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Child Development

The Unloving Mother and Her Daughter's Dance of Denial

Sometimes, we are the biggest obstacles to our growth and recovery.

"How could I not see how she belittled me for years and years? Was I blind or what? It was my second husband who finally staged an intervention of sorts, sitting me down, with a list of moments he deemed unacceptable. And you know what? The words out of my mouth were ‘But she’s my mother.’ I fought him until I finally listened." —"Tracy," 49

Photograph by Astrobel Luna. Copyright free. Unsplsh
Source: Photograph by Astrobel Luna. Copyright free. Unsplsh

One of the more counterintuitive things about being raised in a toxic or dysfunctional household is that the recognition of how unhealthy it was is often slow in coming. And by “slow,” I mean years and possibly decades. Some daughters recognize early—I was one of them—but remain emotionally hamstrung about how to deal and nonetheless rationalize and deny, ever hopeful that they can change or fix the relationship with their mothers. But many feel the pain of their mothers’ treatment and remain unable to admit to it. Let me explain why.

The reasons are both complicated and incredibly simple, because human infants and babies need love and a sense of belonging to thrive and come of age. This is true not just of humans, but also of mammals in general. As the authors of the brilliant book, A General Theory of Love, put it: ”The lack of an attuned mother is a non-event for a reptile and a shattering injury to the complex and fragile limbic brain of a mammal.” Our species needs the back and forth of consistent and attuned responsiveness from a primary caregiver—most usually our mothers—to reach our psychological potential, be able to manage emotions, self-stabilize, take risks, and connect emotionally.

An unattuned mother answers these needs inconsistently, not at all, or—later in a child’s life—with strings attached. These maternal behaviors can stunt a child's emotional and psychological growth.

The normalization of childhood experiences

The first factor that impedes a daughter’s recognition of maternal treatment is her assumption that what goes on at her house goes on everywhere and is normal. The world of a child is very small, and as Deborah Tannen has noted, a mother has the power to control the interpretation of why events in that world unfold as they do, as does a father. Yelling, bullying, ignoring, gaslighting, differential treatment of a sibling, and other damaging behaviors are explained and rationalized by reasons articulated by the parent. Of course, the child tends to believe what she’s told, as “Ella,” now 50, explained:

"My mother had absolutely no patience with me, but tons with my brother, so I grew up believing that I got yelled at because I was bad, didn’t listen, was unlike him in ways that counted. It was confusing, because I did well in school, and he didn’t. He got into all sorts of trouble, and I was a goody-two-shoes, but that didn’t change my mother’s story. I felt awful about myself until my mentor in college suggested I go into therapy, and boy, it was a revelation."

But Ella’s recognition might well been delayed for years had her mentor not intervened; even though I knew my mother mistreated me, I too believed there were “reasons” until I went into therapy at 22. Many daughters carry the so-called "truths" that they learned about themselves in childhood decades into adult life.

The dance of denial and rationalization

But normalizing your family of origin is just one piece of why recognition of a toxic childhood is so slow in coming; the daughter’s own denial is the most significant driver of her inability to see her mother as she really is. A daughter’s continuing need for her mother’s love and validation and her hopefulness that somehow she will be able to get it underlie most of her behaviors. Even as it begins to dawn on her that the hurt she’s suffering isn’t normal or okay, she keeps thinking that there has to be a way to change things with her mother. This is what I call the core conflict—the push-pull between the daughter’s growing recognition of her mother’s treatment and her need to be loved.

As long as she remains conflicted, the chances are good that she will engage in what I call “The Dance of Denial.” Some of the denial stems from the deep shame she feels at being unloved; is it surprising that facing the fact that her mother doesn’t love her is just too painful? Remember too that cultural mythologies tell us that all mothers love their children, so the shame runs deep.

But the real energy for the Dance of Denial comes from the hope that if she just finds the right formula for pleasing her mother, the relationship can be fixed. As long as she hangs on to that hope, the chances are good that she’ll continue to deny or rationalize her mother’s behavior. Often, a daughter will take the route of analyzing her mother’s own childhood, and conclude that she couldn’t do any better than she did, because she, too, was unloved. The problem is that this kind of thinking overlooks free will—no one is doomed to continue to repeat the past—and the fact that people aren’t robots, and that mothering is made up of thousands and thousands of behavioral choices, large and small. But, again, any small amount of hopefulness tends to keep the daughter stuck:

"I kept thinking that, somehow, I could turn things around and curry my mother’s favor. Growing up, I set my sights high, thinking that achieving honors and going to college would earn me points. They did not; instead, she criticized everything else about me and actually belittle my achievements, always drawing a distinction between what she called book smart and real-world smart. I was, in her view, real-world stupid. She continued to belittle me, and I honestly think I would have gone along forever, still hoping to please her, had she not started in on my daughter. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I finally got the memo and drastically reduced my contact with her. And you know what? She didn’t much care." —"Karen,” 43

Misplaced empathy and emotional confusion

Ironically, a daughter’s own efforts to prove that she’s caring and empathic in ways that her mother isn’t may also become an obstacle to both recognition and healing. One reader wrote me about how she only understood her rationalizations and denials five years after her mother’s death:

"I certainly explained away my mother’s treatment of me. She had a strict and controlling mother herself, so she couldn’t help how she derided me, or so I said. She did everything for her two sons and nothing for me, but I thought that was the bias of an older generation. She played favorites with my brothers’ kids and ignored my daughter, but I said ‘it was just the way she was and she couldn’t help it.’ It was the slap from beyond the grave that finally rang a bell when she deliberately cut me and my daughter out of her will, because ‘we were terrible disappointments.’ My daughter was 6. How can a 6-year-old be a disappointment? It was like an earthquake happened in my brain, and the wall I’d built around what I knew deep inside came down in an instant. It’s taken five years of therapy to deal and grow."

The impulse to shield ourselves from a painful truth may begin in childhood and has enormous staying power.

The end of denial and the way out

Working with a gifted therapist is the best way to heal from childhood experiences, but there’s no question that self-help can bolster your efforts at discovering how, precisely, your own adult behaviors—especially those that don’t stand you in good stead—are connected to the past. As I’ve written before, I’ve come to believe that almost as damaging as the effect of an unloving or unattuned mother is the sense of being singled out in this way, and the frightening thought that you are the only person to whom this has happened. Knowing that you’re not and that it was never about you, but always about your parent, provides the foundation for self-compassion and growth. No one has to live in her childhood room forever.

The ideas for this piece are drawn from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. Many thanks to all who shared their stories.

Facebook Image Credit: Erickson Stock/Shutterstock


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

Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.

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