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9 Signs You Have a Toxic Mother, According to Therapists

If you're struggling to have a healthy relationship with your parent, there could be a reason.

Growing up in a safe and loving family is something everyone deserves. Unfortunately, it's not something everyone gets. All too often, children find themselves under the care of people who just aren't equipped to be parents—creating toxic dynamics within the household instead of healthy relationships. These same dynamics often play out well into adulthood. But what does it really mean to have a toxic mother? We consulted mental health professionals to get their insights and guidance. Read on to learn more about what counts as true toxicity, and the warning signs you should be aware of.

RELATED: 7 Signs You've Been Raised By a Narcissistic Mother, Therapist Says.

What Is a Toxic Mother?

Sad mature woman grown up daughter or grandkid sitting on sofa hugging

To recognize the signs of a toxic mother, you must first understand exactly what that is.

As Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author Carole Lieberman, MD, explains to Best Life, a "toxic mother" is generally one who "puts her desires or needs before her child."

"This is a mother who is self-involved and immature and as a result cannot be there for her child or really even see who her child is and what they might be needing," licensed clinical psychologist Maya Weir, PsyD, shares.

How Do Toxic Mothers Affect Their Children?

Angry aged mother quarreling, arguing with son, bad family relationships concept, parent and child conflict, different age generations

Toxic mothers are not just passively selfish. Instead, the toxic mother's behavior "negatively affects her child's emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical well-being," explains licensed family and marriage therapist Rachel Goldberg, MS.

"When people refer to having a toxic mother, they often indicate patterns of manipulation, control, neglect, or abuse," she says. "Over time these behaviors can significantly impact a child's self-esteem, sense of security, outside relationships, and overall mental health."

Delving a little deeper, Sophie Cress, a licensed marriage and family therapist with over eight years of experience, warns that the risks of having a toxic mother are "significant and extensive."

"A toxic mother is a parent whose actions and engagements with her children are consistently harmful, manipulative, or neglectful, creating an unhealthy and often damaging atmosphere," she says. "These actions disrupt the natural development of a healthy parent-child relationship, resulting in various emotional and psychological issues for the child."

These issues may include "low self-esteem and self-worth; chronic anxiety, depression, and difficulty trusting their own perceptions and feelings; a deep sense of unlovability; identity confusion; and a persistent sense of inadequacy," according to Cress.

RELATED: I'm a Therapist and These Are 6 Signs Your Sibling Is Toxic.

9 Signs of a Toxic Mother

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While it can be "challenging and painful" to recognize that your mother is toxic, there will likely be indicators, according to Cress. In fact, she says that there are usually several "clear signs that indicate a toxic maternal relationship." Read on to find out what you should be aware of.

RELATED: 5 Red Flags Your Parent Is a Narcissist, According to Therapists.

1. She's constantly criticizing you.

Toxic mother verbally abusing child, arguing with kid at home, sad depressed girl daughter sitting on sofa hugging pillow and crying while mom scolding her. Difficult mother-daughter relationship

One of the "biggest telltale signs" of a toxic mother is consistently receiving put-downs or heavy criticism, according to Rachel Ann Dine, a licensed professional clinical counselor located in Southern California.

"Put-downs could range from chastising what you ordered for lunch to how you parent your own child—and can be centered on who you are as a person or healthy choices you've made in your life," she explains.

Constant criticism from a parent can "create high levels of self-doubt" in a child, leading them to have "difficulty making decisions that feel healthy" for themselves, Dine notes.

2. She's always comparing you to someone else.

Happy adult mother holding smartphone and daughter using laptop, reading news at home. Woman pointing on screen. Generation and relationship concept

If she's not overtly criticizing you, a toxic mother might also turn to subtly putting you down through constant comparisons to siblings, peers, or even strangers, according to Goldberg.

"They'll do it in a way that diminishes the child's worth," she notes. "For example, a mother might say, 'Why can't you dress more appropriately like your friend?' which can damage a child's self-esteem and create a scenario where they believe they have to compete to get positive attention."

