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Toxic Mother Traits and How to Deal With Her in Adulthood

| What is a Toxic Mother | Signs | Why is My mom So Toxic | Effects | How to Deal With a Toxic Mother |

Parents aren’t perfect. 

Even a very loving mother will sometimes make mistakes, lose her temper, or say something that unintendedly hurts her child’s feelings.

However, there’s a big difference between a mom who has a bad day and a toxic mother who creates a stressful home environment or dysfunctional family relationship. 

Unfortunately, toxic mothers are not always easy to spot.

Like the most poisonous plants can look beautiful, toxic mothers can sound very loving. 

“I just want you to be the best.”

“I want to be involved in every part of your life.”

The children eventually think that they are at fault and that this kind of parent-child relationship is normal.

Did you have a toxic mom, or are you turning into one?

mother yells at daughter about homework

What is a Toxic Mother

A toxic mother creates a negative home environment where unhealthy interactions and relationships damage a child’s sense of self and their views of relationships with others. Over time, it increases the risk of poor development in the child’s self-control, emotional regulation, social relations, etc​1​.

Toxic mothers are often abusive physically, emotionally, or both.

To form a healthy internal representation of themselves and others, children need secure bonds with the people close to them.

When their physical and emotional needs are not met, they develop trust issues with other people and see themselves as unlovable​2​.

Toxic Traits

Here are some signs of a toxic mother, ranging from obvious abuse to subtle manipulation.

Toxic behavior

Toxic moms may sincerely try to teach an important rule or value, but use methods that destroy self-esteem and psychological safety.

  • Physical abuse or verbal abuse
  • Using love as a weapon: withholding affection, giving the silent treatment, or showing clear favoritism for a child who meets their approval
  • Emotional manipulation (using blame, guilt, or shame)
  • Humiliation (making cruel jokes, putting him down in front of others)
  • Harsh criticism and critical parenting
  • Show a lack of respect

Toxic environment

Ideally, home is where you feel safe and unconditionally loved. But a toxic environment makes you feel threatened, ignored, and silenced.

  • Abrasive interactions (yelling, screaming, ignoring)
  • No boundaries; no respect for the child’s privacy or personal space
  • No interest in or respect for the child’s ideas, opinions, or preferences
  • No affection and affirmation
  • Rigid, unrealistic rules
  • Volatile emotions (sudden outbursts of anger, crying spells)
  • Emotional invalidation

Why is my mom so toxic

If a child grows up with a mom who hurts, rejects, or ignores them, they’ll think that it’s their fault or they don’t deserve her love.

But the problem lies in the mother and her toxic parenting style may actually be a cry for help.

Toxic moms may suffer from mental or psychological disorders that affect their ability to meet their children’s needs. They may also have been victims of toxic parenting themselves, and are repeating the relationship patterns they grew up with.

Here are some of the reasons and mental disorders associated with toxic parenting.

Narcissistic Mother

People with narcissistic personality disorder have a sense of self-entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a constant need for appreciation and admiration. 

Self-absorption and self-admiration are also common narcissistic traits. They put their needs before the child’s, and may even use them to satisfy their own desire for self-validation​3​.

Depression and Bipolar Disorder

Depression and bipolar disorder can make a mother unresponsive, unsupportive, and overly intrusive. It can also permeate the mom’s perspective, so she has a negative or critical view of everything—including her child​4,5​.

Anxiety

Fear and excessive worry can affect a mom’s decision-making; she can be too controlling, overprotective, or overreactive​6​. She can also become emotionally withdrawn and less sensitive​7​.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

Mothers with BPD can often create a toxic environment for their children. A common trait of this mental health condition is emotional instability which often results in irrational behavior patterns​8​.

Childhood trauma

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can shape thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships with other people. 

The mother’s developmental trauma is associated with the intergenerational transmission of her parents’ toxic type of behavior.

Marital Discord or Divorce

Having a bitter interparental conflict can make a home toxic. Toxic stress can also result from ongoing conflicts after a divorce.

