Reader dilemma: My friend puts her son down all the time

"It could be that she feels, at some subconscious level, that she’s performing an important role in the play of her son’s life"

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Dear Virginia

I have a friend from way back who’s the mother of two adult children, one of them my godson. This friend can’t stop praising her daughter, constantly going on about how wonderful she is – but she seems to be unable to stop putting the boy down. He runs a small but successful and prestigious advertising company,  but she just keeps moaning that he’s got too many staff or not enough space or that “he may be having a good run now, but what then?” She’s been like this ever since he was small. Should I say something and back him up or do nothing?

Yours sincerely, Yvette

Virginia says

There are some people who only look on the black side. Modern-day Cassandras. So let me try to explain the thinking behind this apparent negativity.

Your friend may well feel that her son is over-optimistic. She may feel that if he continues to get too satisfied with how his business is going, he’ll start suffering a form of hubris and sooner or later, everything will come tumbling down around his ears and he won’t be prepared for it. Worrying endlessly about things – such as whether your child will get run over on the way the school – is, I feel, a form of insurance or magical thinking. If I imagine all these disasters, then they are not only less likely to happen (because they have, as it were, already been dealt with in the imagination), but if they do happen, everyone will be much more able to deal with them.

It could be that she feels, at some subconscious level, that she’s performing an important role in the play of her son’s life. She’s the Greek chorus of doom, without which her son will get carried away by his own success and fall to earth with a bang.

If her over-praised daughter isn’t as successful as the son, that could show that your friend is trying to do a balancing act – boosting the less successful, and doling out dire warnings to the more successful.

On the other hand, she may just be scapegoating her son in a very unpleasant way. Perhaps she had a favoured brother when she was a child, who got all the attention, and she’s trying to get her own back. It could be that she’s just never liked her son as much as her daughter. And your friend’s son may be used to this pessimistic drone from his mother going on the background and has learned to blank it out.

I don’t think it would do any harm if you asked your friend if she’d ever told her son how proud she is of his success. Next time, pick her up on her complaints and say: “Well, I think he’s doing brilliantly. Hardly anyone I know of his age is even in work and here is he running a successful business. I tell you what – I think you should write him a letter saying how proud you are – at least that would balance all the misgivings you have. I bet he thinks you think he’s a total failure, and a letter would mean an awful lot to him.”

She may well not do what you ask, but at least you’ll have put the idea into her mind.

Next week's dilemma

My problem is that I can’t cry. It’s not that I don’t feel things – I do, deep down, but I don’t seem to be able to express my feelings outwardly. Very occasionally, I have felt tears come to my eyes in private, so it’s not that it’s a medical problem, but I am often accused of being cold and unfeeling, when in fact I don’t think it’s true. My daughter recently shouted that me that I never said I loved her and had never cuddled her when she was small, but I wasn’t brought up like that and find it difficult. Of course I love her, but what am I to do? I’d give anything to be able to show people how I really feel now and again.

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise Margaret to do? To answer this dilemma, or to share your own problem, write to Readers’ letters will return next week