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When a Controlling Mother Plays the Victim

The complex effects of having a martyr mom.

Key points

  • Playing the victim is a form of maternal control and often includes scapegoating a child.
  • A mother's role-playing has direct effects on the child that can be long-lasting and highly damaging.
  • Children of mothers who play the victim may struggle to maintain boundaries and voice their needs.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

"Celia" is now 52 and a mother and grandmother herself, and her mother is 71 but the narrative remains the same. As Celia tells it: “I’m the reason my mother never realized her dreams and she’s never wavered in that belief, not ever. What did I do? I was born when she should have been finishing sophomore year in college and, instead, she dropped out. And never went back.”

Mind you, Celia’s mother never made any effort to go back to school and, instead, went on to have two other children, but she remains convinced of whom to blame: “You’d think, all these years later, she’d see how absurd this is on some level but she doesn’t. As a child and young adult, I accepted how she treated me differently from my siblings and I knew that it was because I had ruined her life. I internalized all the things she said about me and believed them. I am recovering, slowly, but when I do see her—and it’s not often—it’s rare that she won’t pull out the victim card. I think she loves the sympathy it gets her—from my father, my siblings, and others. Bad Celia, Poor Mommy.”

On the face of it, this manipulation would seem relatively easy for an adult child to bat down but for someone who’s been told for years that she or he is the cause of her mother’s suffering, it absolutely isn’t. Ironically, while the supposed cause is marginalized, the rest of the family is brought closer together by a shared narrative.

Playing the victim: another form of toxic maternal behavior

Playing the victim often includes scapegoating a child or children, but sometimes it’s primarily a form of blame-shifting and a way to get attention. That was the case in "John’s" family, whose mother was meek in appearance and whose aggression was completely covert. As this 35-year-old son tells it: “Where most parents want to brag about their kids, even stretching the truth to make them look better than they are, my mom does the exact opposite, deeply downplaying and minimizing everything we've done and achieved when catching up with family and friends. I never understood it but then came to think she loves the sympathy more than to make others proud or envious. Her underhanded and concealed nature made my dad protective of her, and he would often see her as being the bullied victim.”

In this family, the father became the so-called victim mother’s enforcer. Not surprisingly, John tried hard to please his mother and “fix things” to no avail. When a mother plays the victim, a child is often forced into the rescuer role, whether he or she wants it or not.

That was true for "Daniel," the middle child, with a brother three years older and a sister six years younger. He is now 45, and the father of two:

"My mother loved no role more than that of Cinderella before the prince showed up. To hear her tell it, she was constantly beset by life in general and she’s always disappointed by everyone, ‘No matter how hard I try.’ The everyone included friends, relatives, strangers, neighbors, my brother, my father, and me. That phrase—‘No matter how hard I try’—summed up the twenty years or so I spent under her roof. Yes, poor Mom.”

Daniel was the appointed “rescuer” as he tells it, the one who had to console Mom and take her side and “build her back up” after a disappointment: “My brother was the troublemaker, as Mom saw it, so I blamed him for her unhappiness; without even understanding what a scapegoat was, I was brought up to heap blame on him which both of my parents did. My baby sister was left out of the loop since my brother was nine years older, and he left the house when she was only nine. I didn’t realize how screwed up this all was until I was in my late teens and I realized that sons generally weren’t in charge of taking care of their mothers, or committed to reassuring them and ‘fixing’ things.

"My father and I both ended up fixers for her but, in the meantime, no one paid any mind to my worries or problems. I didn’t think I was worth paying attention to. It was nothing but dumb luck that my freshman advisor in college was astute enough to realize that while I was functioning, I was also incredibly messed up and didn’t know to do anything except be a dutiful son... When the therapist asked me what I wanted, I was literally tongue-tied. It hadn’t occurred to me. I just did what I was told to keep things peaceful and make sure I didn’t disappoint my mother.”

4 long-term effects of having a mother who plays the victim

While hardly exhaustive, this list is anecdotal, drawn from the many hundreds of interviews I have conducted for my books, including Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and my forthcoming book on verbal abuse, as well as the stories shared on my Facebook page.

1. Trouble recognizing healthy boundaries

By playing the victim and making the child responsible for her life and actions, the mother enmeshes the two identities. Assigning the child the role of rescuer—or encouraging him or her to take it on—also enmeshes and obliterates the healthy boundaries that should exist between the parent and child. This can remain a problem long into adulthood.

2. Internalizing the mother’s blame as self-criticism

Alas, it is a truism about the abuse of children that they absorb what is said to them and about them as inviolable truths; this often energizes self-criticism as an unconscious default position based on these so-called character flaws that cannot be changed.

3. Difficulty seeing her mother’s playing victim as abusive

Children normalize their parents’ behaviors and treatment, and the chances are good that it will take the adult child years to understand how playing victim is, paradoxically, a way of keeping control and power. It should be said that the child is also likely to believe that his or her mother is not just suffering but also a victim in a real sense. The adult child may continue to feel guilty or complicit.

4. Unable to acknowledge his or her own needs or to express them

The mother’s behavior thrusts the child into a tightly defined role—either as the cause of distress or the balm for it—so attention is deflected from the child’s wants and needs. In fact, the child’s expression of needs may be met with resistance or even punishment. The child learns to tamp down feelings and thoughts, and detaches from them; this continues into adulthood.

Estranged mothers portraying themselves as victims of adult children

This is quite different from the passive-aggressive role playing of mothers who are actively parenting but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it because it happens so often. Interestingly, while most adult child-parent estrangements are initiated by the children, the mother’s portrayal of herself as a victim also happens when she initiates the cut-off. The cultural myths pertaining to motherhood—that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, and all mothers love unconditionally—along with a Biblical commandment are the planks for her platform, fortified by a societal willingness to decry filial disloyalty and ingratitude instead of confronting maternal abuse.

The following story is typical but way less aggressive than some of these self-declared victims. “Lara” is a widow in her early 70s whom I hardly know but, like anyone who runs into her for longer than a nanosecond, I quickly learned that she is the victim of two ungrateful adult children who not only have cut off contact with her but refuse to allow her to see her grandchildren—“for no reason, at all” as she will tell you again and again. By her lights, she was a fine mother, an exceptional parent, who gave them and their children “everything.” What then follows is a list that begins with private schools and ends with treats and expensive vacations for everyone. Most important, she did “nothing” to deserve this terrible treatment from two people who should love her. She insists that they will not even tell her why they’ve gone no contact.

The truth is that adults rarely, if ever, self-orphan without very good reasons. But it is easier to play the victim, alas, than to own the behaviors that caused your children to decamp in the first place.

Copyright 2021 by Peg Streep

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