A toxic relationship is typically a two-way street. But in a mother-child relationship, the parent does wield the bulk of the emotional responsibility — hence why there are a lot more toxic moms than toxic daughters. It’s not always clear when a parent is crossing a line, but experts agree that signs your mom is toxic can be found in the way she speaks to you.
When a parent is prone to toxicity, they often have a Rolodex of biting phrases that come out on a regular basis. Things like “why don’t you just grow up” or “I never said that” might ring a bell. And if it truly is an ongoing problem, it can start to affect your relationship with them as well as how you feel about yourself.
Although it’s a fine line,
a toxic relationship isn’t always synonymous with emotional abuse, which can also come out in the words your mom uses. "A toxic relationship is a dynamic between two or more people where emotional needs generally go unmet because of issues that have nothing to do with the other person," Danielle Forshee, Psy.D, L.C.S.W., tells Bustle. While toxicity can be tough to spot, it often comes down to how another person makes you feel. “The word ‘toxic’ in terms of a relationship means that one person’s behavior leads to serious negative emotional consequences for the other person,” says Elliot Pinsly, LMSW, a licensed clinical social worker. Whether it’s intentional or subconscious, “a toxic person tends to be controlling, demanding, manipulative, demeaning, and/or self-centered,” he says. And it can leave you feeling down, or as if your self-esteem has taken a hit.
It often hurts extra to realize that your mom is being toxic. According to Pinsly, it can shatter the image of who you hoped she could be. But it’s also a
good thing, as the knowledge may make it easier to cope with her words. “Sometimes we need to implement boundaries, find acceptance and change, set time and distance, or redirect our needs to ourselves and find healing,” says licensed professional counselor Rachel M. Abrman, MA, LPC.
If you’re wondering
what to do when your mom says hurtful things, or if you recognize any of the comments listed below, it may help to reach out to a therapist, mentor, or friend for support. 1 “I never said that!” milan2099/E+/Getty Images
If your mom always yells “I never said that!” whenever you want to talk about something hurtful, consider it a sign of toxicity.
According to Pinsly,
gaslighting — or making it seem as if you remember something incorrectly — is a common tactic used by toxic people. “The goal is to make you question your reality and shift blame,” he says. It’s often a sneaky way for them to get away with saying whatever they want without repercussions. 2 “Why can’t you just get over it?”
It’s not uncommon for a toxic mom to say something like, “Well why can’t you just get over it?” during an argument or when talking about difficult things.
According to Abrman, this type of comment is hurtful because it leads you to question whether you’re accepted or respected. It may also make you doubt your own experience, or wonder if you should even care about you feel.
Your mom’s goal may be to deflect blame away from herself, which she may be doing on purpose or subconsciously.
3 “You’re just like [other person in your family.]”
Is your mom constantly comparing you to a difficult or unsavory family member? If so, her goal may be to
manipulate you into thinking you’re the one in the wrong during a conversation that makes her “look bad,” Pinsly says. And that’s not fair or OK. 4 “You need to grow up and deal with it.”
If you try to talk with your mom about something that’s stressing you out or a topic that’s weighing heavy on your mind from the past, you might not expect her to say, “Oh, grow up.” But according to Abrman, that’s exactly what toxic moms do.
Whatever your mom might claim, it's more than OK to take time to process things before you move forward, Abrman says. No amount of “growing up” or stuffing things down will help you move on faster, so don’t let her words get to you.
5 "It's your fault”
Blame is up there with the most signature toxic behaviors. And it's all the more hurtful in a mother-child relationship.
According to licensed marriage and family therapist
Sara Stanizai, LCSW, it’s especially toxic if your mom blames you for her own personal problems. "This puts [you] in the position of being responsible for [your] parent, when really it's the other way around,” Stanizai says.
If your mother actively blames you for something that she did, all signs
point to toxicity. 6 “Don’t tell your dad...”
