When problems occur in parent-child relationships, the child, quite rightly, is the one therapists are most concerned about. But it takes two to tango, and parents often have backgrounds that are unfavorable to a healthy parent-child bond. When the parent and the child both have problems, it can be a recipe for trouble.


When Mary was a child, her narcissistic mother made her feel that the only way Mary could be loved is if she was useful. Suffering from neglect and low self-esteem, Mary sought out a partner who made her feel that familiar bad feeling. He was a widower with a daughter, and when Mary married him, she also married his five-year-old daughter, Laurel. This fulfilled Mary’s need to be needed. She would be the little girl’s mother.


Laurel’s biological mother died when she was three and Laurel went to live with an aunt and uncle and their three kids. While the trauma of losing her mother was great, she settled into life with her father’s brother’s family. Her aunt and uncle tried their best to give her a good temporary home, but their own children took precedence. Laurel’s father visited occasionally, but he had his own issues. After feeling abandoned by her mother, Laurel now felt like a fifth wheel.

Marriage Counseling, Relationships Therapy, Couples Therapy

Conflicting Loyalties


Laurel’s father and Mary got married, and Mary adopted Laurel. After living for a year with her cousins, this new situation was an unwelcome change for Laurel. Mary pressured Laurel to call her “mom” but Laurel, although she couldn’t articulate it at the time, could not do it. She felt it would be disloyal to her dead mother. In fact, she felt any close, loving relationship with Mary would be an insult to her mother’s memory.


Mary was desperate to be needed by this little girl, but instead, she felt rejected. And hurt. While Mary should have behaved like the adult she was, she sometimes took her anger out on Laurel, who’d already been through more than enough. Laurel was sullen and unhappy and continued to refuse to call Mary her mother.


Walking on Eggshells


The mother-daughter relationship could not gain traction. There was no foundation of trust and support, and every opportunity for a connection seemed to go awry. Mary felt rejected and Laurel felt this stranger was trying to coerce her to feel something she could not feel. To peacefully coexist in their home, they both felt like they were walking on eggshells.


They seemed stuck in a pattern of being unable to connect. Then one day, Mary gave Laurel some colorful bandanas to play with. Laurel made herself a pirate scarf with a patch over her eye and a stick for a sword. After a bit of play, she switched and made the bandanas into diapers and pretended to be a baby. In a high-pitched baby talk, she approached Mary and said, “Mama.”


The standoff was over. Mary‘s confidence as a mother blossomed. She decided to put away her hurt and be the adult, and Laurel eventually called her Mama in her regular voice. Mary began to look for ways to connect and Laurel began to feel that Mary could be trusted more and more as someone she could depend on to support her.


From there, their relationship grew. There were a few bumps in the road, but they kept going forward in a positive direction. Today, Laurel is grown with her own children, and she and Mary enjoy a solid, loving relationship.



Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: https://www.nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact