I counsel many mothers in my practice who, after a period of exploration, realize that they have unresolved emotional distress stemming from their relationships with their mothers. Some of my client's mothers are no longer living; however, their painful childhood still impacts them and may influence how they relate to their children. Revisiting their childhood brings into focus how difficult it was growing up in the home with their mother. Once we enter into the learner phase of therapy, we can further examine the parent-child relationship.
I often refer to Peg Streep's research on toxic mothers. She describes eight parenting styles that toxic mothers demonstrated while interacting with their children. The Dismissive Mother ignored their daughter's presence, feelings, and requests. The dismissive mother treated her daughter like she was insignificant and unworthy of attention. When the parent inquired about the child's needs, the parent still ignored or provided the opposite of the request. The dismissive mother was often irritated and made the daughter feel that she was in the way. As a result, the daughter of the dismissive mother felt lonely, abandoned, and angry.
The Controlling Mother also didn't acknowledge their child's feelings; additionally, she micromanaged her daughter's decisions. Daughters with controlling mothers were not allowed a voice, nor were they allowed to make even the most trivial decisions, such as how to style their hair. Daughters of controlling mothers grew up feeling insecure, inadequate, and incapable of making good choices.
The Emotionally Unavailable parent did not show attention to their daughter. They may have even shown attention to another child but emotionally abandoned their daughter. Emotionally unavailable mothers leave their children emotionally desperate and needy in relationships.
The Enmeshed Mother has no boundaries. She lives her life through her daughter, who must stay connected to her mother emotionally and physically. Enmeshed parents do not allow their daughters the freedom to choose their direction in life. The enmeshed mother may select their daughter's mate, friends, and career. The daughter is left feeling obligated to fulfill her mother's wishes and may even feel smothered by the mother-daughter relationship.
The Combative Mother is jealous, competitive, verbally abusive, blaming, shaming, and overall mean. She may even blame her daughter for her hurtful behavior. Daughters of combative mothers feel unworthy and engage in self-blame. Sometimes these hostile mothers are angry because they blame the daughter for unfulfilled dreams.
Unreliable Mothers are inconsistent, hot and cold, sporadic. Daughters of unpredictable mothers don't know what to expect, which leads to confusion and anxiety.
The seventh toxic parenting type is the Self-Involved Mother. This mom is often referred to as a narcissist by her daughter. The self-involved mom sees her daughter as an extension of herself. This mom is incapable of empathy because she is only concerned with her image and other people's thoughts. The self-involved mom's interest in her daughter is superficial and limited to how her daughter's actions impact her. These are the mothers who look very good on the outside because they are concerned about appearances. This personality type is difficult for daughters because while their mothers are putting on a show for onlookers, the daughter's emotional insides are screaming, "hypocrite!"
The eighth and final toxic parent personality, according to Streep, is called the Role Reversal Mother. This mom requires that her daughter take care of them. Mothers who reverse roles with their daughters may have had their children very young, or most often, the mother may suffer from substance abuse or mental illness.
By the time the daughters of toxic mothers reach my office, they have either cut off the relationship with their mothers or only maintain a superficial relationship out of moral obligation. I also see mothers estranged from their daughters. My therapeutic work with mothers estranged from their daughters focuses on understanding their parenting styles and how the relationship became distant. Most mothers were not aware of the etiology of their relationship struggles, and the insight enlightens her. Some mothers are even motivated to apologize to their daughters.
During the exploration and learner phase of therapy, daughters of toxic mothers often find relief and emotional freedom from their childhood. Some have a desire to re-engage with their mothers. Parents with children also recognize that their relationship with their mothers may have negatively impacted their parenting style. Both mothers and daughters of toxic relationships may even forgive themselves because they now understand that people do their best at any given period with their resources, and insight is a great resource.
Streep, Peg - 8 Toxic Patterns in Mother-Daughter Relationships: Despite Commonalities There are Differences. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tech-support/201502/8-toxic-patterns-in-mother-daughter-relationships
• Lisa Hill, Ph.D., is an associate professor in criminal justice at California State University, East Bay and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She also worked for county and federal probation departments for three decades and wrote a book based on that experience. She and her husband live in Tracy and have four children. Contact her at email@example.com.