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Child Development

5 Destructive Effects of a Toxic Childhood

Why the default positions of self-blame and pleasing others are so destructive.

"I panic when there’s fighting or any kind of conflict. Even a minor disagreement. My parents fought and yelled at me too, and I just learned to duck. But being a doormat isn’t good for me or for my marriage either." —“Trina,” 53

"My problem is that I’m a peacekeeper. I always have been. But the cost of keeping the peace is never having your opinion respected. Never being heard. It has wrecked my friendships for sure and has hurt me at my job. I am always saying ‘I’m sorry.’" —“Ginger,” 38

Photograph by Toa Heftiba. Copyright free. Unsplash.
Source: Photograph by Toa Heftiba. Copyright free. Unsplash.

It’s absolutely true that being able to apologize and say those words, especially if you’ve made a mistake or have been in the wrong, is an indication of good character and fine emotional regulation. But there are those who are so anxious to avoid conflict that they effectively prevent themselves from saying anything else. Often, this is unconscious behavior learned in childhood, which, alas, has profound consequences in adult life.

Daughters are more likely than sons to become pleasers and apologists, in part because our culture is much more tolerant when boys (and later men) express anger than when girls (and women) do, and there’s a tendency to mistrust or think less of women who get angry. That’s exactly what a study by Jessica Salerno and Loma Peter-Hagene found. Participants in the study thought they were part of a real jury, but the scenario was scripted, with four jurors supporting the verdict and one supposed “hold-out.” The hold-outs were given a male or female name and expressed their opinions with no emotion, anger, or fear. It turns out that the hold-out didn’t change the jurors’ original opinion, except that when a supposed male hold-out expressed anger, the participant’s confidence in the verdict dropped. But when a “female” hold-out expressed anger, participants became significantly more confident in their original verdict. Note that both the “male” and “female” hold-outs expressed the same opinion in the same way. It’s worth remembering that the English language has a raft of gender-specific words, like shrew, fishwife, battle ax, and bitch, for women who display anger.

But there are other reasons daughters become peacemakers, and sons tend not to. Sons who duck conflict are more likely to be criticized or mocked for being a wuss or a coward. While being a peacemaker provides cover for a girl, it pins a target on the back of a boy. As William Pollack so eloquently explained in his book Real Boys 20 years ago, anger is one of the very few emotions the cultural vision of manhood and masculinity permits, and so, not surprisingly, many unloved sons tend to grow up to be angry men, and many unloved daughters become peacemakers and apologists, though not all. It’s worth noting that, as Dr. Pollack puts it, “Unfortunately, it is through anger . . . that most boys express their vulnerability and powerlessness.”

Snapshots of the family of origin

Buried in a daughter’s emotional history are the roots of her behaviors in the present; they are the offshoots of defensive or self-protective behaviors unconsciously adopted in childhood. Unless she’s been in therapy, the chances are good that she doesn’t see these behaviors as learned, but just part of who she is and always has been, pieces of her essential character and personality. But no one is born to please or appease, and the moment at which the daughter recognizes that is the moment at which she embarks on the journey of reclaiming herself. As I explain in my book Daughter Detox, daughters learn to hide in plain sight for different reasons.

Some daughters who grow up with highly combative or critical mothers learn that there is safety in flying under the radar, and trying — however they can — to placate and please. That was “Gina’s” story, now 52:

“My mother believed in tough love before it had a name; she believed that coddling made you weak and showing emotions was a sign of weakness. She belittled me and my brother if we cried so we learned not to. He rebelled, and I became the anticipator of her needs, racing around to do chores and things so she would be happy with me. But she never was. I still have trouble asserting myself in life; it’s hard for me get up the nerve to say no to anyone.”

Alas, Gina isn’t alone; daughters frequently tell me how they have difficulty dealing with demands or conflicts, and that their default position is to do whatever they can to fix whatever it is in the moment. Of course, that means that you basically have to render yourself, your thoughts, and your own needs and wishes invisible, and say you’re sorry whether you are or not.

Daughters of emotionally unavailable or dismissive mothers become pleasers in an effort to get their mothers’ attention, although it’s worth noting that the opposite tack — becoming a troublemaker or being combative herself — can also be part of the same maladaptive behavior. Despite the apparent differences, the pleaser and the rebel share the same goal of getting their mothers to notice them and care. They just use positive or negative approaches. But their reasons for pleasing are the opposite of those daughters of controlling, hypercritical, or combative mothers: These girls want to get on their mothers’ radar. In adult life, this specific need-to-please can create lots of emotional turmoil, especially in friendships. That was the case for “Patti,” age 56.

"I am the person who never says no, and I end up giving 150 percent in every relationship. But the problem is that even though I feel good helping others and going that extra mile and being thanked, there’s also always a moment when I start feeling used and resentful. Most of my friendships and partnerships end because I get tired of being the one carrying the burden. My therapist has pointed out that this is an old pattern of mine, one I learned trying to get my mother to acknowledge me. I always felt I was invisible which, for an only child, is very hard. I always have something to prove."

