As humans, we have an innate desire for love and belonging. We seek secure and loving environments where we can feel safe and protected. It’s safe to assume that we all desire a world where mothers take the time and have the emotional energy to care for their children. Unfortunately, not every situation has such a happy outcome.
Toxicity can creep into many well-meaning relationships, especially when mothers become dismissive, controlling, or mostly unavailable to their children. In toxic relationships, children may find they are the target of an attack when their mother is not doing well, has a mental disorder, or suffers from an addiction. Typically, toxic relationships involve some form of abuse that harms or damages a relationship. To create healthier relationships, it’s important to have a good handle on what toxic behaviors are and the effects they can have.
At times, spotting toxicity within a mother may be hard because it often appears to her children that she is trying her best to love and care for them. She may have many good moments and redeeming qualities. However, if the toxic behavior becomes a pattern and persists, it can negatively affect self-esteem.
When a pattern of toxic behavior becomes the norm, dissonance, and confusion in parent-child relationships can follow. But what are the signs of toxic parenting for children and how can adult children who recognize these toxic behaviors set boundaries that will ultimately protect their relationship. These five signs of toxic behavior can help spot the problem in action:
Shaming & Blaming
Shaming and blaming occurs when a mother uses personalized statements that sound like this: “You always do stupid things.” or “You never do anything right.” Toxic mothers tend to instantly blame their children for their own actions, thus causing their child to feel unnecessary shame. (i.e., “It is your fault that I started to scream and yell at you.”).
Shaming can also lead to incidents of verbal abuse when mothers habitually criticize, say hurtful things, and call their children insulting names. Unfortunately, shaming may cause a child to internalize such comments and may contribute to the development of lower self-esteem later on.
Ever felt like you were talking to a brick wall? This experience can refer to stonewalling—typically involving an individual withdrawing from a conversation, ignoring another person, or tuning out from the relationship. When a mother frequently stonewalls her children, they may feel ignored, abandoned, unimportant, or ashamed.
This figurative wall makes it hard for the child to access the love and support they need. Especially when the child misbehaves, and a mother withdraws her love, the child will begin to sense a conditional, rather than an unconditional love relationship. According to Dr. Jim Taylor, toxic parents choose to punish their children by withholding love when they feel their child has failed in some way. The silent treatment is used to punish, but ironically often backfires, as some children will then act in other unhealthy ways to regain their mother’s attention.
Finding ways to deflect guilt is another common tactic in toxic relationships. According to Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, gaslighting occurs when an individual uses their power to make a victim question their reality. As an example of gaslighting, a mother may deny her actions, tell lies, and even use positive reinforcement to confuse her child. For example, if a child brings up a painful abusive memory from the past, the mother might respond, “Oh, you are being so dramatic” or “Don’t be silly, that never happened.”
This downplaying of the child’s experience may lead to the child questioning the validity of their feelings or becoming confused about what really happened in reality or lead the child to lose confidence in their ability to see things as they are and question their take on reality.
Toxic mothers tend to like being in control and are willing to manipulate in order to maintain it when acting out of a sense of heightened emotion or insecurity. Their emotions tend to cause impulsive controlling behavior—they may want to control their children as a way to control their emotional environment.
Controlling behavior may become tricky to pinpoint since this kind of manipulation can cause children to believe that they are the villains, rather than the victims. When controlling mothers feel threatened or suspect their toxic behaviors might be exposed, they may sabotage their relationships in an attempt to regain the control they feel they are losing. These mothers frequently micromanage their children’s lives with a “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude.
Unfortunately, toxic moms do not very often voluntarily apologize for their wrong-doings. For example, when someone points out their inappropriate behavior, they may provide a distraction to avoid confrontation or outright deny their mistakes. They simply do not want to admit that their actions emotionally or physically attack their children. Toxic mothers are living their life in a way that does not actively focus on considering other’s perspectives or needs, which is a necessary start for recognizing wrong and apologizing.
Instead of demonstrating humility by acknowledging their mistakes, they sabotage the parent-child relationship by not taking responsibility for their actions. Since a mother is in a position of power, her refusal to apologize can be mistaken by the child as the cue that he/she should take on the responsibility to change course or try to mend the relationship—even if the child did nothing wrong.
Overcoming the Toxicity
Unfortunately, toxic individuals often resist change, especially if the underlying reasons for their actions are still driving their unhealthy behavior. Without a need or desire to change, they are likely to continue to try to manipulate and deceive their loved ones, whether consciously or unconsciously. However, if adult children recognize these problems, they can take steps to both protect themselves and to set boundaries for the relationship that can help it become healthier.
Setting boundaries with a toxic mother may be difficult, but they are often a necessary first step to stop the behavior. These boundaries might include making a direct statement like: “I would like to have you come stay this weekend and spend time with the grandchildren, but in our house, we will handle the misbehavior, and we would appreciate you not using demeaning language” or “I feel embarrassed when you start arguments or yell at me in public, please do not talk to me that way—we can discuss our disagreements in a private setting later.”
In other words, saying no to situations that make you uncomfortable can distance you and your family from these poor behaviors of the past, so they are not transmitted to another generation. In more severe cases where these relationships are causing you intense distress and negatively impacting your daily functioning, you might consider staying apart from the toxic individual for a time.
Finally, taking the step of setting healthy boundaries may be frightening. You might rightly expect some backlash. However, it is important to be persistent and retain emotional control as you make your desires known. Over time and with practice setting healthy boundaries, you can feel empowered as you share your voice, be no longer gripped or feel helpless in the face of toxicity, and build a stronger relationship with your loved one well into the future.