What Is A Toxic Mother And How Does She Affect Relationships?
By Sarah Fader
Updated March 25, 2020
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.
How do you deal with a crazy mother?
Toxic mothers can be a pain to deal with. You love your mother, but there's a limit to what you can take. If you are the child of a toxic mother, here are some ways you can handle the relationship:
- First, don't write her off as just being "crazy." Sometimes, she has concerns and may be level-headed, but doesn't know how to express her opinions without sounding difficult or overbearing.
- Speak calmly about how you feel, and set up some boundaries. If your mother crosses them, remind her of the promise.
- Small doses may be your solution. Sometimes, taking your mother in tiny doses can help keep the relationship strong while not being too much.
- If all else fails, try seeking help from a family therapist. You may not be equipped to deal with your mother's mindset, but a therapist could.
How do you deal with difficult parents?
Usually, it's the child who is stereotyped as being difficult, but the truth is that parents can be just as bad. When there is a difference of opinion or life path, they may be difficult in accepting it. Obviously, you don't have to change each other's mind, but the goal is to agree to disagree and love each other all the same.
This is another case where a therapist may be your best option. When someone is being difficult, it's hard to be civil, especially if they don't take that. Then, you're the one getting mad and you end up making yourself look like a fool. A therapist can help your parents understand your point, while teaching you better ways to communicate.
How can you tell if someone is toxic?
The term "toxic" has been used a lot recently, and it's one of those terms that's a little subjective. Toxic people and toxic relationships come in all shapes and sizes, and what is toxic for one person may not be for another. With that said, there are some signs that most would agree with being toxic. Here are a few of them.
- Toxic people tend to be guilt-trippy. This means that they will make you feel upset when they don't get their way. Being disappointed is one thing, but a guilt tripper will go on and on until you feel like you have no choice but to obey.
- Toxic people tend to have no respect for boundaries. In a friendship, relationship, or anything else, there are boundaries, and a person who is toxic will try to cross those boundaries, or at the very least lean on them, quite a few times.
- Toxic people tend to be the ones who can never be nice or praise you without it sounding like some kind of backhanded compliment. A backhanded compliment is something that sounds nice at first, but then when you think about it, it's an insult. For example, if you're overweight and are wearing an outfit that shows some skin, someone may say that you're brave and confident for wearing that. It sounds nice, but it also brings your insecurity to the front and acts like wearing clothes is some kind of incredible concept. A real compliment would just be, "You look great.
- Continuing off that one, a toxic person is one who only seems to talk to you when they disagree. You've probably seen this phenomenon on Facebook, where someone never likes your posts or gives support, but if you have an opinion, they'll be the first in line to say how wrong you are.
There are many other signs, but this is a good starting point.
What makes a toxic parent?
A toxic environment and toxic relationships are bad, but the biggest challenge many will face is the toxic parent. A friend who is toxic you can easily cut off, in most cases, but there is a bigger stigma towards a toxic parent, especially if you have to live with them. Here are some signs of a toxic parent.
- They are always overly critical about you. Every decision you make is wrong, and there is no room for disagreement or discussion.
- They want to know where you are at all times. They pass the line between concern and watching you like a hawk, hovering over you whenever they can.
- They won't listen to you because they have a sense of superiority due to them being the parent, even if you're an educated adult.
- The toxic parent just creates a toxic environment. You feel uncomfortable whenever you're around them.
How do you deal with a critical mother?
Any parent is going to have some disagreements with how you lead your life, even if the two of you are quite the same. However, there is a limit, and many critical parents cross it. If you're wondering to yourself, "How can I deal with the relationship with my mother when she's so critical?" here are a few answers.
- Set boundaries. If there is a subject that always causes toxic criticism, you should make it clear that you're not going to take it. Instead, agree to change the subject whenever this is brought up.
- Remember, your parent isn't infallible. If you don't agree with your mother's criticism, don't take it. Instead, live your own life, and tell her that you love her and want to be there, but you're living your life how you see fit.
- With that said, do empathize. Sometimes, a critical mother is coming from a good place, but she may just be taking her criticisms too far. Listen and try to understand where she's coming from, but also be firm and tell her that this is your decision.
What is an overbearing mother?
An overbearing mother is a mother who is extremely critical of everything you do. She will always watch you from behind the shadows, only to pop up when you've done something wrong. Overbearing mothers can hover over you at all times, and are sometimes called helicopter parents. This is another example of toxic parenting, and those who have overbearing mothers can have a lot of problems.
How do you deal with selfish parents?
Selfishness can be hard to deal with. Some people only care about themselves, and don't consider your own feelings. With parents, selfishness can arise.
Usually, it's the child who is stereotyped as selfish, but parents can definitely be selfish as well. We all know a parent who has treated their child with guilt because they didn't make all the decisions they wanted them to.
In order to deal with a selfish parent, it's complicated, but not impossible. Here are a few steps:
- Make your point perfectly clear, and set up some boundaries. If your parent crosses them, remind them of the boundaries.
- Try to have an honest conversation about why your parent is being selfish. By trying to understand each other's perspective, perhaps the two of you can reach common ground.
- Remember, you have to do what's right for you. Sometimes, it's okay to be a little selfish, especially as a response to your parents. Caring for yourself is good, but it crosses the line when you don't have any consideration or empathy for others.
What is critical parenting?
Critical parenting is when parents are overly critical towards their children. Offering constructive criticism is one thing, but a critical parent is one who is never satisfied with what their kid does. A critical parent may ignore their child when the child does succeed in doing something, but then go off with one little misstep.
