Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

How to Handle a Difficult Relationship With Mom on Mother’s Day

From growing apart to caregiving to guilt, our moms aren’t always easy to love as we get older

spinner image mother and daughter each holding a puzzle piece
Josie Norton

It’s almost Mother’s Day, that time of year when greeting card companies and commercials extol mothers and daughters, who lovingly show gratitude and share special, happy memories.

But if your relationship with your mom is more difficult than doting — whether that’s because you’ve always been at odds, you’ve grown apart as you’ve gotten older, or personality changes, cognitive decline or caregiving issues have come into play — it can be a tough time to figure out how to recognize the day.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

Here are 10 tips for getting through the day when your relationship with your mom is less than perfect.

Accept that your mom has her own struggles

It can be taxing to deal with an aging parent who is perhaps struggling with pain, injury or disease, or who has experienced some cognitive decline and perhaps become more demanding and irrational — all while trying to live her life to its fullest.

“The more you can accept that your mother is imperfect and flawed, the easier it’s going to be on your feelings — and maybe even on the choice of what you want to do,” says Ellen I. Carni, a psychologist in New York City.

Try to keep her frustrations in mind — especially on Mother’s Day

On your side of things, maintain your objectivity and realize that you can’t control someone else’s behavior. Refrain from getting swept up in conflict by resisting the urge to argue, and try to identify what’s behind any hurtful interactions, says Lindsay Gibson, a clinical psychologist in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Focus on what you have in common

“Go large with your perspective,” urges Bob Gordon, a psychotherapist based in Washington, D.C. “Depersonalize the occasion and relationship and think about your common humanity.”

If you share an appreciation of fine art, take her to a museum, suggests Gibson. If you share a love of food, look up a popular recipe and spend an afternoon cooking together, suggests Gibson.

If your mom is in an assisted living facility that’s hosting a Mother’s Day event, join in.

If nothing else, consider showing appreciation to your mother for raising you, says Gordon. “I know it’s cliché, but we’re not here without our parents. So one way to honor them is not to try to come up with something too flowery and sentimental but simply to say, ‘Thank you for bringing me into this world.’ ”

Be active together to help you both stay positive

If you choose to get together in person, Gordon advises doing something that avoids “an intense interpersonal exchange.”

Going for a walk in nature is great because besides turning your attention to the things you see as you go, it has been shown to improve mood, increase optimism, and reduce stress, anxiety and negative rumination.

Other ideas include taking a gentle exercise class, working in the garden or watching a movie or favorite show together, says Gibson.

Work your mind away from negative thoughts

Gifting a puzzle — and offering to work on it together — is another way to go.

Not only is doing a puzzle a good option for moms who aren’t mobile, it allows the two of you to engage without the pressure of constant conversation and eye contact.

Health & Wellness

Target Optical

50% off additional pairs of eyeglasses and $10 off eyewear and contacts

See more Health & Wellness offers >

Finding one with an image your mom appreciates, such as a pretty landscape or playful cats, shows you’ve put thought into the gift. (Plus, puzzles are good for the brain — they can help combat cognitive decline — so you’d be doing your mom a favor in the process.)

Don’t live near your mom? Consider playing online games together.

Stay authentic to yourself and your parent

Respect your own time and energy limits and dial back plans that require more effort than you’d care to expend. It’s OK to just send a card if that feels like what you can handle when it comes to your relationship with your mom, says Gibson.

If even that feels like too much, mailing a short note — or even sending a text — may be enough to acknowledge a day you don’t necessarily look forward to, according to Gibson, who is the author of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal From Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents.

A phone call is also an option. Gibson proposes capping the conversation at five or 10 minutes, letting your mother know at the beginning that the call needs to be quick but that you wanted her to know you were thinking about her.

“By choosing a type of expression on Mother’s Day that fits your true feelings,” Gibson says, “you are starting a much more authentic relationship with your parent, which is probably what you wanted in the first place — and that is within your power.”

Expand the meaning of ‘motherhood’

If your relationship with your mom is less than perfect, or even if it’s nonexistent, you can celebrate Mother’s Day by honoring other women — grandmothers, aunts, mentors — who have had a meaningful impact on your life.

Carni has heard about neighbors, schoolteachers, piano teachers and others being honored for having been powerful positive influences by those who had impoverished or inadequate mothering from their biological mothers or primary caregivers.

“I’ve heard these women … called ‘spiritual mothers,’ ” she says.

D.J. Lee, 63, who wrote about the complicated relationship she shared with her mother in her memoir Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots, has even commemorated Mother’s Day by giving gifts to men who’ve helped her and others get through difficult situations.

“Mothering isn’t just for mothers,” says Lee, who lives in Everson, Washington.

spinner image membership-card-w-shadow-192x134


Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Indulge in self-care

You know what they say about putting on your own oxygen mask first.

Carni recommends processing your feelings about Mother’s Day by reaching out to a trusted friend, journaling or writing a letter to vent any negative, mixed or complex feelings toward your mother. (The letter is not meant to be read by anyone else except, perhaps, your therapist.)

“And of course I’m biased toward therapy,” adds Carni, who credits therapy with “saving” her from her own complicated connection with her mother, who turns 101 in May. “It’s never too late to work on your relationship with your mother.”

Lee’s relationship with her mother was fraught with “some real bitterness and conflict.” So before her mother passed away in May 2023, Lee put some thought into how she could show some grace over the holiday while calming her own inner world at the same time. To recognize a love of gardening passed down to her from her grandmother and her mother, she’d buy whatever flowers or vegetable plants she could afford and have them delivered.

It was “a living gift that acknowledged the lineage of our female bloodline,” Lee says. “I realized I was doing it as a healing gesture for myself as well as my mother.”

Let go of guilt

Remember that you’re not alone — many people have challenging relationships with their mothers — and release any guilt you may feel about not being the perfect child, says Carni.

That guilt often is rooted in wishing we had feelings we want to have but don’t, explains Gibson.

“Just because we can feel regret over the quality of the relationship doesn’t mean that actual guilt is warranted,” Gibson says. “We didn’t do anything wrong by not being able to love our parent as much as we were expected to, and we can’t force ourselves to love more than we can. Come to think of it, that might’ve been our parent’s problem too.”

Remember that feelings aren’t forever

Lee says that while it may sound trite, the memories she found most prevalent after losing her mother were about the little things, such as being taken to childhood dance classes that stretched the household budget and playing games together on the floor.

Feelings tend to change once parents are gone, she says. “It’s interesting how a lot of the difficulty kind of blurs and fades, and what’s left are the moments where they did the best they could.”

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?