Toxic mothers can have a profound and lasting impact on their children’s emotional well-being and development. In this Parade article, Mindpath Health’s Kiana Shelton, LCSW, provides signs and tips to heal from a toxic mother.
The word “toxic” gets thrown around on Instagram and TikTok these days—with or without the Britney Spears hit playing underneath. However, just because it’s worked its way into a modern layperson’s lexicon (that also includes terms like “gaslighting” and “narcissism” once whispered in therapy rooms) doesn’t mean relationships can’t be toxic (and harmful). Unhealthy mother-child relationships can have negative effects long after a person gains legal freedom at age 18.
“The impact of toxic parenting can be felt for many years,” says Michele Goldman, PhD. “Possible side effects for the child include anxiety, depression, anger and behavioral issues, unhealthy relationships with others and enacting similar unhealthy toxic traits in interpersonal relationships.”
First, a disclaimer: “Obviously, both parents can be equally toxic,” says Jaime Zuckerman, PsyD, a psychologist and narcissism expert.
What is a toxic mother?
There’s not a clinical definition. Generally, “A toxic mother is one who consistently engages in behaviors that are harmful to her child despite feedback,” says Kiana Shelton, LCSW with Mindpath Health.
What might these behaviors look like?
“A toxic mother creates a dynamic where they may play the victim and sabotage the success of their child,” says Tara Lally, PhD. “They may also live vicariously through the child to compensate for their own inadequacies, and when not the center of attention, they may attempt to use guilt or coercion to control the situation.”
How does a toxic mother differ from a toxic father?
It’s complicated, Zuckerman stresses. Any parent, regardless of sex or gender identity, might display some of the flags below.
“Narcissistic mothers will view children, particularly daughters, as an extension of themselves, almost like a doll, and any move toward autonomy like getting engaged is viewed as abandonment,” Zuckerman says.
Zuckerman says that toxic fathers may be more narcissistic and consistently disconnected.
8 signs you have a toxic mother
If every night is game night and the blame game is what mom always seems to pick, she’s probably toxic.
“Blaming can be anything from [a mother being] like, ‘I had a bad day at work. I come, and my kid left their LEGO on the floor, so I scream at them and tell them my day is ruined,” Zuckerman says.
2. Verbal or emotional abuse
Abuse isn’t limited to physical—and none of it is okay.
“This puts the child in a place where they are questioning their worth and what is real—their reality versus that of what their parent tells them. It creates a dynamic of power and harm in the relationship,” Goldman says.
Shelton says that toxic mothers will consistently wave this red flag.
“They may put their own needs and wants ahead of their child’s,” Shelton explains.
Zuckerman says moms who display this sign of toxic parenting often do so with their child’s best interest in mind.
“Sometimes parents aren’t toxic with malicious intent,” she says.
What’s wrong with that? A lot—if it goes too far.
Sometimes, over-involvement might look like calling the parents of a coach who cut a child from the soccer team or the teacher who gave the kid a lower-than-expected grade. Seeing a child upset or disappointed is rough but necessary.
While some parents beam with pride if a child lands a dream job or meets a wonderful partner, toxic parents see it as a threat.
“Unhealthy parents may tend to demonstrate manipulative tactics in order to have the child reprioritize or re-examine other people or things, like sports, splitting their time or attention,” says Goldman.
6. Boundary issues
Toxic moms will burst through metaphorical caution tape and stop signs within the parent-child relationship.
“Toxic parents tend to overstep boundaries, ignore boundaries and set boundaries without communicating them to the child. This all impacts the ability of the child to relate to the parent in a healthy way,” says Goldman.
7. Controlling behaviors
Autonomy is also a threat to toxic mothers.
To counteract autonomy, Goldman says toxic mothers might lean into controlling behaviors.
Shelton says toxic mothers may have issues with substance abuse or gambling.
“Abusing substances or gambling can interfere with their ability to effectively parent,” Shelton says.
How to heal from a toxic mother
This step is hard but necessary for children who grew up with toxic mothers, especially if mom wasn’t big on boundaries. Still, multiple experts say it’s a vital step to healing.
“A boundary can include setting limits to the time one visits with a toxic parent, the frequency of phone calls or the topics they are willing to discuss,” Lally says.
Even setting boundaries can be a stress-fest with a toxic parent. Therapy is important in talking through past and present issues. Sometimes, bringing the mother might actually help she’s willing to change.
Lally recommends journaling, meditation, or walking. Zuckerman says dinner with a friend can help.