Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

Mother & Daughter Dysfunction: 4 Toxic Relationship Types

Problematic relationships with Mom can make Mother's Day an obligation.

A good relationship with Mom is worth it many ways, so let's take a moment and think about the quality of your relationship with your mother, and ask yourself if there are ways that you can improve it. Ideally, the mother/adult child relationship is defined by a mutual respect and acceptance. But for many, this isn’t the case. In my clinical work, I have found that there are several types of mother-adult child relationships that can result in “mom-flicts”:

COMPETITORS:

Some grown children play out a life-long power struggle with their mothers, constantly seeking the approval of the other but never getting it. Both mother and grown child feel frustrated and misunderstood. Neither wants to believe that they are competitive and will often see the other as the guilty culprit.

STUCK IN THE PAST:

The grown child and mother maintain the same dynamic as during childhood. The mother continues to be overprotective, while the grown child obeys her and avoids confrontation. Romantic partners are often resentful, frustrated with the mother for overstepping her boundaries and with their partner for not standing up to her. This is a “three-person couple.”

CODEPENDENTS:

An invisible umbilical cord still connects mother and adult child, where daily phone calls, emails, and text messages define communication. Though the relationship looks close, it’s often unhealthy, with secret resentments and fears.

THE FREEZER:

There’s little to no emotional connection. Mother and child feel obligation, but neither shares any meaningful or intimate details about their personal lives. There is usually a personality mismatch, where neither would likely be interested in having a relationship if not biologically related.

To resolve common “mom-flicts” that may stem from these types of relationships, there are several steps that you can take.

First, show appreciation of your Mom by investing in the relationship like a Roth IRA. You can’t repair it without regular and consistent effort—even a five-minute phone call with realistic frequency, once a week to twice a month. Try what I call “Random Reach-Outs”—surprise calls or spur of the moment drop-bys—where your goal is to simply connect and say a quick hello. Also consider trying what I (figuratively) call “Dates with Your Mom,” which involves planning an activity for the two of you to spend quality alone time without the distractions of significant others or kids. Remember that small gestures—like making a significant effort on mom’s birthday with a care package or sending mom an old happy family photo of the two of you—will make a big impact.

Routine “mom-flict” with your Mom also calls for a direct discussion in which you address the relationship issues. Try a Quid Pro Quo method, where mother and child each pick one behavior they’re willing to change, and make it a friendly competition, to see who can actually follow through on their word.

Finally, keep your expectations realistic. You may never have a skipping-down-the-street relationship with your Mom, so use what therapists call positive self-talk—or mantras, to everyone else—to keep things in perspective. Put a stop to inevitable tension by coming up with one or two sentences designed to calm rising anger when you feel an argument approaching, things you can tell yourself in the heat of the moment, including something like, “She can really bother me, but it doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.”

Ultimately, in the vast majority of cases, Moms have the best intentions with their children and do they best they can to love and support their kids.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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