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Is Your Mom The A-Word?

Updated: Mar 26

“And, as the brain is a social organ and hardwired to stay connected, it’s not necessarily prone to letting go easily of a primary attachment. In the brain’s world, better to have a negative bond than the existential death of no bond at all.” - Katherine Woodward Thomas


woman on the phone


Does something about your mom seem off, but you just can’t put your finger on it?


Have things between you and your mom been less than stellar for a while, but labels like “narcissistic mother,” “emotionally immature mother,” “entitled mother,” and “absent mother” miss the mark?


If you answered yes to any of these, no it’s not “all in your head” and no you’re not being “too sensitive.” What you might be dealing with is an abusive mom.


Seeing Mom for who she really is


Abuse. Abusive. Abuser. The dreaded a-word. Look, I get it. Who wants to have an abusive mom? Literally nobody. It’s the club no one wants to be in no matter how cute the t-shirts are.


Having an abusive mother is a lot like being tangled up in one big giant knot. Only at first, you don’t know you’re tangled up in the giant knot. What you do know is that there are these areas in your life where you’re stuck. Maybe for you, it’s your intimate relationships. Or your parenting. Or your mental health. Whatever it is, despite having tried everything, nothing seems to help.


As someone who’s been there myself, I know what you're going through. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was look at my so-called "mommy issues." (A term I have since reclaimed). I don’t know about you, but the younger me would have rather just stayed stuck! But what if I told you that letting myself face my mother wound was the thing that finally set me free? It’s true! Not going to lie, it was certainly really hard at times but it’s still the single best decision I’ve ever made. I'm a better partner, parent, friend, and counselor because I made the choice to unpack my mother wound.


You’re not here by accident


Now don't get me wrong. I’d love nothing more than to sit down with you, hear your story, and assure you that your mom is fine. “Good news! Your mom isn’t anywhere close to being an abusive mom!” I'll tell you.


I don’t need to know you personally to know that having an abusive mom isn’t exactly on your bucket list. Literally, no one in the history of Forever has wanted that. I’ve been doing this work too long (and I studied child development and attachment in graduate school too much) to believe that people click into articles with titles like this one because things with Mom are sunshine and butterflies. Something made you click in. And that something matters.


Mother: center of our universe


I won’t go full-out psychology nerd on you, but here’s the key takeaway: We humans are hardwired to think the absolute best of our primary caregiver, aka our mother. (Important progress in women’s rights aside, for the vast majority of us mom is still our primary caregiver.) The whole process happens in a matter of seconds without us ever actively thinking about it. Here’s what this looks like:

  1. Little you is with Mom.

  2. Mom does something.

  3. Your brain springs into action to code that something. The options are either “safe” or “unsafe.”

Regardless of what the something is, the infant's brain comes programmed to “round up” and code it as safe when Mom is the one acting. It’s a lot like rounding numbers in math class. Remember how you were taught to round up if it was a five or higher no matter what? So for example, 0.5 rounds up to 1. When it’s our primary caregiver, we do the same thing: “It’s Mom therefore it’s safe.”


For better or for worse, the brain we come into the world with is a brain that’s evolved over thousands of years to maintain close proximity with our caregivers even if they're harmful. And this feature isn’t one we can turn off just because we've turned 18.


But wait! There’s more. Add on top of that the cultural narrative you’ve been hearing since birth that says “All moms love their kids!” and “No one will ever love you as much as your mom!” Now you’ve got nature AND nurture keeping you solidly on Team Mom. You wouldn’t even be thinking of looking under the abusive mom rock unless something had gone really, really, really sideways.


An epidemic of abusive mothering


While I can’t shoo you away from reading this blog post since you’re here because you need to be here, the next best thing I can do is tell you just how not-alone you are. In fact, your timing couldn’t be any better. We’re experiencing an epidemic of abusive mothering. Two years ago I would have told you it was a “silent epidemic,” but that’s not the case today. Now people are speaking out about their experiences with their abusive mothers in numbers we’ve never seen before.


You’re not alone


While this sea change is good news for those of us who have abusive mothers—we’re 1) definitely not alone in our struggles and 2) more and more support to meet the ever-increasing need is coming online each day—it’s obviously not great news for humanity as a whole. The question inevitably becomes, “How did we get here, and what do we need to do to fix it?”


The answers to these questions are incredibly important. As I write this, social scientists are rushing to quantify and ultimately make sense of this unprecedented problem. When what was once the single most stable of all human relationships—the mother-child relationship—is increasingly buckling at the seams, it’s no wonder that rates of mental illness, estrangement, addiction, loneliness, and family collapse just continue to rise.