Secret-keeping is another major toxic mom
red flag, according to Stanizai, who says the behavior is not a component of a healthy mother-child relationship.
parent has a child keep something from their other parent, this makes the child the protector of the parent,” Stanizai says. It’s an unfair dynamic for your mom to expect.
If your mom asks you to do something like this for her, maybe point it out. Hopefully she'll realize that it's not appropriate to put you in the middle.
7 “Why didn’t you do better?”
Your mom should be your biggest cheerleader, not
your biggest critic. So if you’re constantly wondering, “Why is my mom never proud of me?” or “Why does my mom want me to be someone I’m not?” then it may be time to step back and reevaluate your relationship, Stanizai says.
It’s possible your mom started this toxic behavior when you were in school, but it’s not uncommon for it to continue into adulthood as you share career and life milestones with her. Either way, it’ll feel awful for her to react to your life’s ups and downs in a negative way.
8 “Where were you last night?”
You're an adult. You don't need your mom still on your case about where you are, all the time. "A toxic mother-child toxic relationship is one where the mother believes they have the right and the ability to manage their adult child’s life," clinical psychologist
Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., tells Bustle.
For both you and your mother, having healthy boundaries is key. You both deserve to have a sense of self outside of your relationship with one another. According to psychologist
Dr. Danielle Forshee, PsyD, LCSW, this type of hovering is called " helicopter parenting” and it manifests itself in overbearing ways.
Demanding to know where you are is toxic because it doesn’t “facilitate a healthy separation for individuals to figure out [their] own
sense of confidence,” Forshee says. If your mom is always on your case, you can talk to her, or a professional, about how to create better distance between you. 9 “Why do you spend so much time with them and not me?”
While on the subject of boundaries, it's important to unpack other ways your mom might showcase these toxic traits. If she wants your social life to include her, for instance, that's a major red flag. There's a word for this, too:
"Enmeshment is when your mom has difficulty allowing you to have your own life outside of her," Forshee says. Regardless of how close the two of you are, you need to have your own life and your own social space. If she can't accept that, that's a bad sign.
10 “You’re my best friend!”
Experts repeat this time and time again when it comes to identifying toxic mother-child relationships:
she's not your friend, she's your mother. While it’s wonderful to feel close to your mom, this sort of blurred relationship could easily turn into boundary crossing. "Instead of a mom developing her own friends and support network, [a toxic mom] relies on the child to fulfill these needs,” says family therapist Julie Williamson, LPC. It’s exhausting, and not a role you need to fill.
Even if you do feel like she's your BFF, it's important to unpack that, too. "If a mother and daughter are codependent on each other, the young woman may have trouble developing and maintaining successful relationships with others," Forshee says. So, for a bit, spend some time focusing your energy on other adult relationships. It'll be refreshing.
11 “So last night in bed...”
Another major sign of the mom-as-BFF conundrum is a mother who overshares. While everyone has different relationships with their parents, if you find that your mother is way more of an open book than your other friends' mothers, that might not necessarily be a good thing.
According to Williamson, a toxic mom might share information that’s not typically shared between a parent and child, like physical details of a relationship. If you’re getting "cool mom" vibes (hey, Amy Poehler!), it’s OK to set a boundary by letting your mom know that you love her, and you enjoy talking about certain things, but others go way too far.
12 “You should break up with them!”
Despite what she might say, your mom does not have a right to control your adult life. And while, yes,
parents are allowed opinions on your partner to some degree and sometimes they do have your best interests at heart, it’s not good if your mom consistently dictates your dating choices, Klapow says. Toxic moms tend to needle as a way to get you to give in and do what they want, and that’s not healthy. 13 “You’re so dumb sometimes!”
This one might seem obvious reading it on its own, but for a lot of people, it can be hard to notice that insults are actually harmful — not just playful fun. "The
parent who scolds or verbally berates an adult child on a regular basis [is toxic]," Klapow says.
