Writer and broadcaster

My mum’s moods and behaviour have changed radically – for the worse. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

My mum can be a lovely person – she’s kind, fun to be with and very supportive. She’s been a wonderful mum to me and is a fantastic grandma. However, in the last few years she has been pretty badly behaved and I’m worried about her. She seems unhappy and is exhibiting behaviour I would class as “acting up” if I saw it in my kids.

She turned 60 a couple of years ago and retired, which seems to have coincided with her problems. She has a wide circle of friends and hobbies, and does voluntary work but I can only assume she’s still unfulfilled or having some sort of life crisis. My dad bears the brunt of her bad behaviour.

At times she can be sulky, petulant and totally unreasonable. She has threatened to divorce my father several times recently. She has refused to speak to my brother for weeks over minor arguments. Her response to many small disappointments or not getting her own way has been to overreact. She recently visited and spent the weekend sulking and snapping at us all, causing a terrible atmosphere. My husband and I were very relieved when they left. I have never felt like this about my family before.

We all walk on egg shells around her. She does have caring responsibilities for another elderly relative and I think she feels put upon, but I don’t feel she has a hard life or is taken for granted. I think her retirement has not turned out as she envisaged it and she is angry and disappointed. How do I encourage her to seek new challenges or find fulfillment elsewhere? Should I suggest counselling? Should I see this as a problem within my parents’ marriage and stay out of it? Am I trying to parent my parent?

You might be, but I think it’s OK to parent one’s parent every now and again. It’s when it becomes the norm that problems can occur. Your situation is far from unusual – unfortunately. The week that I got your letter I got another, almost identical one. What can happen to many women of your mother’s generation is that they put so much into their families that when they get to a certain point in life they find themselves feeling resentful, bitter and angry, and thinking, “What about me? What happened to ME?”

This may be what’s happening to your mum. Something may have happened – one big event or a series of smaller ones – to make her feel unhappy or put upon. We also need to rule out a couple of other things. I tread carefully as no one can – or should – diagnose your mother by letter. But therapists I showed it to said it would be prudent to get a GP to rule out conditions such as dementia or depression. I mention the former very gently only because sometimes in the early stages people act out of character.

When she is calm and you are all getting on is the time to have a talk, to try to ascertain if something is worrying her. Neuropsychologist Chris Moulin, who specialises in the sense of self and ageing, asks if she “shows remorse or tearfulness? Or is the negative emotion just aggression? Is she sleeping well? Is this a continuation of a personality disposition that has worsened, or a complete change of personality?”

Moulin says, “The retirement transition is a major life milestone which is difficult for many and can lead to depression. So, perhaps that’s worth exploring too: counselling should get to the bottom of that.”

I was thinking about your mother the other day. I’d had a really good day. I felt vital, useful, as if life had a purpose, I felt I’d achieved. I’d had great social interactions. It struck me that, as we get older, we can – if we’re not careful – start to lack that. What makes your mum “her”? What makes her most herself, gives her confidence?

Family therapist Caroline Dalal (aft.org.uk) says: “It sounds like a number of life events have come at once. Work maybe gave her rewards and self-esteem which are now lacking, making her more sensitive to perceived slights and resentments. The absence of work and maybe feeling old perhaps serve to highlight other areas of her life that she feels unhappy about – again perhaps aggravated by loss of the self-esteem and status that she may have felt work and relative youth gave her.

“She may therefore be more predisposed to noticing negative rather than positive patterns at the moment.”

Try to persuade your mum to visit her GP (or you can contact the GP, who won’t be able to discuss her with you but you can mention your concerns).

Find a calm, happy time to talk to your mum. A really good opener is: “What’s it like being 60/retired/a grandmother? Is it how you imagined?”

Let’s not forget your dad. He sounds as if he needs some support too. And maybe a bit of time apart would also do both of them good.


First published in The Guardian Family section on 26 July 2014.