Dear Thelma: Mother-son fight turns into cold war

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My brother and mother recently had a fight. I know some harsh words were said by my brother, which caused my mother to not speak for the whole day. I assumed it was just a normal fight and things would get better, but they did not. My brother kept apologising and my mother kept ignoring him.

When we went to bed, I woke up to hear my mother crying. I comforted her, and she confessed that she felt that everyone she loves always makes her life hard. I did not fully realise this until she said this, but she told me her siblings and her were having a strained relationship. It was fighting with my brother that was the breaking point for her, after something he had said.

I had seen all the signs, like my aunt suddenly wanting to move out, and my uncle suddenly stopped visiting us, but I had always thought that perhaps my mother scared them away. I did not know it was because they had hurt my mother by saying some really painful things, so painful that she could not stop crying.

I have never seen my mother cry before, so it shocked me. All I could do was hold her hand and get tissues for her. She told me that from now on she would not talk in the house anymore, since nobody wants to listen to her. I tried to comfort her, tell her to stop, but my words failed me.

Thelma, I really don't know what to do. I know my mother should not have burdened me with all this, but now that she has I want to help her. I already am planning to talk to my brother about what he said, but I worry that my mother will not be able to move on. She also is averse to therapy and thinks it's only for those who are truly mentally unstable.

Please help me.


Dear AJ,

Fights are a normal part of family life, but when they lead to estrangement, it's important to ask why. I can't tell from your letter what the fights are about or what was said.

What we do know is that your mum says the people she loves say things that hurt her. You note that her brother said harsh words. And there is estrangement between your mum and her siblings too.

Generally speaking, fights should not be ugly and have people break down. When adults argue, it should follow solid steps to resolution: acknowledging feelings, figuring out exactly what the fight is about, and findings solutions that help move everyone forward.

During this process, we say what we think but we speak with respect and without temper. We also look to resolve issues justly, and to find resolutions we can all live with.

Discussions become complicated sometimes because fights are often layered. For example, a tussle over who does the dishes, can be about respect and gender stereotyping.

Therefore, a fight that starts with,"You leave your coffee cups all over the house and I'm fed up of cleaning up after you" becomes a discussion about,"We both live in his house, you don't do your fair 50% of the work, and I'm feeling disrespected."

Little issues can often be fixed with some cool, calm, rational debate and resolution. But when it comes down to long-term problems, especially ones that involve unfairness, tempers will rise. So it's sensible to tackle these in a series of discussions, taking time-outs when participants need to cool down.

Ideally, we behave with respect. But even with the best will, we all say things we regret. This is especially true in the pandemic when many of us feel uncertain and edgy.

Losing it once and apologising is OK. We're human, we make mistakes, and forgiveness is what we do with loved ones. But if parties have a habit of exploding and saying harsh things, then an apology doesn't cut it. A proper apology must be followed by change.

As we don't know what the fights are about or what is said, my question would be, how do your mum, aunts and uncles fight? Do they talk to each other with respect? Do they look for common ground and for solutions that are fair and equitable?

If they do fight nicely, ask your mum if she's happy with the estrangement between her and her family. If she says this is the best solution for her, respect it and support her.

I say this because although family breakups are sad, different values, goals and needs sometimes produce estrangement. If your mum chooses this, that's her choice.

Do remember that if this is so, her decision will not affect you. You are free to make your own choices. And as a comfort, estrangement need not be for life. Some families take a break from each other and reconnect when they're ready.

But if your mum is not happy with the situation, and she is adamant about not seeking help, then have her Google up steps to resolving conflict.

It's best to be specific about where the process is going wrong. For example, if they have a habit of saying harsh things, read articles about communication and anger. If they are only interested in 'winning' and not in being fair, read articles on setting boundaries and articulating goals clearly.

However, as you are her child, your mum should talk to a relative or a friend she likes to help her through this. If that doesn't work, she might rethink her stance against therapists or she might find a professional mediator.

Finally, as you are stressed by all of this, you might Google up the same resources. You can't fix other people, but having good conflict management skills will help you keep your equilibrium and enforce boundaries.

I feel for you, family arguments are awful, and I hope this helps.

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