What Is A Toxic Mother And How Does She Affect Relationships?
By Sarah Fader
Updated November 07, 2019
Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault
You dread family get-togethers. A phone call from Mom is usually an emotional minefield, and you consciously opt against having children of your own because parenthood sure sucked for her. If you find any of these statements relatable, read on. You may have a toxic mother. It's not your fault that she is treating you this way. You can learn what's causing it to happen, and how to move forward in a productive and healthy way.
What Makes a Toxic Mother?
First, it's important to note that is not your fault that you have a toxic mother. Many people struggle with complex family dynamics. We'll list some characteristics of toxic mothers below. It is also important to remember here that most parents are guilty of a few, and even all, of the following traits, at least some of the time. This is normal, and most often not harmful. A toxic mother, however, will constantly or regularly display two or more of the following characteristics. And if you still have a relationship with her today, understand that you're not making her behave in an abusive manner towards you. She is making choices to act in a particular way.
- Constant criticism
- Controlling behavior
- Guilt-tripping and manipulation
- Invalidation of your emotions
- Passive aggression
- Disrespectful of personal boundaries
- One-sided relationship
We'll explore these traits in more detail later in the article.
How Can I Move Forward?
What can you do? You can't change your mother, but you can work on your relationship with yourself. One of the ways to do this is to set boundaries with people who make you feel bad. If you find that interacting with your mother makes you feel worse about yourself, then it may be time to set some serious boundaries with her. If this seems too difficult, one way to get help setting these boundaries is to see an individual therapist, who will help you grow the sense of strength and independence needed. Whether you work with an online counselor or a therapist in your local area, you deserve to be able to process your complex relationship with a professional who has relevant experience.
The Characteristics of a Toxic Mother
This is not an attempt to demonize mothers, nor is it meant to fuel feelings of hatred towards yours. However, it will be counter-productive, even harmful, to make excuses for her behavior, and to underestimate the extent of its effect on you. Also, note that this list of character traits is not exhaustive. A mother who consistently ignores your stated boundaries, withholds love, or invalidates your feelings in any way, displays toxic traits, and these may manifest in more ways than those stated here.
1. Constantly Critical
Does, "Nothing is ever good enough for Mom" ring true for you? This often goes not only for you but most people and things in her life. She is perpetually disapproving and a perfectionist, as things seem to meet her exacting standards seldom. Your inner critic probably sounds just like her!
As a child, you are likely to have been criticized often and severely. More subtle forms of criticism would include the apparently loving teasing or labeling, such as: "This is our lazy child," "She's clever but an underachiever," or "He's a stubborn/naughty bugger." This toxic mother is also likely to spot the speck in an otherwise perfect offering, and her perfectionism will cause you to feel never quite good enough, no matter what you do.
2. Control Freak
Controlling tendencies sometimes accompany the Constantly Critical mom's behavior. She often has a strong, even overpowering personality with leadership qualities. However, she probably still issues you with instructions on how to behave, what to wear, and what to do, even when it's completely age-inappropriate. She also opines on many aspects of your life and considers herself an expert on these, despite well-evidenced protestations. Her tone of voice is often all it takes to either paralyze you or galvanize you into automatic action whenever you visit! This mother is probably used to getting her way with people so that she could display controlling behavior in most relationships.
3. Master Guilt-Tripper & Manipulator
All these behavioral traits are inherently manipulative, but some mothers display alarming skills in the dark art of negative manipulation. She actively works to make you feel guilty or responsible for her bad behavior, often when she cannot have her way. She is likely to be an expert at honing in on your emotional weak spots or 'buttons' like a heat-seeking missile and can play masterfully with your emotions. After all, she knows you very well. Do you, for instance, find that despite your best intentions to the contrary, you sometimes just react in response to something she says or does? That's very probably the Manipulator pulling your strings. She can also, indirectly or directly, blame you for her problems, or hold you accountable for her failures in life.
4. Humiliator and Saboteur
This can be subtle or quite brutally direct. This mother will regularly make negative comments or jokes about you in front of family and your friends, without regard for how her words may affect you. If you confront her, then the toxic mother's reaction is usually to admonish you for being over-sensitive or unable to take a joke/criticism, etc.
5. Invalidates Negative Emotions or Disallows Them
This trait is related to those above when you are being belittled or criticized for expressing unhappiness with the way you are being treated, or for expressing any negative emotion towards her. In particular, expressing anger towards her is not allowed, or punished with severe passive aggression. You may even be criticized for feeling bad, irrespective of the reason. All of this is likely to result in making you feel that you had better not share any negative feelings with her.
6. Passive Aggressive
Passive aggression can be defined as, "non-verbal aggression that manifests in negative behavior." This mother will not outwardly express her anger or resentment towards you, but might, for instance, deliberately delay an event, pitch up late for an important appointment, or act morose and sullen towards you for no apparent reason. The toxic mother doesn't respond well to confrontation and tends to avoid emotional intimacy at all costs. She is often also a Control Freak.
