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The Emotionally Abusive Mothers’ Playbook: Blame-Shifting

Updated: May 28

“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 were raised by an emotionally abusive mom, chances are you’ve probably encountered gaslighting’s cousin—blame-shifting. Blame-shifting is a common form of emotional abuse that’s used by emotionally abusive mothers (and other abusive parents and caregivers) to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. Blame-shifting can occur consciously and unconsciously.


Some will tell you that blame-shifting is solely associated with moms who have narcissistic personality disorder. Not only is this ableist, it’s also extremely shortsighted. Just because a mother doesn’t meet the criteria for NPD doesn’t mean she isn’t capable (and guilty) of blame-shifting.


Since blame-shifting is a dysfunctional communication behavior rather than a symptom of a particular mental illness, it can help to think of blame-shifting as existing on a spectrum. Picture it like this: On one end of the blame-shifting spectrum are the healthy moms—these moms don’t blame-shift—while on the other end are the highly emotionally abusive moms—these moms regularly blame-shift.


In today’s blog post, we’re delving deep into what blame-shifting is, how it manifests, what motivates emotionally abusive mothers to resort to blame-shifting in the first place, and also the detrimental effects of this insidious form of emotional abuse. To close we’ll go over some proven strategies you can use the next time your mom (or any other parent or caregiver) tries to blame-shift you, so be sure to stick around to the end.


What is Maternal Blame-Shifting?


Remember the old “My dog ate my homework”? That’s blame-shifting. In emotionally abusive mother-child relationships, however, blame-shifting isn’t all in good fun. It’s a form of emotional abuse.


Maternal blame-shifting occurs when a mom attempts to transfer accountability for her actions (or lack thereof) to someone or something else. Ultimately, blame-shifting is a manipulation strategy used by emotionally abusive moms to evade personal responsibility for their bad behavior.


When it comes to who or what emotionally abusive moms will try to shift the blame onto, well the options are endless. Some of the most common targets of an emotionally abusive mom’s blame-shifting include:


  • You—“I did that because you…”

  • Her ex partner—“I did that because my ex…”

  • Your partner—“I did that because your wife…”

  • Your other parent—“I did that because your dad…”

  • Her therapist—“I did that because my therapist…”

  • Your therapist—“I did that because your therapist…”

  • Her feelings—“I did that because I was so upset.”

  • Your feelings—“I did that because you were so angry.”


What About Intentionality?


While some moms blame-shift intentionally, others do so unintentionally. But try not to get caught up in your emotionally abusive mom’s intentions. “But she had good intentions” is one of those roads that keep many people from successfully healing the mother wound. You know what matters more than your mom’s intent? Her actual impact on you.


Think of it this way: A crushed bike isn’t suddenly less crushed just because the person who backed their car over it didn’t plan to back their car over it. The same is true for your mom and blame-shifting.


What Does Maternal Blame-Shifting Sound Like?


Maternal blame-shifting comes in many different shapes and sizes. Some common examples of it include:


  • “If you behaved better as a kid I wouldn't have needed to spank you.”

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

  • “I had to hang up on you because you were so angry.”

  • “I only yelled at you because of your bad attitude.”

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

  • “It’s your fault our relationship is so messed up. You’re the one who can’t let go of the past.”

  • “Throughout high school you said you said you were going to go to my alma mater, and then you changed your mind. That’s why I won’t help with your college tuition. I can’t reward a liar.”


Breaking Down Maternal Blame-Shifting


In all of the above examples, the mom is attempting to shift the focus away from herself and her own harmful choices onto her child. Not quite seeing it yet? That’s okay because I’m going to break the first three examples down for you so you’ll be able to see exactly where the blame-shifting is occurring.


Blame-Shifting Mom Example #1


Mom: “If you behaved better as a kid I wouldn't have needed to spank you.”


In this first example the emotionally (and also physically) abusive mom is blame-shifting her choice to physically assault her child onto the child themselves. What she’s essentially saying is, “The problem isn’t that I hit you. The problem is that you made me hit you,” and therein lies the blame-shift. But the whole premise is off. Children can’t make their parents physically assault them. An adult’s choice to become violent with a child has nothing to do with that child and everything to do with that abusive adult, moms included.


Blame-Shifting Mom Example #2


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


In this next example the emotionally abusive mom is blame-shifting her poor time management onto her child all the way back when they were an infant. What she’s essentially saying is, “As a baby you were responsible for making me late to work.” If this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is! Babies cry. That’s literally what they do. Can’t navigate a baby behaving like a baby? Don’t become a parent. It really is that simple.


Blame-Shifting Mom Example #3


Mom: “I had to hang up on you because you were so angry.”


In this third example the emotionally abusive mom is trying to make her child’s feelings the problem by shifting the blame onto them. In reality, the real problem is that the mom gave the silent treatment by hanging up. Feeling angry all by itself is not a problem. It only becomes a problem when someone responds to their anger in ways that are harmful to themselves or others. In this example, we have no indication that this is happening. What we do know is the mom is attempting to convince her child that their anger with her (either real or imagined) is the problem, and that right there is where the line gets crossed.


And in case you’re wondering if it’s always wrong to hang up the phone on someone, the answer is an unequivocal no. There are times when ending a phone call ASAP is the best thing you can do. Going back to example #3, had the adult child been {verbally abusive} to the mom, it would have been perfectly reasonable for the mom to say, “I’m hanging up because you’re being verbally abusive,” and then do so.


Ending a conversation to take care of yourself when another adult’s behaving abusively towards you isn’t blame-shifting. It’s having a healthy boundary. Hanging up the phone on another person only becomes problematic when it’s done for no good reason (like say someone just feeling a feeling).


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.

  • She’s trying to avoid accountability.

  • 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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