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8 Things That Toxic Mothers Do

Marginalizing, scapegoating, and more.

Key points

  • A parent not only creates the world a child inhabits but also dictates how it is to be interpreted.
  • An unloved daughter’s core conflict is her recognition of how she’s been wounded by her mother and her hunger for her mother’s approval and love.
  • Toxic maternal behavior can include things like guilt-tripping, shaming, and gaslighting.
Photograph by Eli Difaria. Copyright free. Unsplash.
Source: Photograph by Eli Difaria. Copyright free. Unsplash.

Not long ago, I got the following message from a reader:

"Well, I did it. After a year of no contact, I was feeling down and I called my mother and she sounded happy to talk. So I had instant amnesia and went to see her on Saturday. How could I have been so clueless? It didn’t take more than 15 minutes for it to become the same old same old. Has she memorized a script? I left after an hour, utterly diminished. Is this me being beyond dumb, or has anyone else done this?”

If you’re curious about how I answered, I told her it happens so often that I actually have a phrase for it in my writing: going back to the well. The phrase conveys the disparity between what you know intellectually—that the well is dry—and what you desperately want emotionally, which is a well of mother love that is replenished and flowing. If you have found yourself setting boundaries and then tearing them down, going low or no contact and then reinstating communication once again only to be faced with the same scripts, know that you’re not alone. If it’s any help, I did it for close to 20 years between the ages of 20 and 40. In fact, research shows that this back-and-forth—escaping from your mother’s orbit and then going back again—is more typical than not.

The larger problem is that there’s a script written by your mother, and you’re a bit player. Yes, there’s a writer/director, and she owns the stage.

Power and the mother-daughter relationship

Understandably since we prefer to believe in the universality of mother love—a myth that permeates the culture—we shy away from seeing the inherent power of a parent and the possibility of abuse of power; we like to think of mothers as benevolent and caring rulers, keepers of a peaceable kingdom, but that’s not always the case. As Deborah Tannen so cogently put it in her book, You’re Wearing That? Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, a parent not only creates the world a child inhabits but also dictates how it is to be interpreted. As young children, we understand what goes on in our family—things that are said and done, how people act and react—because our mothers do the interpreting for us.

And, not surprisingly, interactions and behaviors—even abusive and toxic ones—get normalized; as children, we assume that every household is pretty much like ours, and the recognition that other families function differently may come slowly. Additionally, that recognition can absolutely co-exist with our continued acceptance of how things are in our family. We justify our mothers yelling at us: We’re bad or too sloppy or don’t listen. We accept getting called names, because we wrongly believe those words reflect who we are—“difficult,” “lazy,” “disobedient,” “stupid.” We think our brothers or sisters get treated differently than we do, because they are good, admirable, and lovable, and we are not.

Recognition arrives at the pace of molasses, not lava.

Adulthood and the core conflict

Most unloved daughters believe that adulthood will free them from the hurt of being unloved, as I certainly did; it comes as a wrenching surprise that moving into the larger world, vacating their childhood rooms, does little to quell either the pain or their continuing need for their mother’s love and support. This is what I call “the core conflict” in my book, Daughter Detox: the conflict between the daughter’s growing recognition of how she’s been wounded by her mother and her hunger for her mother’s approval and love. As long as the daughter remains conflicted, she’s more likely to normalize, explain away, or flat-out deny her mother’s treatment than not and to do what she can to beat down her perceptions of her mother’s behaviors. This is the part I call “the dance of denial.”

This dance can go on for years and years, by the way, or as long as the daughter remains conflicted. I have readers who stayed conflicted for six and seven decades of their lives.

8 common varieties of toxic maternal behavior

Keep in mind that what may prevent you from recognizing these behaviors as toxic is how used to them you are; the metaphor I always use is that of the pile of boots and shoes left by the door in winter. It doesn’t take long to get so used to seeing the pile that you no longer notice it, and alas, mistreatment is really no different. To keep the peace, go along to get along, or if you’re still unsure how to deal with your family situation, you may also openly rationalize her behaviors, saying, “She doesn’t really mean it,” or “It’s just the way she is.” You may be encouraged to do just that by other family members who are invested in your not rocking the boat and maintaining the status quo.