Daughters of mothers high in narcissistic traits learn that to gain their mothers’ favor, they must accept their mothers’ rules for what matters and reflect well on them at all times; they respond to their childhood treatment by becoming what Dr. Craig Malkin has called echoists, or people who actually lack healthy narcissism, in his book Rethinking Narcissism. Like the nymph Echo, who fell in love with Narcissus in the original Greek myth and could only repeat words spoken by others, this daughter has no sense of her own needs and wishes, and she has no voice of her own. Even though she may seem to be a pleaser or apologist, her main goal is to pass through unnoticed, out of the spotlight and off center-stage. Unless she begins to understand the origins of her trait — Dr. Malkin makes it clear that echoism is a trait, not a diagnosis — she will be attracted to those who also need people for their own self-validation.

There are clearly common threads in all of these patterns that shape daughters in their families of origins, but there are also noteworthy differences.

What happens to these adult daughters’ relationships?

These old default positions — internalized as a way of coping in childhood — get carried into adulthood as maladaptive behaviors with real consequences. The problem is that they are difficult to change until they’re consciously recognized, along with their source. Drawn from the research and interviews I did for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, following are some of the most common effects on the daughter’s adult behaviors.

1. Reverts to blaming herself

The words “I’m sorry” burble up out of nowhere, regardless of whether they’re called for, because her childhood taught her to take the blame for everything, including her mother’s mistreatment. Needless to say, this habit is catnip to those who love control, but it can also be incredibly frustrating to someone with secure attachment who really wants to be able to talk things through. Additionally, the chances are good that while she’s apologizing to placate her friend, lover, or spouse, she may also start at the unfairness of it all and get angry. Daughters with an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment are always on high alert for betrayal and rejection, which prompts their placating, but means they’re also emotionally volatile. Unwittingly, her avoidance of conflict often creates conflict and drama.

Not understanding the difference between taking responsibility for your actions and always blaming yourself hobbles the daughter in many ways in all of her relationships. It’s only when she begins to connect the dots between her present-day reactions and her past experiences that she can begin to see what drives her and can start to change.

2. Avoids any dialogue that seems contentious

For the daughter of a combative or controlling mother, folding her tents at the first sign of disagreement is a reflex action, born out of years of going along to get along. While this may seem like a good thing, it means that she really cuts out the minute talking something through that is necessary. That’s not a good thing, because in order to thrive, both parties in a relationship have to be free to voice disagreement. Once again, the daughter may so frustrate her partner that her behavior will elicit the contentiousness she’s trying to avoid, except it will be escalated.

3. Unable to voice her own needs and wants

The sad truth is that many of these daughters actually don’t know what they want or need; they stopped listening to themselves years before and, in a way more literal than not, don’t know themselves well enough or see themselves clearly enough to recognize their own longings or desires. Of course, you can’t give voice to thoughts that are buried deep inside, out of conscious sight. Other daughters are simply too afraid to speak out; they are committed to the path of avoidance, either consciously or unconsciously, and to staying in their partners’ favor. The irony, of course, is that freed from childhood, the daughter recreates the emotional circumstances of her family of origin in adulthood through her old learned behaviors.

They are often unhappy without knowing why and seek out therapy for that very reason. Not surprisingly, many unloved daughters wake up to the realization that they have, indeed, either partnered with or married someone who treats them just as their unloving mothers did.

4. Doesn’t trust her own perceptions

She may have been gaslighted by her mother, father, or other family members: told again that what she believes happened didn’t, that she’s making it up or lying, or that she’s simply too “sensitive” or “over-dramatic.” It’s very hard when you’re young and these criticisms come from the voice of authority to buck what’s being said about you. (As I’ve written before, my mother gaslighted me all the time, and by the time I was 7, I knew one of us had to be crazy. That is a terrifying thought for a kid to entertain on every level.) Even if she hasn’t been gaslighted, the lack of validation from her mother, along with her assumption that she’s to blame for her mother’s treatment of her, will be enough to develop a deep well of self-doubt. That double stream of blame and self-doubt can harden into a foundation of self-criticism, which is the habit of blaming every misstep and mistake on your own fixed character flaws; research shows that self-criticism is robustly associated with depression in adulthood.

If you doubt your own feelings and thoughts, the real danger is that should you be lucky enough to run into a genuinely loving person, you may not be able to recognize what you have. The requirements of a dyadic relationship — open and sharing — may seem threatening in a way that a relationship with someone controlling or high in narcissistic traits does not. Yes, this is sad and sometimes true.

5. Confuses control with strength

This is a continuation from the other points in one way, and a new thread in another, which is more complicated than not. Think about it for a moment: When you are cut off from your inner self in meaningful ways and don’t trust your perceptions, the world of relationships seems like a perilous place, and like you’re in a rudderless, leaky boat, navigating its waters. Under those circumstances, it’s very easy to confuse the grandiose statements of someone high in narcissistic traits with self-assurance and determination; similarly, it’s easy to mistake the actions and words of someone high in control for those of someone who is an independent thinker and strong in character. Of course, the behaviors the daughter has adopted in response to her childhood experiences — placating and pleasing, quashing her reactions, avoiding confrontation — make her appealing to these partners. But the truth is that, initially at least, they are appealing to her.

Are these words always on the tip of your tongue? Perhaps now is the time to explore why.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

Copyright © Peg Streep 2019


Salerno, Jessica and Liana Peter-Hagene, “One Angry Woman: Anger Expression Increases Influence for Men, But Decreases Influence for Women During Group Deliberation,” (2015) Law and Human Behavior,39 (6), 581-592.

Pollock, William. Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.

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