How to use the second part of this blog post


In the second part of this blog post, I’ll be going over each of the 22 different characteristics of abusive moms. To help illustrate each of the characteristics I’ll also be including stories from real people. As you read each characteristic, notice where your heart and mind go: Do you feel reminded of your experiences with your own mom?


To qualify as an abusive mom a mom needs to exhibit at least one or more of the 22 characteristics. While some abusive mothers exhibit all 22 of these characteristics, the majority exhibit 3-8 characteristics.


Healing is possible


If in the course of learning about the 22 characteristics of abusive mothers, you realize you do have an abusive mom, please know you’re not alone and that healing is possible. Having an abusive mother does not define you, and it doesn’t mean you’re destined to be like her, either. To learn about healing from an abusive mom, click here.


And now it’s time for the 22 characteristics of abusive mothers. Let’s get started.


1. She’s self-centered


There’s understanding the importance of self-care and a bit of me-time, and then there’s being self-centered. abusive moms often tend towards the latter.

Being self-centered can show up as:

  • Ignoring your needs to prioritize her preferences.

  • Acting as if your feelings about her mistreatment of you are the problem rather than her mistreatment of you

  • Normal parenting tasks like helping you get ready for school seem like an inconvenience or bother to her.



2. She’s controlling


Being a parent does not mean lording over your child like a dictator and controlling their every thought and move. Sadly some abusive moms take it that far.


Being controlling can show up as:

  • Telling you how to raise your own children.

  • Only paying for something if she wants you to have it (e.g. toys, hobbies, clothing, college degrees).

  • Planning your day/activities/vacation for you.



3. She plays the “horrible mother” card


A giveaway that your mother is an abusive mother is she has responded to you by saying anything along the lines of, “I’m just a horrible mother I guess.” This is a form of emotional manipulation.


Reasons abusive moms play the “horrible mother” card include:

  • To make you feel bad for saying anything “negative” about her behavior, actions, or parenting.

  • To get you to comfort her by saying something like, “Oh no, mom. You’re a great mother!”

  • To distract you from talking about the real issue.



4. She sees your independence as betrayal


Healthy mothers welcome their child’s burgeoning independence. But for many abusive mothers, the independence of their child is seen as a bad thing.


Seeing your independence as betrayal can look like:

  • Acting as if you’re rejecting her by getting serious with someone in a dating relationship or getting married.

  • Guilting you for spending “too much time” with your friends and not her.

  • Implying or saying you were wrong to take steps towards independence (e.g. not asking her to do your hair anymore, going to college, getting your own place).



5. She liked it better when you were easy to control


You might think all mothers enjoy watching their children grow up and blossom into their own unique selves, but when it comes to abusive mothers, think again. While it’s certainly not the case for all abusive mothers, a sizable number love their children less when they’re no longer young enough to easily manipulate, boss around, or control.


A mother who prefers more controllable children might:

  • Have another baby when her child becomes “not my little girl anymore.”

  • Talk with a baby voice to an older child.

  • Become sad and even cry on birthdays because “my baby’s getting too big.”



6. She’s all about image


Healthy mothers do not care more about their image than they care about their children. Unfortunately, it’s common for abusive mothers to prioritize what others think of them over their children’s needs and feelings.


A mother who’s all about image might:

  • Tell you not to talk about certain things outside of the house (e.g. family arguments, money problems).

  • Go from yelling at you to answering the phone sounding all soft and sweet in a matter of seconds.

  • Pay a lot of attention to you in public, but when you’re at home practically ignore you.



7. She tries to isolate you


An abusive mother who wants more influence over her child will often isolate her child from friends and sometimes even other family members. The smaller their social network, the fewer people a child has to go to for help, which of course serves to increase the abusive mother’s power.


Attempting to isolate you can include:

  • Preventing you from making friends.

  • Using a smear campaign to damage your reputation or even shrink your social circle.

  • Pressuring you to end friendships/relationships for unfounded or ridiculous reasons.



8. She’s spiritually abusive


It’s one thing for a mother to have her own spiritual or religious beliefs, but it’s another thing altogether to force her child to follow suit. Unfortunately, abusive mothers often get this very confused.


Spiritual abuse can look like:

  • Forcing you to go to church or other religious services.

  • Pressuring you to believe what she believes about matters of spirituality, religion, faith, belief, etc.

  • Not allowing you to learn about or engage in spirituality, religion, faith, belief, etc. that interests you.



9. She’s misogynistic


A mother might be a woman, but that doesn’t mean she has worked to address her own internalized misogyny. In fact, abusive mothers are often the first people to teach their children that women and girls are less than.


Misogynistic mothering can sound like:

  • “You can’t play with that. It’s for girls. Yucky.”

  • “Nice little girls don’t get angry.”

  • “No man’s ever going to want you if you talk like that.”



10. She’s emotionally abusive


Emotional abuse comes in many different shapes and sizes. My research has shown that almost all abusive mothers are emotionally abusive at least occasionally.