Effects of Having a Toxic Mother

A toxic home environment can actually rewire a child’s developing brain, and warp a child’s template for how he sees himself, other people, and life in general.

Mental health disorder

Children growing up in abusive environments tend to suffer from mental health issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)​9​, depression, and anxiety​10​. Some children may struggle with anger issues.

Reduce learning, memory, and executive functioning

Stress in itself isn’t bad, but toxic stress is just like keeping an engine revved up for days or weeks at a time. 

Prolonged high levels of cortisol actually affect the size and functioning of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, the regions of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and executive functioning​11​.

Compromised immune system

Chronic toxic stress suppresses the immune system and increases the risk of chronic health problems​12​

Mistrust

The child may withdraw or be mistrustful​13​. Adult children often have trouble forming close, healthy relationships with others, or, when they do, they create negative relationships with the wrong people.

Prone to abuse

The child may try to please people to earn affection or approval that they never got at home. They may have fears of being abandoned or rejected and compensate by becoming clingy, avoiding conflict, or running away from any relationship where they feel vulnerable. 

They may also have difficulty setting boundaries with people. In some cases, they may also meet that craving for attention through an abusive relationship​14​.

Lower Self-esteem

Even after the child grows up and moves out of their home, the mother’s voice lives on as an inner critic. They will have low self-esteem. They may avoid opportunities because they assume that they will fail. Even when they succeed, they believe it is never enough​15​.

How to Deal With a Toxic Mother

Young children will not be able to recognize toxicity: with no other comparison for relationships, they think this is normal.

But adulthood brings self-awareness, independence, and a chance to meet other people and form more positive and meaningful relationships. 

If you realize your mother is toxic, that’s already a big step. You know that this is not normal…. and also, that this is not your fault.

Here is how you can heal, and stop yourself from repeating this pattern with the people you love.

Cutting ties

Once you recognize that you have a toxic mother, it would be great if you could talk to her, set healthy boundaries, and make changes to stop the negative behavior. 

However, chances are she won’t change.

There is even a possibility that she will blame you for everything.

You can’t (biologically) break up with your parents, but you can limit how much she can interfere with your life and affect your emotions.

Cutting off a toxic mother is a drastic measure one can take to protect themselves emotionally and physically, usually as a last resort. 

Although it is a difficult decision to make, you must take the necessary precautions to protect yourself if you are unable to establish reliable personal boundaries.

It’s not your job to fix them

You may talk to her about how you feel, or reach out and have a better relationship with her as an adult. 

However, don’t expect toxic people to change and turn into parents you always wanted, because they won’t. co

But you’re an adult now. You no longer need them to parent you. You can find the love you need elsewhere. 

Establish a support system that understands

If you have cut ties with your mother, some well-meaning people may encourage you to reestablish contact. 

Not everyone can understand your unique emotional experience and your brave decision to separate. You can still be friends with those who cannot empathize with what you are going through. But avoid discussing this topic with them.

Establish a support network with people who can provide you with love, support, and affection, things you should have had as a child, but didn’t. Look for those who are from similar toxic families but can be positive role models in relationships.

Break the cycle

Toxic mothers can leave deep emotional scars, but don’t let the scars define you or turn you into a toxic parent yourself. 

Identify any toxic patterns, thinking, or behavior that you may have inherited from your mother. If you want, ask people close to you: your significant other, best friend, or even siblings.

Once you understand the poison, you can find the antidote—and break the cycle for good.

Consider counseling

There will be a lot of healing to do after a lifetime of toxic stress.

You may feel guilty about saying “bad things about your mother.” 

Individual therapy can be a safe place for you to share memories or get support without being judged. 

With professional help, you can identify and replace false thoughts and destructive patterns with healthy ones.

Family therapy may also be an option if your mother is open to it.

Also See: Toxic Things Parents Say

References

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    Cummings EM, Davies PT. Maternal Depression and Child Development. J Child Psychol & Psychiat. Published online January 1994:73-122. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1994.tb01133.x
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About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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