7. Disrespects Personal Boundaries
You're visiting at your mother's house. You're showering when your mother walks into the bathroom and offers to wash your back. This may sound innocent, yet it is not if you happen to be, for instance, an able-bodied adult. In this case, her behavior is highly inappropriate. Other manifestations of this trait could include her opening and read your private mail without permission, hacking your computer or phone to read your texts, contacting your friends or boss to discuss you inappropriately, or showing up at your house anytime and unannounced. A mother such as this, who ignores your requests for boundaries or privacy, is a mother with attachment problems and a lack of respect.
8. You're Her Best Friend and Closest Confidante
This is not always a characteristic of the toxic mother, as close and good relationships between parents and children do exist. However, if she also displays controlling, manipulative and passive-aggressive traits, then being her best friend can be a huge burden on you. Some toxic mothers don't encourage reciprocity and insist that you focus on her feelings exclusively. This is a narcissistic trait. Alternatively, when you share emotional intimacies as she does, the toxic mother doesn't hesitate to betray your confidence or manipulate you when she cannot otherwise control you.
How Does Having a Toxic Mother Affect Relationships?
It goes without saying that the relationship between you and a toxic mother is unlikely to be healthy or nourishing. Toxic mother-daughter relationships, in particular, are very common, with toxic mother-son relationships slightly rarer. Dysfunction in this primary connection affects all aspects of a person's psyche and life, and awareness of this, especially in women, seems to be on the rise.
Bethany Webster, a trained psychologist and Life Coach, has coined the phrase "Mother Wound," defining it as "…the pain of being a woman passed down through generations of women in patriarchal cultures." Essentially, she argues that those above, and other traits of a toxic mother, are the result of 'dysfunctional coping mechanisms' in patriarchal cultures. This is a sober reminder that the toxic mother is herself a product, not only of her dysfunctional upbringing but a largely male-dominated society. That said, men are not exempt from these issues. Elaborating on the definition, the Mother Wound can well be applied to explain many men's life experiences too.
An unaddressed Mother Wound gives rise to feelings of (adapted from Womb of Light.com):
- Not being good enough
- Shame or the consistent sense that there is something wrong with you
- Attenuation or the feeling that you must remain small/powerless to be loved
- Persistent guilt for wanting more than you currently have
These feelings and an inner sense of disempowerment and worthlessness are ultimately what will shape all relationships in a person's life. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see that this influence is not positive and urgently needs to be addressed. Webster describes the following relationship fallouts:
- Not being your full self because you don't want to threaten others
- Having a high tolerance for poor treatment from others
- Emotional caretaking
- Feeling competitive with other women
- Being overly rigid and dominating
- Conditions such as eating disorders, depression, and addictions
Realizing that you need help to deal with an issue is most often the first, important step in any healing journey. If reading this article is triggering, it may be an indication that there's something active in your psyche that needs your attention. However, it would not be advisable to tackle this one alone.
BetterHelp Values Healthy Relationships
You might not know if the relationship with your mother is abusive or toxic. You don't have to use a label if you're not sure. The goal of working with an online counselor is to take some time to understand your feelings, process them, and find ways to cope. Family dynamics are challenging and complicated. When you have a toxic mother, you may be afraid to admit that you have complex emotions toward her. These are things that you can work through with an online counselor at BetterHelp, an unbiased listener who cares about your well-being. By processing your relationship, you can learn healthy ways to cope and move forward.
Many clients at BetterHelp have worked through family problems with their online therapists. People talk through their emotional challenges with their families, so that they can heal and have fulfilling relationships with other people in their lives. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors.
"I have had three encounters of counselors in my life, including in-person sessions, and I can confidently recommend Dr Hahn as an excellent counselor. He listens to you, understands your concerns, and doesn't downplay them. You are taken seriously. I didn't think online therapy can be as in depth as in-person counseling, but with his encounters I learned it's the counselor who makes the experience, not the form of encounter. I will continue to work with Dr Hahn, and I believe in his approaches and interventions."
"Erin has been incredibly helpful to me as I navigate a tough situation with my family. She's understanding and compassionate and non judgmental."
Why Enlist the Help of a Therapist?
It is almost a given that you will have significant blind spots regarding your mother's behavior towards you, even when you consciously identify her as a serious saboteur in your life. She is your mom, after all, and at least a part of you loves her; critically thinking about her could feel like a betrayal, and make you feel unsafe and upset. These feelings could impede and even halt any self-healing effort. Only a trained therapist will know how to navigate these difficult waters.
Another important point to keep in mind is that you have internalized your mother's toxic behavior, meaning that you have unconsciously accepted at least some aspects of it as 'normal.' You had to, for emotional survival. Most often, it will take a skilled, astute therapist or counselor to gently point out what is and isn't good mothering, and guide you through processes to address how this affects you.
Licensed counselors and therapists are available at BetterHelp.com, an online platform where you can connect with someone who has been trained to help you deal with a toxic mother or any other mental health challenge you may be facing.