In an ideal world, our mother is our best friend, confidant, and ally: her love for us unconditional. But what if our relationship with our mother is the opposite? What if it’s confusing, hurtful, painful and, dare we say it, a little toxic? The effects of a difficult relationship with your mother don’t automatically disappear when you leave home; however, it is possible to learn how it’s affected you so that you can grow from what you learn, helping you gain greater introspection, a greater understanding of others, and a greater sense of peace and happiness in the long term.
Mother-daughter relationships are notoriously complex. It’s a common conflict that’s played out in the media in various different ways. Film, TV and countless books use the cliché to both tragic and comic effect, leaving those of us who can relate emphatically crying, laughing, or both as we watch our experiences recreated for satirical entertainment.
All relationships are complex, even for the lucky daughters whose mothers are their best friend. The ups and downs of life invariably play out in the same way relationships do – with periods of calm and periods of upheaval.
Studies show that there are three primary complaints daughters have about their mothers1:
- They’re overly critical;
- They’re demanding; and
- They try to ‘parent’ them despite their need for independence.
In response, mothers’ perspectives often reveal how they feel their daughters:
- Make poor choices;
- Don’t listen to them; and
- No longer have time for them.
These are just some of the most common causes. At their worst, mother-daughter relationships can become co-dependant, destructive, and toxic, affecting both parties in negative ways both externally and internally. Daughters with unloving and unattached mothers often report the same emotional responses, citing how the lack of maternal warmth impacts their sense of self, their confidence, and their relationships with others.2
So, what do some of these painful interactions look like, and how do we change our responses to them for a healthier outcome? *
* Note that all examples exist on a spectrum. There isn’t one right answer; you’ll need to evaluate your boundaries before you seek to resolve any of these negative patterns of behaviour.
- The Dismissive
A dismissive mother is often characterised as someone who ignores their daughter/has little time for them, undercuts their achievements, and dismisses some or all attempts to bond and connect. Daughters are likely to feel an intense need for love and validation, whilst at the same time doubting the validity of their own emotional needs. They’ll feel unworthy of attention and guilty for wanting it.
How to communicate: When all attempts to communicate are met with dismissal, rejection, denial or aggression, you may find yourself responding in two ways. The first is an eager need to please, forgoing your own emotional needs to make your mother happy or proud of you, whilst the second is to demand a response from her. For example, you may ask emotionally charged questions like, ‘Why do you ignore me?’ or ‘Why don’t you love me?’ Both of these responses will inevitably result in your mother withdrawing from you further. The best way to deal with this dismissive dynamic is to practice self-love. Your worth is not dictated by someone else. If you’ve spoken rationally and calmly to your mother about the issues you have with your dynamic and what you’d like to see change, there is little else you can do if she dismisses your attempts to reconcile. Although it’s painful, your focus should be on learning that you are worthy of love, compassion and kindness, and that your mother’s dismissal is a reflection on her own inability to connect, not yours.
- The Controller
Much like the dismissive, the controlling mother doesn’t acknowledge her daughter’s autonomy. However, instead of ignoring her, she seeks to micromanage her every move. Some call it ‘helicopter parenting’, with mothers who tend to justify how their actions are for their daughter’s ‘own good.’ Daughter’s with controlling mothers are often deeply insecure, with a learned helplessness that stems from being told how her choices, judgement and ability to live well is flawed or wrong.
How to communicate: The trick with this often co-dependant dynamic is to set boundaries and learn to agree to disagree. Balance your individuality with your closeness by exerting your right to autonomy. Let your mother know that you understand her intentions ‘may’ be good, but you are an adult with a right to choose what mistakes you make, and if you need her guidance or help, you will ask for it. Make plans to meet her on mutual terms and let her know how her suffocation negatively affects you. More likely than not, the controlling mother wants a relationship with you, so managing your boundaries can be all that’s needed for it to become healthy.
- The Emotionally Unavailable
Whether a mother withdraws, withholds love, or worse – gives love to her other children while overlooking her daughter – the damage inflicted runs deep. As children, we are evolutionally hardwired to need our mothers.3 Those who are brought up with mothers who never hugged them, were unresponsive to their needs, and/or abandoned them grow up starved of affection and support. This often leads to emotionally hungry daughters who can become needy, seek constant reassurance, and have a deep-seated fear of abandonment.
How to communicate: Sadly, if you have a mother who is emotionally unavailable, the only form of communication needed is between yourself and your inner child. By learning to nurture that wounded and unattached part of yourself, you can begin to close the distance between your adult self and the nurture you lacked growing up. If you still want to have a relationship with your mother, one way to ensure it’s healthy is to try and understand why she acts the way she does. You can do this by having a frank discussion with her, by talking with family members, or by learning to accept your mother has gone on her own emotional journey long before you were born. Empathy widens the lens of compassion, and by attempting to put yourself in your mother’s shoes, you can accept she’s a woman with her own emotional baggage and view of the world. She wasn’t what you needed, but you can repair the damage caused by her distance through forgiveness and an honest look at what kind of relationship you’d like with her going forward. Think realistically; sometimes people can’t be what we need them to be, which means we must rely on our own emotional resilience and independence first and foremost. Once established, it may empower you to move forward and retain a relationship despite the emotional barriers, or it may give you the strength to walk away.
- The Over-Involved
Unlike the above examples, the enmeshed mother is one who becomes so involved in their daughter’s life that no boundaries exist between them. It’s known as a maternal chokehold, and mothers like this live through and for their children and their achievements, leading to them becoming both demanding and encouraging in equal measure. Daughters with overbearing and over-involved mothers often struggle with their sense of self. Their identity is often dictated by their mothers and tangled up in the cotton wool used to smother their free will.
