If you and your mom are best friends-close, you might not even comprehend a relationship that doesn’t go that way. But the mother-daughter dynamic can be tricky, and, if you look closely, it’s possible you’ll see signs you have an emotionally abusive mom, which, of course, can affect your relationship with her (as well as, potentially, with others).
“There are many different signs of an emotionally abusive mom,” Celeste Viciere, LMHC, a licensed mental health clinician, author and host of CelesteTheTherapist podcast, tells Romper in an email exchange. “It’s important to note that you cannot change who your mom is or how she is choosing to treat you. You do, however, have control over what you allow. If you are finding yourself as an adult in this toxic and emotionally draining relationship, you have to ask yourself, ‘How do I want my relationship with my mom to look?’ We may not have control over how mothers treat us when we are younger. But once you are an adult, ultimately, she will treat you how you allow her to treat you.”
It’s worth noting that while there are of course some parents who are intentionally abusive, it’s often the case that mothers don’t realize the harm they’re causing and aren’t consciously trying to hurt their kids.
“Commonly, the perpetrator of emotional abuse does not know that she is being abusive,” Andrea Matthews LPC, NCC, wrote for Psychology Today.
To that end, it’s important to have a conversation with your mom (as non-confrontationally as possible) where you let her know exactly how her actions make you feel. If you don’t feel equipped to start this talk on your own, consider scheduling a joint therapy session.
“[W]e need to remember that before they were our mothers they were women with their own incredible strengths and their own severe limitations, their own passions and their own unmet dreams,” Dr. Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort, tells Romper by email. “If we choose to become mothers, or if we do not, we have the chance every day to re-mother ourselves, regardless of what an emotionally abusive mother has done to us.”
Whether your mother joins you in therapy or not, counseling can be crucial in learning how to stand up for yourself. Setting boundaries can help all of you deal with the situation. And encouraging your mom to get help is just as important as doing so yourself.
1. She Belittles You
You shouldn’t ever have to deal with someone belittling you, your accomplishments, or the choices you’ve made in your life, and you especially shouldn’t have to deal with that from your own mother. If your mom belittles you, that’s not a good sign, Jamie Kreiter, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Chicago, tells Romper in an email exchange. Kreiter says that it’s important to remember that people are resilient and that there’s help out there if you need it.
2. She’s Super Critical
Chances are, nearly every mom out there is a little bit critical every once in awhile, at least, to a certain extent. But if your mom criticizes everything you do, say, decide, wear, and more, that’s another sign of potential emotional abuse, Lauren Dummit, LMFT, CSAT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the co-founder and clinical director of Triune Therapy Group, tells Romper by email.
“Confront the problem,” Dummit says. “Communicate with an attitude of caring that you have been deeply hurt by the abusive behavior and desire a positive relationship. Set boundaries that you will no longer tolerate verbal attacks.”
3. She’s Inconsistent When Dealing With You
It’s one thing if you generally know what to expect when interacting with your mom, but if you never know if you’ll be greeted with love or hostility, that can definitely be stressful and really take a toll on you. “Moms who are emotionally abusive tend to be inconsistent in the way they show love,” Viciere says. “In other words, they can be hot and cold with their children for no apparent reason, and it is highly dependent on their mood. Children who grow up in these households can struggle with feeling anxious due to living in an environment where they grew up not knowing what to expect.”
5. She Gaslights You
Gaslighting (when someone else makes you question your perception of reality in an effort to hold more power in the relationship) is a definite sign of emotional abuse, noted Psychology Today. Cohan says that many emotionally abusive moms who rely on tactics like gaslighting experienced previous trauma in their lives and it’s important to know that. Though there might be a reason that it’s happening, that probably doesn’t make you feel better.
6. She Manipulates You
If your mom tends to manipulate you in an effort to get what she wants, it might cause you to “walk on egg shells” around her, which also can indicate that there’s some emotional abuse going on, Cohan says. Manipulation isn’t loving, even if the person doing it insists that it is.
“If you feel like your mom changes her story to make you look/feel bad, or ‘remembers things differently,’ to prove a point, this might be emotional abuse,” Sara Stanizai, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Romper by email. “It’s actually a form of gaslighting. She may communicate things like she doesn’t want you to get too full of yourself, or accuses you of being conceited, spoiled, or a snob, when in reality your expectations are pretty reasonable.”
