How To Tell If You Have A Toxic Mother

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated May 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Family dynamics can be complicated, especially those between parents and adult children. If your relationship with your mother is tense or even harmful, you’re not alone. Here’s how to recognize toxicity in a parent child relationship, plus some tips on how to handle it so you can hopefully stop thinking, "I hate my mother."

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Have a complicated relationship with your mother?

Eight common characteristics of a toxic mother

Parenthood is challenging, and no parent is perfect. It’s not uncommon for all parents to display some of the characteristics on this list from time to time. However, their negative behavior may be demonstrating toxic patterns when they regularly or constantly embody two or more of them. Your parent may be toxic if your relationship with them is characterized by…

  1. Constant harsh criticism
  2. Controlling behavior
  3. Guilt-tripping and manipulation (e.g., making you feel guilty when they have health issues)
  4. Humiliation
  5. Invalidation of the child’s feelings and emotions
  6. Passive aggression, such as the silent treatment
  7. Disrespect of personal boundaries
  8. A lack of reciprocation
The aim of recognizing signs of a toxic mom is not to demonize her, but to help you. Such a dynamic can have a negative effect on your own life and relationships, so becoming aware of it is the first step. Additional steps to address the situation can include not making excuses for her behavior and setting boundaries. Let’s take a closer look at some of these toxic behaviors so you can notice when they’re happening and take action. Note that a toxic relationship with one’s parent can take many different forms and that this list is not exhaustive.

What is a toxic mother?

Constant criticism

A parent who constantly criticizes everything around them is likely creating a toxic environment for the people in their life, including their children. It may seem like nothing is ever good enough for this person and their “editor-in-chief” tendencies, and they likely display signs of toxic perfectionism. If you grew up around someone like this, you may have even developed a harsh inner critic for yourself that mirrors their impossible standards and judgments. Another toxic situation is when parents constantly compare their children. When a parent always appreciates your sister and you are always bombarded with criticisms, this can make you think "I hate my sister too." This type of parent may make you feel like you’re lacking, no matter what you do, which can lead to mental health challenges.

Controlling behavior

A mother with controlling tendencies will make her opinions known and may even force them on others. She usually has strong feelings about everything in your life—something that likely hasn’t changed now that you’re an adult. She may not hesitate to give instructions about how you should live, and probably doesn’t hold back when she disagrees with your choice of clothing, career, or partner, for instance. Pushing back against her strong opinions can be difficult or may even feel impossible, especially since this may be a dynamic that has existed between you since you were a child.

Guilt-tripping and manipulation

Some parents may use manipulation in a variety of ways to get what they want. For example, they may work to make you feel guilty or responsible for their bad behavior, especially when they can’t get their way. They may know exactly what emotional button to press to get you to give in. They are experts in what makes you tick because they know you so well, and they may use this skill to get their way or simply to exercise control that makes them feel superior or in charge.


This toxic trait can be subtle or brutally direct. It often takes the form of jokes that are harmful and inappropriate, which your mother may even make in front of family and friends. If you confront her about these comments, a toxic mother’s reaction is typically to brush it off, saying that you’re too sensitive and can’t take a joke or a piece of advice. This kind of verbal abuse is generally another form of her exercising power over you and can be harmful both because of the impact of what she says as well as the gaslighting and dismissal of your feelings, which can cause low self-esteem. 

Invalidation of your emotions

Toxic relationships with a parent may make someone feel like their emotions are incorrect, inconvenient, or too much. Your parent may belittle, criticize, or challenge you when you express yourself, making you feel like you can’t honestly tell them anything or be who you truly are. Such invalidation is especially common if your feelings relate to unhappiness, anger, or frustration with the way your parent treats you, or if they involve any other negative emotion toward them. 

Passive aggression

Passive aggression is when someone indirectly expresses their negative emotions. It could manifest as sulking, self-pity, silent treatment, victimization, or sarcasm when they’re unhappy with something. When a parent displays this type of behavior, it’s a way of avoiding confrontation at all costs while making their disapproval known in all kinds of other ways.