RELATED: 9 Red Flags You're Related to a Narcissist, Therapists Say.

3. She never gives you a turn to speak.

Supportive millennial girl embrace caress crying upset middle-aged mom suffering from life problems, caring grownup adult daughter comfort depressed sad mature mother showing love and support

Since a toxic mother is one who puts her needs before her child's, you'll find that you don't get much time to speak about yourself. On the contrary, you might notice that "she talks and talks in conversations" and never makes time to "listen to her child," according to Weir.

"Mothers are generally supposed to be curious about their children's experiences and try their best to meet their children's needs," she says. "So when the mother lacks curiosity and is more occupied with her own needs than her child's needs, these are indicators of a toxic mother."

4. She always finds ways to dismiss your feelings.

mature mom and adult daughter have fight at home while sitting on sofa

Even if you do get a chance to talk, you might not find it very beneficial. This is because a toxic mother is often "emotionally unavailable, indifferent, or dismissive of her child's feelings and needs," Goldberg explains.

For instance, imagine a child confiding in their mother about getting bullied at school and being afraid to go back.

"A toxic mother might respond with, 'Life is tough, and you need to toughen up—if you can't handle this, you'll struggle in life,' which sends the message that the child's feelings and fears are invalid," Goldberg shares. "It also implies that the child cannot rely on anyone to improve their situation, discouraging them from seeking help in the future."

5. She's a master of emotional manipulation.

older woman comforting her upset young adult son, gives wise advice in difficult life situation, talking, provide psychological support showing care seated on couch, spend time together at home

Guilt-tripping, passive-aggressive behavior, or playing the victim are also common tactics in a toxic mother's handbook. Emotional manipulation like this is just one of the ways she can gain control over her child's actions and emotions, according to Goldberg.

"For example, a toxic mother might say, 'I just made your favorite dinner, and now you're going to your friends and leaving me here alone for the evening?'" Goldberg says. "This sends the message that the child's actions are responsible for others' feelings, leading them to believe they must distance themselves from people to avoid being blamed for others' emotions."

RELATED: 4 Signs Your Parent Is Gaslighting You, Therapist Says.

6. She has unpredictable mood swings.

mother and daughter standing together at park

Taking note of your mother's changing moods may help shed light onto your relationship as well. That's because "one of the identifying features of a toxic mother is her mood swings that cannot be predicted and are intense," says Michael Anderson, MA, licensed professional counselor and clinical director at Healing Pines Recovery.

"In this case, the child finds it very difficult to tell how she will respond in different circumstances," he explains. "This lack of predictability can lead to wild emotional swings for the child, who may experience anxiety, fear, or extreme vigilance."

Not only that, but it also "makes a child feel as if they must tread carefully around their mom," Anderson adds.

7. She interferes with your other relationships.

Distressed woman is present during quarrel between her husband and elderly female mom. Mature woman and son-in-law swear and insult each other

Another common sign of a toxic mother is one that has a pattern of "interfering with their children's relationships," GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC, licensed therapist and founder of PsychPoint, tells Best Life.

"This can be in the form of starting arguments with the significant other, shaming, dismissing, or putting them down, or demanding time and attention from their children at inappropriate times to drive a rift between the couple," she offers.

A toxic mother may also be quick to insert herself into your relationship issues, cross your boundaries as a couple, and then act confused when confronted about her behavior.

"All of these behaviors are done in an attempt to maintain a sense of possession and control over their children," Guarino explains.

8. She exhibits excessive control in other parts of your life.

mother placing hand on her adult son's shoulder

A toxic mother might not only try to control her child's personal relationships. She may also attempt to overly influence other major life choices, such as their career, justifying her control "by claiming to know what is best," according to Cress.

"This conduct can result in persistent anxiety and indecisiveness in the child, as they grow up feeling incapable of making their own choices," she shares.

With this type of control, a toxic parent could also attempt to project "her own unfulfilled aspirations and unresolved problems onto the child, pressuring them to fulfill expectations that are not their own," Cress notes.