How to communicate: What’s clear with this dynamic is the mother’s desire for a relationship with her daughter. Like the controller dynamic, the steps required to turn an over-involved relationship into a healthy one is to insert boundaries, practice healthy and open communication, and un-attach the entwined mother-daughter identity so they become two separate, autonomous entities. This process can often be difficult and painful for both parties, so it requires the right degree of firmness, understanding and practice to set healthy boundaries and encourage individuality.
- The Combative
One of the most outwardly toxic dynamics, combative mothers are characterised as those who are constantly in conflict with their daughters. This manifests as mothers who display hypercritical, jealous, competitive and dictatorial behaviours, leaving their daughters feeling helpless, controlled and resentful. They often internalise the verbal, emotional and even physical abuse, leading to feelings of shame and unworthiness.
How to communicate: At its most extreme, asserting your right to live free of abuse is the only way to escape this dynamic. However, if you and your mother argue often and say things you don’t mean, then there are steps you can take to ensure those toxic arguments are either resolved quickly or avoided altogether.
Firstly, when discussing what’s upset you, use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you.’ Rather than using accusatory statements that inevitably lead to further conflict, describe how you feel about the way you and your mother communicate. This focuses the discussion on how you can both improve going forward, leading to a healthier, more respectful dynamic. Secondly, try to focus on the immediate argument instead of bringing up the past, as this creates a spiral conflict that takes you away from the current one. Lastly, don’t bring in any third parties to back up your claims. Have a direct conversation so both of you feel heard and respected.
Remember, arguments work both ways; be open to hearing the same feedback you’re willing to give so you can reach a compromise both you and your mother are happy with.
- The Inconsistent
Inconsistent mothers can be a combination of several dynamics, or one of each played out at different times to different audiences. It’s one of the most difficult behaviours to cope with because daughters constantly feel anxious and on edge, wondering which version of their mother they’ll be greeted with at any given moment. This fraught upbringing often leads to daughters believing that emotional connections are fraught, precarious, and even dangerous.
How to communicate: As with all the dynamics, a healthy set of boundaries is key. With an unreliable mother, learning to adapt your approach and build resilience around the changes in her behaviour is beneficial. Communicating that you’ll only spend time with your mother when she’s being kind, supportive and loving, while refusing to spend time with her when she’s overly critical, moody or dismissive will help you build a healthier dynamic. One way to gauge what mood she’s in is to have a phone conversation with her before you agree to meet. This can help you assess whether it’s worth your time, effort and emotional investment to see her at that particular time.
- The Self-Involved
Self-involvement takes many forms. At worst it’s a borderline personality disorder such as narcissism. At best, it’s a mother who can be too inwardly focused and struggles to interact outside of her own self-investment. Often, self-involved mothers see their daughters as an extension of themselves and, instead of being smothering, control their involvement with their daughters in a way that suits their own self-reflection. Mothers like this struggle with empathy, often use power-play to maintain appearances, and manipulate and control their daughters as a way to feel good about themselves. These mothers can use their superficial emotional connections, charming manner and admirable qualities to draw others in and convince the outside world of their false narrative. To the unloved daughter on the inside, this can be confusing, disturbing and isolating, leading them to feel like they need to prop up the false narrative for the sake of appearances or be discarded.
How to communicate: Yep, you guessed it: boundaries! The self-involved mother wants you in their life, whether it’s for genuine or superficial reasons. The way to handle the dynamic and maintain your sense of self comes down to managing how, when and where you interact with her. An open conversation about how she makes you feel may be beneficial, or it may be met with false declarations of understanding and love. By accepting that your relationship may always be superficial and still deciding to make the most of it, you can take control of this difficult dynamic and ensure you’re not left feeling used and discarded. This is a relationship that needs to be on your terms if it’s to survive.
- The role-reversal
When the mother-daughter relationship is inverted so the daughter becomes the ‘mother’ by taking on the maternal role, such as daughters of alcoholics or mothers who suffer from depression, this can lead to deep feelings of resentment, hurt, a fear of failure or ‘letting down’ a parent, and a warped sense of responsibility – especially if this reversal happened at a young age.
How to communicate: With this dynamic, there may be no lack of love from the mother, but rather an inability to act on their feelings because of their own difficulties. Communication between the mother and daughter can lead to the most positive outcome in this dynamic, with therapy and intervention both facilitating reconciliation and understanding – as long as both parties are willing to work on their relationship. By putting yourself in your mother’s shoes and accepting that she is a human being with her own experiences and emotional needs, you can begin to heal the wounds of your previously unhealthy dynamic.
These are just a few examples of how difficult mother-daughter relationships can be if left unaddressed. We can all present a little of these behaviours, more of one, or some of each at different times, but the issue is when these destructive behaviours form a toxic pattern. The key to all relationships is maintaining a healthy set of boundaries and an open form of communication. Empathy, forgiveness and self-reflection all play a part in healing the wounds of your unhealthy relationship dynamic, so remember that you, like your mother, are only human. The path to change isn’t linear or smooth. If it’s to thrive, it’s a two way process that you both need to nurture.
- Improving mother and daughter relationships. Live Science article: https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-insights-on-improving-mother-daughter-relationships/
- Mother-Child Attachment and Social Anxiety Symptoms in Middle Childhood. Source material: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2574513/
- How your baby learns to love. Source article: https://www.parents.com/baby/development/social/how-your-baby-learns-to-love/