That said, these are all abusive and toxic behaviors. Make no mistake about that.

1. Shaming and Blaming

This may start in childhood, magnifying small mishaps into full-scale dress-downs in front of other people or simply blaming the daughter for her mistake by attributing it to her flawed nature; shaming is highly personalized and usually expressed as “You always” or “You never.” Done often enough, these messages are internalized by the child in the form of self-criticism, the habit of mind that attributes errors or failures to fixed character flaws; this habit becomes a fixture that lasts into adulthood until it is recognized and addressed.

Many studies show that self-criticism and poor mental health, especially depression, go hand-in-hand.

2. Guilt-Tripping

This is Mom playing the victim and the child being reminded how derelict she is, most usually after “all” the mother has done for her. While it has its roots in the daughter’s childhood, it is used to even greater effect in the daughter’s adulthood, especially if she tries to establish boundaries or regulate contact with her parent. “Adele’s” experience as she recounted it is reminiscent of many others:

"Every time I talk back or try to make a point about her nastiness, she hangs up. Within days, I hear from someone else in the family—perhaps my aunt, my father, or a cousin—that my mother is ill and distraught, and it’s my fault. The messenger then criticizes me for my cruelty, laying the groundwork for my mother’s ‘poor me’ saga. It is maddening. And, yes, a part of me always feels guilty. Even though I know I am being played.”

Adele’s story is pretty typical because guilt is reinforced by cultural expectations and a Biblical Commandment; it’s an easy button to push.

3. Playing the Comparison Game

Favoritism in families isn’t limited to drama queen mothers; it even happens in healthy and loving families often enough that Parental Differential Treatment has an acronym for ease—PDT. But PDT is usually not deliberate, even though it does affect the children in the family; sometimes, it has to do with the mother’s own “goodness of fit” with one child and not another (she finds it easier to deal with a child whose personality is more like hers, for example) or is more comfortable with a child who needs less support than one who needs more (or vice versa).

The toxic mother plays favorites to maintain her control over her children—manipulating their need to be favored—and to shape the relationship among and between siblings. It’s conscious and deliberate and usually rationalized. (She criticizes you mercilessly so you don’t get too full of yourself, she compares you to your sibling to motivate you, etc.) Being an only child doesn’t exempt you, by the way; there are always cousins, neighbors, or even celebrities to make a negative comparison (“Why aren’t you more like her? Why can’t you make me proud the way her mother is?”).

4. Covert or Passive Aggression

The mother may display passive or covert aggression toward her child—most of the behaviors listed here don’t involve screaming or yelling—but I have included this because children’s development is directly affected by how parents relate to each other and to others in the family. A longitudinal study by Patrick T. Davies and colleagues looked at children at three intervals—kindergarten, second grade, and seventh grade—and compared the effects of overt and covert interparental conflict at different ages. The differences were revealing and worth keeping in mind as you consider how your parents worked out their differences and how that might have affected you.

While children exposed to overt hostility, including verbal anger, stonewalling, nonverbal anger, and physical aggression, internalized symptoms by second grade and showed behavioral deregulation and avoidance of conflict, the children exposed to covert hostility externalized their symptoms at the same interval, being emotionally reactive and involving themselves in conflict. The young adolescents exposed to open hostility continued to internalize by seventh grade and were anxious, withdrawn, had trouble sleeping, and were depressed. The adolescents exposed to the more covert type of parental conflict had trouble regulating behaviors like paying attention in class, were aggressive, and were prone to breaking rules.