"This can lead to confusion about one's identity and feelings of bitterness," she says.

RELATED: 5 Red Flags Your Parent Is a Narcissist, According to Therapists.

9. Her love tends to be conditional.

Teenage girl and her mom are hiding flowers and a gift box for their beautiful granny behind backs while grandma is sitting on couch at home

Unconditional love is a huge component of healthy parental relationships. A toxic mother's love, on the other hand, is often conditional, says Becca Reed, LCSW, a perinatal mental health and trauma therapist with nearly 15 years experience.

"This generally means affection is only shown when the child meets specific expectations or behaviors, which leads to feelings of unworthiness and insecurity," she explains.

How You Can Heal From Your Experience With Toxic Parents

angry woman scowling

It may take years for you to realize that the relationship between you and your parent isn't a healthy one. But recognizing these signs and coming to terms with the fact that you have a toxic mother is often the "first step towards healing," Goldberg shares.

If you're working to create a healthier relationship between you and your mother during your healing process, Goldberg advises establishing clear and firm boundaries.

"For example, let your mother know that if she criticizes you, you will leave the dinner table and finish your meal in your room," she suggests, while acknowledging that "this may only be feasible when someone is older and no longer bound by their mother's rules."

Goldberg also recommends seeking out additional support during your healing journey.

"A therapist can help you process past experiences, develop coping strategies, and learn what healthy relationships entail," she notes. "If you're younger, talking to the school counselor for guidance and potentially exploring family therapy options can be beneficial, too."

When Is It OK to Walk Away From a Toxic Mother?

woman comforting mother
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"It's important to recognize that the term 'toxic' does not necessarily mean that the mother is a bad person, but rather that her behavior is harmful," Reed says, noting that these behaviors often come from the mother's own "unresolved issues and emotional immaturity."

Still, if you're putting in the work to heal your relationship and your mother isn't, it might be time to limit your contact with her. But how can you be sure this is the right decision to make?

"While walking away from a toxic mother is a deeply personal decision, there are some guidelines that can help determine whether it's appropriate," Goldberg says. "If a mother is negatively affecting someone's daily life to the point where cutting ties would likely lead to mental, emotional, or physical improvement, and no other resolution seems possible, it might be time to consider stepping away."

Situations that could call for you to walk away may include chronic emotional abuse, physical abuse, and severe boundary violations, according to Goldberg.

"Ultimately, if the relationship is causing more harm than good and no effective recourse is available, it is valid to step away to heal and process," she says. "This decision can always be reassessed later to consider reopening the relationship."

RELATED: 7 Warnings Signs That You Have a Toxic Friendship.

How Can You Avoid Becoming a Toxic Mother Yourself?

mother on couch looking tired with kids behind her

Toxicity can often become a cycle in families as well. If the relationship between you and your mother "is modeling an unhealthy dynamic that your own children can see, it might be a good time to cut ties to demonstrate the importance of taking care of yourself," Goldberg notes.

But how can you be sure that you won't become a toxic mother to your own children? Well, self-awareness and self-reflection are the two key factors you need to consider, according to Goldberg.

"Regularly reflect on your behavior and attitudes with your children, establish and respect healthy boundaries, and accept when your child sets boundaries with good reason," she advises. "If in doubt, ask other mothers how they are handling the situation—not because they are necessarily right, but to gain other perspective."

At the same time, it's also important to recognize that "mistakes are inevitable, especially if healthy behaviors weren't modeled for you," Goldberg shares. "The key is to own up to mistakes, apologize, and work towards positive change."

Wrapping Up

That's it for our expert-backed guide on the signs of a toxic mother. Be sure to check back with us soon for more relationship advice that can make all the difference when it comes to understanding and navigating your family dynamics.

Kali Coleman
Kali Coleman is a Senior Editor at Best Life. Her primary focus is covering news, where she often keeps readers informed on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and up-to-date on the latest retail closures. Read more