Why Do I Still Feel Like a Child When I'm a Grown Up Woman?

Why daughters of narcissistic mothers get stuck in child-time.

Posted Jul 20, 2020

So many of the women I work with who have grown up with narcissistic mothers find that it’s not until they reach their forties or fifties that the difficulties that have perhaps plagued them throughout their lives become so debilitating that they need to seek help. 

One concern that keeps popping up is a feeling of “feeling like a child." What does feeling like a child involve?

Inability to make decisions

Often this child-like sense involves an inability to make autonomous decisions and the need to check in with other people and sources before deciding on a course of action. As an adult, with a lifetime of experience, whilst it’s no bad thing to do your research and ask for informed opinions, you would ideally be the best person to judge what is or isn’t right for you.

Adult daughters of narcissistic mothers often lack this capacity and want someone else to make the call for them. This is perfectly understandable when you consider how controlling and dominating narcissistic mothers are and that you may have grown up in an environment where making a decision that went against that of your mother would potentially have created a strong negative reaction on her part. 

Conflict avoidance

When you’ve grown up with a narcissistic mother, you’ll be aware of the consequences of going against her. Whether it resulted in a rage or manipulative tears, standing up for yourself probably placed you in a scary position. As a result, you learn to avoid causing conflict.

This is one strategy for children of narcissistic mothers and, if you carry it on to adulthood, it places you in a very disempowered position, meaning that you can’t express your needs or opinion for fear of causing offence, hurt, or anger in someone else. When you continue to act this way into adulthood, you can end up feeling like you’re stuck in childhood.

Need for approval

If you have been raised by a narcissistic mother, it’s likely that her love for you was expressed on a “conditional” basis. For instance, she may have given you love and attention in return for you looking after her emotional needs or doing well at school.

As a result, your own sense of self can become very dependent on others’ approval and this can become a driver for your decisions. Instead of choosing a course in life that is fundamentally right for you, you choose to act in a way that is going to get you the attention and approval of others, just like that child trying desperately hard to get the approval of her mother. 

You put other people first

If you learned as a child that the best way to receive love and attention and to keep your mother satisfied was to put her needs first, you may find yourself continuing to do so as an adult. Becoming a fully rounded adult involves learning about who you are, what you like, and what you need to feel fulfilled. If you don’t take the time and space to do this — to learn about who you are — you can stay trapped in a childish state of people-pleasing in a desperate attempt to keep the peace and feel valued. 

Primary identity as a daughter

Many daughters of narcissistic mothers continue to see their primary identity as that of daughter, no matter how many other roles they play in life. When their identity as daughter has been shaped by what their often critical, demanding, and controlling mother expects, they continue to refer to this version of themselves primarily. Because it's this "daughter self" that has become stuck in the past, it's hard to move beyond feeling like a child. 

You want things to be different with your mother

This is one of the most heartbreaking things I see with the adult women I work with. No matter what age they are, they hang onto a belief that things can be different with their mother. Unfortunately, narcissistic mothers rarely know that they have a problem of any sort, and generally react very strongly to being told they may have some issues that need working on.

You may be at a stage in your life where you are gaining a clearer perspective on some of the things that have happened between you and your mother that have led to you to this point. You may think that with the right discussion or a change in your actions that your mother will follow suit and you can have a relationship with her that you desire. Unfortunately, the final stage of growing up often involves realising that your mother isn’t going to change and you may never have the relationship you desire with her.

This reality check can be harsh and difficult to deal with. But it does open up the possibility of having a relationship that is safe and manageable for you — even if it isn’t what you would have ideally wanted.

Often, clients express dismay that they have reached the age they have and they still feel childish in this way; but when reality hasn’t surfaced fully until later in life, it’s easy to see why they have such an impact. It is important to move through this child-time, with the help of a professional if needed, so that you can begin to embrace your adult self. 

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.