8. She Blames You For How She Feels
If your mom blames you for any stress or negative emotions she’s feeling, that’s another sign of emotional abuse. Particularly when the situations have nothing to do with you.
“Bad day at her job? You got a new apartment? Why do you get to live in a cute place while she ‘suffers’ at home? If you feel like you ‘can’t win,’ that’s a sign your mom is emotionally abusive,” Stanizai says.
9. She Ignores Or Rejects You
In some cases, your mom might just ignore you altogether. If she doesn’t seem to care or take any interest in what you’re doing, the decisions your make, your relationships, or any other part of your life, that might be a sign that she’s emotionally abusive, Kreiter says.
“Signs of emotional abuse can be subtle, so the parent may not even see what she is doing as emotional abuse,” she adds. So though you recognize that the way she’s interacting with you — or, rather, not interacting with you — is problematic or abusive, she might not see it that way at all.
10. She’s Always Looking Over Your Shoulder
You shouldn’t have to worry that you mom (or anyone else) is monitoring your every move, but if she is, that’s another potential subtle sign of emotional abuse, Cohan says. This is a controlling behavior, not a loving one.
11. She Gives You The Silent Treatment
When your mom gives you the silent treatment, she’s trying to make a point. She’s essentially saying nothing as loud as a person can, right? This is a potential sign of emotional abuse, Cohan says.
Dummit notes that the first thing you need to do when dealing with emotional abuse is to recognize the abuse in your relationship and realize that there’s a problem here. Even if you knew that she exhibited other signs of emotional abuse, you may not have thought of the silent treatment in that way before. But on the other hand, it may just be that she’s having a bad day. Either way, context and history matter.
13. She Expects You To Make Her Happy
“Moms who are not emotionally stable and not in tune with their emotions will tend to blame anyone close to them for their unhappiness,” Viciere says. “Pay attention to this because as you get older, you may find yourself trying to please her and putting everyone else, including yourself and your own needs, on the back burner. The reality of this situation is that your mom has to learn how to find her own happiness. You will never fix her issues.”
It’s great if you can contribute to her happiness, but your mom’s every happiness or unhappiness shouldn’t be dependent on you, the things that you do, or how you interact with her. She has to take some responsibility as well.
14. Nothing Is Ever Good Enough
If you feel like you can never do enough to please your mother, that’s another sign that she actually might be emotionally abusive.
“If your mom is constantly making you feel bad by speaking negatively about anything you do or try to do, it can be challenging,” Viciere says. “In cases like this, you have to limit the amount of information you are sharing with your mom in order for you not to be bombarded with her negative thoughts. Your mom is only doing what was likely done to her, and this is her way of communicating. Responding and trying to prove yourself to her is not necessary. You will have to work on finding fulfillment in yourself because your mom may not be capable of giving you the support you need.”
It might not make you feel better to know that this is likely the way she communicates because it’s how she learned to do so, but keeping that in mind can, generally, help you protect yourself in your interactions with her.
15. She’s Very Passive-Aggressive
Passive-aggressive behaviors are hard to handle no matter who is engaging in them. “Passive-aggressive behavior is a form of covert control in which one expressing her anger indirectly and seeks to make her points in evasive, underhanded, or deceitful ways, such as invalidating, minimizing, countering,” Dummit explains. If your mom stirs up chaos, tells frequent lies, or can’t commit to anything, those are all signs that she’s acting passive-aggressively.
Having an emotionally abusive mom is definitely difficult for a child (even if that child is now an adult). Seeking help and encouraging her to as well is important. Knowing how to handle the situation — and knowing that it is, in fact, something that you can overcome — can give you a path forward, even when it might feel like there isn’t one.
Celeste Viciere, LMHC, a licensed mental health clinician, author and host of CelesteTheTherapist podcast.
Dr. Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort.
Jamie Kreiter, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker with Jamie Kreiter & Associates Therapy.
Lauren Dummit, LMFT, CSAT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the co-founder and clinical director of Triune Therapy Group.
Sara Stanizai, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Prospect Therapy.