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Originally published Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Tangling with a difficult parent

The Parent 'Hood: How to cope when your kid's friend has a parent that makes life difficult.

Chicago Tribune

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Your son's pal has a very difficult mother. Should you step in or step off?

Parent advice (from our panel of staff contributors):

Step off. Only step in if she's driving your son nuts — or driving you nuts. Sometimes kids can let difficult people slide right by without noticing or caring. Only intervene if your son asks you to or the woman's "very difficult" persona is affecting your son in a bad way. (She screams; your son screams, etc.)

— Bill Daley

The default is step off, unless "difficult" means behavior that is potentially damaging to that child or yours. If the other mother is merely strict or overprotective, well, she might have good reason for that, and in any case isn't your problem. If her difficulty prevents your son and pal from doing things together, you might offer the other mom whatever assurances you can that you'll make sure no boundaries are crossed, but that's as far as you ought to go. Enjoy the fact that, in your son's eyes, you're the reasonable parent. It probably won't last.

— Phil Vettel

Expert advice:

Before you decide whether or how to step in, consider some of the scenarios your son's pal may be dealing with, says psychologist Terri Apter, author of "Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power" (Norton).

If the child's mother is narcissistic, for example, your overture could backfire.

"Narcissists have fragile relationships with others, as their overblown ego means they often take offense at the smallest imagined slight and will suddenly cut people out of their lives or punish them in some way for 'insulting' them," says Apter. "Children in this situation often live with the fear that their relationship with their mother could break apart at any minute should they inadvertently offend her."

Apter classifies difficult mothers into five types: angry, controlling, narcissistic, envious and emotionally unavailable.

"Which style is worse depends a great deal on the phase of a child's life," she says. "Some difficult mothers are good-enough mothers in infancy, and this may allow a child to weather a difficult relationship later on. And some children have a natural resilience, or may be less sensitive to a stressful environment."

The best way for you to intervene, Apter says, is to model a different style. "You can be effective by gently showing there are other ways of being a mother," she says. "The son or daughter of a difficult mother tends to be a keen observer of other mother/child relationships, and is intrigued to see how they can function in ways that offer more pleasure than pain. Displaying this won't make a child envious; it will offer hope. And if you — or the child — are fortunate enough to forge a relationship, you can show that you can listen and learn from the child, that he or she need not always feel afraid or false."

Particularly if a child is suffering from emotional neglect.

"Research shows that emotional neglect has the most pronounced and long-term effects," she says. "Deprived of a mother's responsiveness and curiosity and engagement, children may feel empty or even dead inside. They may also believe that they are the problem, and that if only they were good or were in some other way able to please a mother or fix things for her then her emotions would come to life."

And don't criticize the child's mother.

"You should never offer direct sympathy to the child on account of his or her difficult mother," says Apter. "Shame is one of the most pronounced feelings in regard to a difficult mother, and your overt sympathy will trigger that shame.

"Also, whatever the difficulties with a mother, a son or daughter is likely to feel some love and loyalty, and will be extremely uncomfortable hearing someone else remark on her faults."

Have a solution? You're looking to make one (just one!) change to make the new school year a smoother, more successful one. What should it be? Email us at parenthood@tribune.com.

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