want to meet their needs even though they aren’t meeting, or perhaps never did meet, ours.
*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Michael F. Basch. Doing Psychotherapy (1980), Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art (1988), and Practicing Psychotherapy: A Casebook (1992).
Heinz Kohut. How Does Analysis Cure? (1984)