Emotional abuse can sound like:

  • “You’re miserable to be around.”

  • “I have to love you, but I don’t have to like you.”

  • “Get out of my sight.”



11. She threatens to abandon you


Young children are wholly dependent upon their parents. Mothers who threaten to abandon their children as a means to control, scare, or punish them are not only abusive, they’re also cruel.


Threats of abandonment can include:

  • Pretending to call social services to come pick you up.

  • Threatening to send you back to your “real parents.”

  • Driving by the police station and threatening to drop you off and leave you there.



12. She’s neglectful


Sometimes a mother is an abusive mother because of what she fails to do rather than what she does do (e.g. punishment, yelling, spanking, etc.). When resources are available and a mother chooses to not help her child access these resources (and the child is in need), this qualifies as neglect.


Neglect can look like:

  • Not providing you with proper attire for the weather.

  • Not helping you with daily care activities before you can reasonably be expected to do them without help.

  • Ignoring you when you are crying or upset.



13. She destroys your things


A mother might be upset, but this is not an excuse for her to destroy her child’s possessions. Some abusive mothers, however, treat their children as if nothing really belongs to them, and this is incredibly damaging.


Property destruction can include:

  • Smashing your device (e.g. tablet, computer).

  • Flushing your toy down the toilet.

  • Throwing away your shoes or clothing.




14. She minimizes your success


Not all mothers beam with pride for their children. For a sizable number of abusive mothers, the success of their children is something they work hard to downplay.


Minimizing your success can sound like:

  • “Anyone can do that.”

  • “Well compared to your sister, that new job’s not all that special.”

  • “But my friend’s daughter gets paid even more.”



15. She’s hypocritical


Hypocrisy is another common trait of abusive mothers. If they do something, it’s fine. But you go and do that same something? Totally not fine.

Hypocrisy can look like:

  • Telling you not to call people at work and then calling you at work.

  • Telling you to apologize to your sibling and then not apologizing to you.

  • Shaming you for buying new clothes and then buying herself new clothes.



16. She plays favorites

It’s not surprising that favoritism in families is damaging. Unfortunately, there are abusive mothers who do the whole favoritism thing so much that they’ll even admit to it all on their own.


Playing favorites can look like:

  • Having the ability to pay for both siblings to go to college but choosing to only pay for one

  • Taking tons of pictures of one child and hardly any of another

  • Consistently spending more time with one adult child and set of grandchildren than the other



16. She’s not accountable


Psychologist and relationship expert Harriet Lerner says the words “I’m sorry” are the two most important words we can say to someone we care about. Tell this to a group of abusive mothers though, and let’s just say they aren’t likely to believe you.


Not being accountable can include:

  • Refusing to apologize when needed

  • Giving insincere apologies (e.g. fauxpologies)

  • Expecting you to “just get over it”



18. She’s physically abusive


If it’s illegal to walk up and hit an adult, there’s no reason at all for a mother of all people to do the same thing to her child. It doesn’t matter if she thought it was ok. The fact is, it’s not.


Physical abuse can include:

  • “Spanking” aka hitting

  • Pulling hair

  • Pinching or twisting your arm




It’s very rare for an abusive mother to not be verbally abusive. Verbal abuse may have been normalized in many families, but that still doesn’t make it okay.


Verbal abuse can sound like:

  • “Wipe that smile off your face you little b*tch.”

  • “Why are you so annoying all the time?”

  • “Shut up!”



20. She plays the victim


Abusive mothers will often play the victim because they want to shift the focus away from themselves and their own actions onto their child. It’s a method used to avoid accountability.


Playing the victim can sound like:

  • “You’re the one who’s hurting me by saying I said something that hurt you when you were six!”

  • “I’m not going to be your punching bag.”

  • “I can’t believe you’re saying I was a bad mother after everything I did for you!”



21. She lacks empathy


If your mom doesn’t respond to you with empathy, you’re not alone. For many people who have an abusive mom, it can be surprising to find out that other mothers actually care when their children are struggling.


Lacking empathy might look like:

  • You stub your toe and she says, “Watch where you’re going.”

  • You tell her she said something offensive about your mental illness and she just shrugs her shoulders.

  • Your car breaks down, you call her asking for help, and she says, “It’s not my problem.”



22. She emotion shames you


We talk a lot about body shaming, but we also need to talk about emotion shaming. As it turns out, some of the most frequent emotion shamers are abusive mothers. According to these moms, you’re bad or broken just for feeling certain feelings.

Emotion shaming can sound like:

  • “You’re crying over nothing again.”

  • “What’s wrong with you? Only weak people feel sad for this long.”

  • “I don’t want to hear about it. Go whine to someone else.”



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