Children of critical parents may end up having a hard time recognizing emotions, and they may live a life where they're worried they have to walk on eggshells. As a parent, it's important that you don't be overly critical to your child.
What defines a toxic parent?
The term "toxic" is a bit subjective. Someone's behavior can be up to debate as to whether or not it's toxic. With that said, there are some traits a toxic parent has that most people can agree are bad. Here are a few common toxic parent traits.
- They use guilt in order to control you. You can't choose your own career path because your parent wanted you to be something else, and that makes them upset. Any difference you have in life is met by guilt tripping, not a civil difference of opinion.
- Speaking of wish, the parent may act like their happiness depends on what you do. People should be happy on their own, and not make their self-worth reliant on their adult child.
- A toxic parent is someone who doesn't have boundaries. With most relationships, there are boundaries. Maybe you two have a subject, such as a difference in faith, that you agree not to discuss, but then the toxic parent brings it up. With any relationship, it's important that you have boundaries, but toxic parents tend to ignore that.
- They are overly critical of everything you do. There's a difference between having constructive criticism or not agreeing with a life decision, and berating you constantly. A good parent should be one who realizes that you're not going to do everything according to your book.
- A toxic parent is one who will withhold their love until you meet all their criteria. Parental love is something that should happen unconditionally, at least in theory, but toxic parents don't do that. Instead, a toxic parent will act like they don't love you until you're ready to bend to their will.
- A toxic parent makes you afraid to be around them. Even if you're an adult, you still fear your toxic parent, and the pain just doesn't go away.
There are other traits that define a toxic parent or toxic parents, and these are just a few of them.
Dealing with toxic parents is never fun, but learning to take control of your life is incredibly important, and worth doing for your own mental health and wellness.
Why Do Adult Children Still Live With Their Toxic Family?
If you know someone who is an adult, is making money, and lives with their toxic parents, you may wonder why they're doing it. There are many reasons for this, and here are a few reasons why adult children continue to live with their parents.
- Guilt tripping. One sign of a toxic parent is making their adult children feel guilty if they try to have any independence. The toxic parent may say the adult children don't love them anymore if they move. The parent may use a health problem they have or claim to have as an ace in the hole to make the child stay. For a person who may feel guilty easily, this technique may work.
- Threatening to cut them off. While the adult children may have enough money to live, the parent may say that if they move out, they'll never be able to speak to the parents again.
- The parent may be leeching off the child. This does sometimes happen, especially when the parent doesn't work. Their adult children may be paying all the bills or loaning the parent money they aren't going to pay back, which can cause the child to be poor.
- The child or adult children may fear their parents if they try to move out. Quite often, a relationship with a toxic mother, father, or parents in general can feel like an abusive marriage, where fear controls everyone.
If you or someone you know is in a relationship like this, it's important for them to seek help. While they may love their parents, their mental health is much more important.
Can a Toxic Parent Cause Eating Disorders?
Yes, a toxic family member may cause their child to have eating disorders. Some parents can be bullies, telling their children they're overweight or need to lose some pounds. This can lead to poor self-esteem, and with time, the child may develop an eating disorder. It's important to seek help for this whenever possible.
How Do I Set Boundaries With a Toxic Parent?
You may love your parent, but you know that they are toxic. If that's the case, it's important you set boundaries and stick to them.
If the toxic relationship is due to your beliefs, your career, or something else your parent doesn't approve of, make it perfectly clear that you don't want to discuss it. When setting a boundary like this, your parent may try to push it. They may make backhanded comments about it, for example. Don't let these comments slide. Put your foot down or leave the conversation should these boundaries be crossed.
Be clear with your boundaries, and firm. It may take a few attempts, but it may end up working out for you.
How Do I Find a Therapist Who Deals With Toxic Family Members?
When you have toxic family members or parents, one solution is to find a therapist. A therapist can help in many different ways, including:
- Helping you with any mental health problems you're facing due to the toxic people in your life. By improving your mental health, it can allow you to be firm on your communications.
- Being the middle person to a family feud. It's important you find a therapist who can help everyone reach common ground and who can teach people who may have communication problems to talk in a way that's productive and not toxic.
- It's also important you find a therapist who can work individually as well as together with your family. Sometimes, you may not feel comfortable with talking with your family about everything, and if you find a therapist who does both, it can be beneficial.
Can I Find a Therapist Who Reconnects Me With a Family Member?
Adult children and their family members, be it toxic parents or other relatives, may be estranged. A therapist can help you reach out or be the mediator. This is another case where if you find a family therapist who helps with all of that.
If I Find a Therapist, Are There Any Red Flags to Look Out For?
If you're having family issues, it's important you seek help from a therapist as soon as possible, but you also need to have a therapist who will help you. Here are a couple of therapist red flags.
- The therapist needs to be as neutral as possible. During a family session, your therapist shouldn't be your best friend who gangs up on your parents, and they shouldn't be scolding you and siding with your parents. They need to bridge gaps between adult children and their family members.
- During individual therapy, what you say is confidential. Your therapist is not someone who should be telling your family members what you say. In fact, they could get in trouble for doing that.
- It's important you find a therapist who uses proven techniques to help repair relationships. When you find a therapist, do a little research. Read some reviews if you must.
Dealing with toxic parents is never fun, but learning to take control of your life is incredibly important, and worth doing for your own mental health and wellness.