Disrespect of personal boundaries

Mothers who disrespect your personal boundaries as an adult may still be treating you like a child. She may act inappropriately toward you, ignoring that you’re a fully capable adult with their own life and need for space. These behaviors could include opening and reading your mail without permission, picking up your phone to read your texts, contacting your friends to discuss you, or showing up at your home unannounced. When you push back against these boundary violations, she will likely claim it’s her right as your mother, say she was just trying to help, or insinuate that you’re overreacting.

A lack of reciprocation

As adults, some people are very close with their parents and may even describe their relationship as a friendship. This dynamic in adulthood is not inherently toxic and can be quite fulfilling. However, such a relationship may cross the line into toxicity when your parent relies on you as their best friend and support system, and when the relationship revolves around them and their life. They may insist that their problems and feelings always be the focus. They may show jealousy toward their other friends or partners if it means they receive less attention. There’s a clear lack of reciprocity, which is generally not the foundation for any healthy relationship.


Potential effects of a toxic relationship with your mother

If your relationship with your mother is characterized by some or many of the dynamics listed above, it’s likely to affect you in a variety of ways. Constant criticism may leave you feeling like you’re never good enough or that there’s something inherently wrong with you. Controlling behavior may make you believe that you’ll only be loved if you remain obedient, small, and powerless. Manipulation may have you questioning what’s true or right. Humiliation can negatively impact your self-esteem and make you question your feelings, as can invalidation of your emotions. Passive aggression can give you an unhealthy view of communication and conflict resolution. Disrespect of your boundaries and a one-sided relationship can make you feel like you’re not worthy of being loved the way you want and deserve. If you experienced child abuse,* including physical abuse or emotional abuse,* while growing up with this parenting dynamic, you may have unresolved trauma that is causing further complications. 

In addition to the pain you may experience in the moment as a result of these types of interactions with your mother, the suffering may be long-lasting and develop into toxic stress A dynamic like this could take a toll on your self-esteem over the long term. You may even develop a mental health disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorder, depression, or an eating disorder as a result of the tension. 

It could also warp your view of what a healthy relationship looks like and potentially impact or shape all other social relations in your life. For instance, you may not feel comfortable being your full self with others. You may have a high tolerance for being treated poorly and not think twice about doing the majority of the emotional labor in a relationship. You could also be prone to self-sabotage because you don’t believe that you’re deserving of a healthy or loving relationship with someone, or that it’s truly possible.

Have a complicated relationship with your mother?

Seeking help in healing with a toxic mother

Your relationship with the person who raised you is one of the most formative of your life. Whether you realize it or not, your dynamic with them throughout childhood and now as an adult may be impacting other areas of your life. If you’re looking to unpack these effects, gain a greater sense of self-awareness, heal from any adult or childhood trauma related to the relationship, and learn how to better assure yourself going forward, therapy may help. A therapist can provide you with a safe, nonjudgmental space where you can express difficult emotions and sort out complicated ones. They can help you identify unhealthy patterns and find out how to set firm boundaries for the future, including cutting ties with a toxic parent if necessary. If it feels like you’ve been going head to head against your mother for your entire life, the listening ear of a therapist can feel deeply validating and healing. 

You can seek therapy in different ways, according to what’s most comfortable and convenient for you. For those who lack options for providers in their area, have a busy schedule and no time to commute to a therapist’s office, or simply prefer engaging in therapy from the comfort of their own home, virtual therapy is an option. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist whom you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address your concerns. Since research suggests that this format offers similar benefits to the traditional, in-person therapy style, you can feel confident that you’ll receive helpful, compassionate care with whichever method you choose. If you’re interested in online therapy, read on for client reviews of BetterHelp counselors.

Counselor reviews

"I have had three encounters with 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 as I navigate a tough situation with my family. She's understanding and compassionate and non-judgmental."


It can be challenging to deal with a toxic parent and prevent their behaviors from weighing on you. Recognizing these behaviors is the first step; setting firm boundaries is typically the next. For support in this process, it may be useful to connect with a therapist. If you don’t feel comfortable with in-office therapy, you may benefit from speaking with a licensed online therapist. If you experienced a toxic environment growing up or if you currently have toxic relationships with family, a therapist may be able to help you unpack your experiences so that you can heal and move forward confidently. Whether you’d like to explore child relationships or recent challenges with a toxic mother, there is help available. Take the first step toward getting support with managing a toxic mother and contact BetterHelp today.
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