This is also where the line might blur between toxicity and actual abuse. “It becomes
emotional abuse when there is character assassination and put-downs that continue despite your attempts at communicating how it affects you,” Forshee says. 14 “You’re way too sensitive.”
Expressing your feelings to your mom is a healthy habit, especially if it’s in response to something she said that you found to be hurtful; emotional communication is good. That’s why, according to family therapist
Dawn Friedman, MS.Ed, it’s another sign of gaslighting if she pushes back and says you’re being sensitive when you express that her words or actions hurt your feelings. “In healthy relationships, people will listen to us when we have a problem with the way they’re communicating,” Friedman explains. 15 “Well nobody else has a problem with it!”
Similarly, if you bring up a concern you have and she shuts you down with the excuse that it “doesn’t bother anyone else,” Friedman says it may indicate a toxic relationship. A parent should
care about your individual experience, even if it’s perceived to be singular.
It’s also important to note that this comment may be a ploy to dismiss your feelings or a way for your mom to get off the hook for rude behavior.
16 “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Comparing siblings, whether the comparison compliments you or throws you or the sibling under the bus, is always a toxic behavior. “Even a comment like ‘your sister has always been jealous of you’ puts you in conflict to center your mom in your relationship,” Friedman says. These kinds of comments can sometimes sound flattering, which can make them hard to spot, but almost always contribute to “ toxic gossip dynamics.” 17 “I’ve given you everything!”
If you try to speak with your mom about an issue that shows her in a bad light, she may try to shut it down by saying something like, “I’ve always done everything for you” or “You should be grateful.”
“She may have literally been there for you in some ways, but not in the ways you have needed,” Pinsly says, and it’s important not to mix up the two. “This comment is intended to make you feel guilty so that you comply [to her wishes],” he adds.
18 “Why do you always make everything about you?”
“This is ego projection,” Pinsly says, because in reality, your mom is likely making an issue about
her. And again, it’s often said in an attempt to deflect blame.
Children of toxic parents are often scapegoated, blamed for their parents’ own behaviors, or pulled in to help blame a sibling,” Pinsly explains. “Toxic moms seek to control their children instead of facilitating and encouraging them to thrive as independent beings.” 19 “Ughh...”
Sometimes toxic comments go beyond words. If your mom lets out a long sigh or a guttural noise when you try to talk to her, Pinsly says it could be her way of showing that “you’ve let her down.” If it happens regularly, it can start to feel toxic, especially if your mom does it as a way to make you give in and meet her needs.
As Pinsly says, toxic parents view their child as someone who has to meet
their needs, and not the other way around. While there are plenty of times when a child can do something for a parent — like helping when they’re sick, taking care of them when they’re older, etc. — it shouldn’t be an everyday, guilt-trippy type of thing.
Having a toxic relationship doesn't have to mean you should cut your mom out of your life. But recognizing any of these behaviors in your relationship with your mother might be an indicator that you should prioritize putting work into making the relationship more balanced and healthful. Boundary setting, open communication, and even family therapy can help. You deserve to do what's right for you, and not have your mother breathing down your back years after you've left home.
Studies referenced: Fosco, GM. 2014. Interparental Boundary Problems, Parent-Adolescent Hostility, and Adolescent-Parent Hostility: A Family Process Model for Adolescent Aggression Problems. Couple Family Psychol. doi: 10.1037/cfp0000025. Kong, J. 2018. Effect of Caring for an Abusive Parent on Mental Health: The Mediating Role of Self-Esteem. Gerontologist. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnx053. Sources: Elliot Pinsly, LMSW, licensed clinical social worker Rachel M Abrman, MA, LPC ,licensed professional counselor Danielle Forshee, PsyD, LCSW Julie Williamson, LPC Sara Stanizai, LCSW Joshua Klapow, PhD Dawn Friedman, MS.Ed
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This article was originally published on
June 13, 2018