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The Emotionally Abusive Mothers’ Playbook: Blame-Shifting

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” - James Baldwin

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If you grew up with an abusive mom or you have the mother wound, chances are good you’ve experienced blame-shifting. Blame-shifting is a form of emotional abuse that’s common amongst mothers (and other parents/caregivers) who either consciously or unconsciously want to avoid responsibility for their own actions.

While some might try to tell you that blame-shifting exists only within the domain of cluster B personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder, this is far from the case. Blame-shifting is a communication behavior, not a mental health diagnosis. If a mother is capable of communicating then she’s also capable of blame-shifting.

In today’s blog post we’re talking about what blame-shifting is, what blame-shifting sounds like, why abusive mothers blame-shift, why blame-shifting is so harmful, and finally, how you can respond the next time your mom blame-shifts.

What is blame-shifting?

Blame-shifting happens when an abusive mother attempts to shift the responsibility for her own actions (or inactions) onto someone or something else. It’s a manipulation tactic that’s particularly common amongst mothers who are unwilling to take personal accountability for their choices, behavior, actions, opinions, or mistakes.

What do blame-shifting moms sound like?

Blame-shifting by abusive mothers comes in all different shapes and sizes. Some common examples include:

  • "If you had been more behaved as a child then I wouldn't have needed to spank you."

  • “You made me late to work with all your crying as a baby."

  • “I have to hang up the phone on you so much because you’re constantly angry with me."

  • "I only yelled at you because of your disrespectful attitude."

  • “The reason I said those things is because I’m heartbroken about what you said to me the other day.”

  • “It’s your fault our relationship has gotten to this point. You’re the one who can’t let go of the past and forgive me.”

  • “Throughout high school you said you’d go to my alma mater, and then you changed your mind, so that’s why I won’t help with your college tuition anymore.”

In each of the above examples, the mother is attempting to redirect the focus from herself and/or her poor choices onto her child in one way or another. Let’s break the first four down so you can directly see what I’m talking about.

Mom A: If you had been more behaved as a child then I wouldn't have needed to spank you.

Mom A is blame-shifting her violent behavior on to her adult child. She’s essentially saying, “The problem isn’t that I hit you when you were a child. The problem is that you were badly behaved as a child.” In reality, it’s never okay to physically assault someone, children included.

Mom B: You made me late to work with all your crying as a baby.

Mom B is blame-shifting her own poor time management on to her child as a baby. She’s essentially saying to her adult child, “As a baby, in doing something all babies do, you were responsible for making me late to work.” In reality, a baby cannot “make” their parent late to work. It’s the responsibility of the parent to handle their own schedule.

Mom C: I have to hang up the phone on you so much because you’re constantly angry with me.

Mom C is blame-shifting hanging up on her child on to her child for (checks notes) feeling a feeling about her. In case someone sends this blog post to their abusive mom to read (and hopefully learn from), I’ll break this down: 1) it’s not wrong in any way for a child of any age to feel angry with their mother, 2) children are allowed to feel angry with their mothers, and 3) a child feeling angry with their mother is not a valid reason for said mother to hang up on her own child. In reality, feelings don’t hang up phones. People do.

Mom D: I only yelled at you because of your disrespectful attitude.

Mom D is blame-shifting her verbal abuse on to her child’s attitude. She’s essentially saying, “Your attitude made me yell at you, therefore the problem is you on account of your attitude!” In reality, someone else’s attitude can’t “make” someone decide to yell. The yelling is on the person who decided to yell.

Why is blame-shifting so harmful?

The key problem with blame-shifting is that it distorts reality. For one thing, it can cause a child who was hurt by an abusive mother to think of themselves as responsible for the abuse. Here’s an example of how this might look in real life:

Daughter: Mom it really hurt me when you cancelled our plans to go the zoo together so last minute.

Mom: I cancelled the zoo trip last minute because you told me you're healing your mother wound. I was just too heartbroken by you to come.

Daughter: [thinks to self, “I’m the reason the zoo plans fell through. I never should have told Mom I'm healing my mother wound. I offended her. It’s my fault. How could I have expected her to keep our zoo plans after I hurt her so much?”]

In the zoo trip scenario above, the daughter is not to blame for anything (including telling her mom she's healing her mother wound). Nevertheless, her emotionally abusive mom blame-shifts, and this results in the daughter feeling as though she’s at fault for her mom’s decision to cancel their zoo plans.

What began as the daughter bringing a valid concern about cancelled plans to her mom quickly morphed in to the daughter holding herself responsible for her mom’s manipulative last minute cancellation, and her mom slipping right off the accountability hook. The daughter had every right to tell her mom she has the mother wound. Her mom had every right to feel however she felt about her daughter healing her mother wound. What the mom never had the right to do is take her feelings out on her daughter by punishing her with cancelled plans.

Why do abusive mothers blame-shift?

There’s a number of different reasons that abusive mother engage in blame-shifting. Some of these reasons are conscious, but many of them are not. It’s important to remember that unconscious blame-shifting is still blame-shifting. Just like the person who falls asleep and crashes into a pedestrian isn’t less at fault because they were asleep, the mother who blame-shifts without consciously knowing she’s blame-shifting is still being emotionally abusive. Reasons a mother might blame-shift include:

  • She’s uncomfortable with making mistakes.

  • She believes parents always need to be right.

  • When she was a child her parent(s) blame-shifted frequently so she picked it up.

  • She thinks she’s above being called out for her shortcomings.

  • She wants to maintain power and control.

How to respond to Mom’s blame-shifting

Remember Mom A, Mom B, Mom C, and Mom D? Well, I’m bringing them and their insufferable blame-shifting back one more time—I promise this is the last time you’ll hear from them—so you can meet their badass adult kids. See it’s for a good cause! Let’s watch Kid A, Kid, B, Kid C, and Kid D call their moms on their blame-shifting:

Mom A: If you had been more behaved as a child then I wouldn't have needed to spank you.

Kid A: What you’re saying is blame-shifting, and it’s not okay. How I behaved as a child was never an excuse for you to become violent and hit me. Your behavior is your responsibility.

Mom B: You made me late to work with all your crying as a baby.

Kid B: Are you really suggesting that baby me was responsible for making you, an adult, late to work? That’s blame-shifting. Babies aren’t responsible for knowing their mother’s work schedule.

Mom C: I have to hang up the phone on you so much because you’re constantly angry with me.

Kid C: You’re blame-shifting. I’m allowed to feel angry, and I’m allowed to feel angry with you. My feelings are valid. What’s not valid is you hanging up the phone and effectively stonewalling me because you’re uncomfortable with my feelings. My feelings aren’t at fault here. Your actions are.

Mom D: I only yelled at you because of your disrespectful attitude.

Kid D: Mom, I was seven. Your choice to verbally abuse me by yelling at me was not my fault as a 7-year-old kid. What you’re doing is called blame-shifting. It was always your job as my parent to manage your own emotions and respond to me with kindness, even when I was doing something you didn’t like.

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