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My daughter’s barbed comments hurt me. How should I respond?

My daughter is in her 30s and leads an independent life with a demanding job, which gives her a lot of satisfaction. Her mother and I separated amicably 20 years ago, and my daughter lived largely with her mother. However, we saw each other regularly, travelled a lot together and I’ve always been very involved in her life.

The problem is that my daughter often makes barbed comments to me, which can be hurtful. However, she’s extremely touchy if the slightest criticism is made of her, and there are subjects I feel I can’t discuss with her. It seems that she needs to put me (and maybe others) down to make herself feel better. She doesn’t always find life easy, has low self-esteem and has suffered from depression.

A couple of times recently she has mentioned that people don’t seem to like her very much; this makes me worry about her future happiness. As far as I am aware, she has never had an ongoing “romantic” relationship, though she has often said she would like to have children. However, she does have close female friends who are clearly very important to her. Her relationship with food is complicated, too, and as a result she is seriously overweight. That is another area I hesitate to broach with her.

My dilemma is whether to go for “tough love” and express my worryfear that would be counterproductive and harm our relationship. My overriding concern is for my daughter’s happiness: I’d rather she was fat and happy than thin and miserable. I think she probably needs professional help, but needs to acknowledge the problem herself. Any suggestions would be most gratefully received.

I wonder if we could look at this another way. As you no doubt know, you can’t control what someone else does, nor send them to therapy. All we can do is look at our own place in things.

I consulted psychologist and psychoanalyst Stephen Blumenthal ( who said: “It may be more productive for you to think about this as your issue rather than your daughter’s.” He wondered what your daughter’s view would be. We both felt your letter was exposing your daughter, rather than yourself; is your concern for her hiding something you perhaps don’t want to see about yourself?

Blumenthal wanted you to rewind a bit and look at how amicable the breakup really was, seen from the eyes of your daughter (or even your ex-wife). “Maybe something is still unresolved for your daughter, and maybe she feels aggrieved?” For your part, Blumenthal wanted gently to invite you to think if there was any guilt around the breakup. We’re not saying there should be, but guilt is a very stymying emotion. It can force people into making concessions around others’ behaviour which can leave them feeling resentful (I believe this could be what you’re doing when you talk about being unable to say what you want). Or it can make them bristle, because they feel they can’t express their emotions, and the strain of that makes them defensive.

There are ways of showing concern to your daughter that tread a line between tough love and saying nothing. I wonder if you’ve asked your daughter outright if anything is wrong? What discussions were had around her depression? Do you still spend one-on-one time with her? And what would happen if, instead of staying silent, or being critical, you asked if she was OK, or why she makes these remarks?

Blumenthal also wanted you to think about vulnerability, in both of you: “People often feel that if they expose their vulnerable side they’re going to be criticised rather than responded to kindly.” I wonder how vulnerable both of you allow yourselves to be with each other. There seemed a lack of authenticity between you: you need to be more honest with yourself about the way you really feel about your daughter and what, if anything, you might be projecting on to her.

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I can see you care about your daughter, but I would counsel against ever mentioning her weight. You think she doesn’t know? If your concern is for her happiness, then it starts with curiosity about her, and acceptance of who she is now – not judgment.

 Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions

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