5. Gaslighting

While usually associated with adult relationships, the sad truth is that parents also gaslight their children. Gaslighting a child is incredibly easy and horribly effective, because parents are authority figures in every sense, and when they tell you that something didn’t happen, you’re very likely to believe it. (I might have been the exception to the rule, because I knew by the age of 6 or 7 that my recollection of events or things that had been said was just fine, thank you very much. Unfortunately, it had the effect of making me think that either my mother or I was crazy, and the idea that I might be crazy was absolutely terrifying.)

Gaslighting is extremely damaging to a child who, in the best of all possible worlds, should be learning to trust her emotions and thoughts and honing her skills at reading other people; instead, gaslighting acts like a machete, cutting down her early efforts and substituting self-doubt and blame instead. That was Robyn’s experience:

"My mother would make promises, break them, and tell me she never made them. I now know that’s gaslighting. When my brother hit me, she’d blame me for egging him on, and then when I protested, she’d say it was my fault. That’s gaslighting too. Or she’d just deny something happened. Period. She’d stand in the kitchen, her hands on her hips, and call me a liar or ask why I was a liar. Wow. Therapy gave me eyes.”

The good news about parental gaslighting—as opposed to partner gaslighting—is that getting older helps you see it.

6. Marginalizing or Mocking You

Mothers high in control or narcissistic traits orchestrate the relationships among and between the children in the family—that’s what favoritism is about in part—but making one child the butt of family derision is another way of keeping everyone in line. Mocking a child’s feelings or thoughts, either through words or contemptuous gestures, such as eye-rolling or laughter, isn’t just cruel but abusive and, yes, helps her self-doubt and even self-hatred to flourish.

Even in adulthood, always being told that your opinion is silly or stupid or that “No one cares what you think” is all about power and manipulation and is not to be excused or tolerated. Caring about someone involves mutual respect.

7. Scapegoating

In my opinion, the single most resonant observation on scapegoating was offered by Gary Gemmill, who noted that the presence of a scapegoat allows a group or family and its members to believe that they are healthier than they really are. Having someone to pin the blame on—whether that’s a permanent role assigned to one person or a rotating one—allows you to think that things would be perfect if that one person weren’t around. Scapegoating, then, allows the mother who relishes control and needs to burnish her image to have a ready and reassuring explanation at hand. It’s no wonder that narcissistic mothers rely on it.

8. Stonewalling

Acting as though someone hasn’t spoken and refusing to answer are direct ways of expressing extreme contempt, and while it’s humiliating and painful to experience as an adult, it’s absolutely devastating for a child, especially coming from a parent. One reader shared her experience:

"The silent treatment as my mother practiced it was terrifying; it could go on for days, which is pretty much an eternity when you are 6 or 7 years old. She’d look right through you like you weren’t there, and it felt as if I had been disappeared from the world. I did what I could not to anger her and to stay out of her line of sight; I said little and did less because I was afraid. My panic attacks when a teacher called on me started in high school, and it was a therapist who connected my fear of speaking up or asserting myself to my mother’s treatment when I got to college.”

Once you have recognized these behaviors and their effect on you, you will have to figure out how to set boundaries with your mother. Abuse is not OK.

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Tannen, Deborah. You’re Wearing That? Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. New York: Ballantine, 2006.

Gemmill, Gary. “The Dynamics of Scapegoating in Small Groups, Small Group Research (November, 1989), vol, 20 (4), pp. 406-418.

Cummings, E. Mark, Melissa R.W. George, Kathleen P. McCoy, and Patrick T. Davies,” Interparental Conflict in Kindergarten and Adolescent Adjustment: Prospective Investigation of Emotional Security as an Explanatory Mechanism,” Child Development (2012), 83 (5), 1703-1715.

Davies, Patrick T., Rochelle Hentges, Jesse L. Coe, Meredith J. Martin, Melissa L. Sturge-Apple, and E. Mark Cummins, “The Multiple Faces of Interparental Confllict: Implications for Cascades of Children’s Insecurity and Externalizing Problems,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology (2016), 125 (5), 664.-678.

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