How To Deal With A Toxic Mother & Not Let Passive-Aggressive Comments Affect You, According To Experts
In an ideal world, your relationship with your mom would be uplifting, close, and mutually supportive. But if your mom is toxic, things might not be so healthy between you. It can sometimes be difficult to know if the negative things your mom says to you are OK or are a sign that something is wrong. According to experts, if she says certain passive-aggressive things, that's a pretty good indication that she's not treating you in a healthy way.
So what is a toxic mom? "A toxic mom can mean having someone who is too self-absorbed to notice the emotions of her child, too wrapped up in her own issues to meet the needs of her child, or too manipulative with words or actions which place the child in a position of inferiority, unimportance, as a scapegoat, or positioned as the problem or problem maker, etc." Michelle Croyle, MA, a Pittsburgh-based psychotherapist and counselor in private practice, specializing in anxiety and trauma recovery, tells Bustle. Whatever toxic tendencies your mom tends to have, the passive-aggressive things she says to you can really affect you if you don't have healthy strategies for dealing with them or a support system that can guide you as you navigate the relationship.
Here are some things toxic moms say and how you should handle them, according to experts.
1. "Can’t You Take A Joke?"
"Toxic moms tend to use sarcasm in order to be able to say rude things without having to own their hostility," Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, MFT, ATR, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in creative healing and art therapy, and owner of Create Your Life Studio, tells Bustle. While they might not always demean you in a direct way, they are likely to use sarcasm to do so. "If you show that you are offended by her joke, she can then protect herself and hide her true intention by playing up her role as the victim, asking, 'Why are you being so sensitive? Can’t you take a joke?'" Scott-Hudson says.
In order to protect yourself, you will need to set major boundaries, she says. For example, maybe you'll decide not to share certain aspects of your life with your mom, or maybe you'll limit the time that you spend together to make her passive-aggression less likely to affect you deeply.
2. "You’re So Dramatic"
"If you have to mentally prepare to spend time with your mother, and then you need to practice a lot of self-care after spending time in your mother's company, your mother may be toxic," Scott-Hudson says. A parent should be an encouraging figure to you, not one who makes you feel consistently worse about yourself. While there's occasionally a time and place for your mom to tell you kindly that you might be overreacting to a situation, if she consistently tells you that you're being too dramatic instead of validating your feelings, she might be toxic.
If your mom regularly tells you that you're reacting too dramatically to situations that are causing you anger or stress, consider not sharing those parts of your life with her. If that's difficult to do, tell her clearly that you aren't looking for her feedback in response to a negative emotion you're having, but that you just want her to listen.
3. "Just Get Over It"
When you're opening up to your mom about something that's really affecting you negatively, you probably want her to be sympathetic. But if she tells you, "Just get over it," that's toxic behavior, Croyle says. It's toxic because a statement like this tells you that you have to feel or not feel things on someone else’s timetable, don’t have a right to speak up for yourself, or have to keep peace at all costs, she says.
"Find a key phrase that you can say to your mom that you repeat as necessary in a very matter-of-fact tone," Croyle says. For example, say, "Mom, I am allowed to have my feelings." This both helps you speak up for your emotions and prevents you from engaging in a debate with your mom.
4. "Well, If That’s What You Want To Do..."
There's a difference between a mom saying "If that's what you want to do, then go for it, sweetheart" wholeheartedly and saying, "Well, if that's what you want to do" in a passive-aggressive way. Her tone of voice probably helps you differentiate the two. This is a toxic thing to say because it suggests that you are making the wrong decision and your mother is trying to position herself as the expert, causing you to second-guess yourself, Croyle says.
"Recognize that your passive-aggressive parent is lacking in boundaries to see you as your own person with your own thoughts and feelings," she says. "Imagine a square box made of window screens around your body. Only things that you find healthy and allow can pass through the screens’ filters. All other things which are toxic are not able to fit through the spaces in the screen filters." A visual representation of your relationship can help you keep toxic statements from affecting you too deeply.
5. "You Could Stand To Take Better Care Of Yourself"
As your parent, it's normal for your mom to want you to stay happy and strong. But there's a difference between telling you that she wants to do what she can to support your mental or physical health in a positive way, and criticizing the way you're taking care of yourself. "Rather than being helpful, positive, or uplifting, such comments (which may appear well-intentioned on the surface) are destructive and erode self-esteem," Dr. Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist, relationship expert, and author of Joy from Fear, tells Bustle.
"Set clear boundaries," she says. "If toxic commentary begins, set a firm limit by saying, 'Mom, I feel hurt when you say that. If you persist, I will leave the room (or hang up the phone, etc.)'"
6. "If Only You Were As [Blank] As Your Sibling"
If you have siblings, you've probably compared yourself to them many times throughout your life. But a passive-aggressive statement comparing you is a sign of a toxic mom, Manly says. Telling you something like, "You could have done so much more with your life if you’d been as smart in school as your sister," or "I wish you were as successful as your brother," is not healthy behavior. "Comparisons of any nature are highly toxic because they are put-downs that create negative competition between siblings," she says.
To keep statements like these from affecting you as best you can, keep your conversations with your mom short. For example, if all you can safely handle is a five-minute phone call once a week, that is fine. Even though you might feel guilty about controlling your interactions like this, this strategy can save your emotional health, Manly says.
7. "You're An Awful Child"
Occasional conflict between you and your mom is inevitable, but if she says "You're an awful child," that's not healthy behavior. "This is attacking the person as a whole," Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, author of Major Life Changes, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and licensed professional counselor who specializes in counseling for women and moms, tells Bustle. "That’s very different than a healthy person stating that a particular behavior bothers them."
While a statement like this could hurt you deeply, don't feel like you have to deal with it on your own. Find a great therapist who will help you work through issues with your toxic mom as they arise, McBain says, so you’ll having an easier time setting boundaries and learning how to not let what she says affect you as strongly.
8. "Nothing's Wrong"
"Actions speak louder than words," Dr. Dana Dorfman, PhD, a psychotherapist who specializes in parenting issues and co-hosts the podcast “2 Moms on the Couch,” tells Bustle. "There are many nonverbal and behavioral cues that mom gives to indicate how she's feeling." Although "nothing's wrong" might not seem like an inherently passive-aggressive phrase, if her physical cues don't match up, it's probably not harmless. "When a mother behaves in ways that indicate her anger (i.e. withdraws, becomes silent, or sulks) but denies the incongruity between her statement and her behavior, it is passive-aggressive," Dorfman says.
It can be incredibly difficult to try to navigate your mom's emotions when she's not being clear with you, but you don't have to try to figure it out all by yourself. "There's strength in numbers," Dorfman says. "A supportive spouse, partner, friend, or sibling can serve as a useful validator and reality check." If you've filled your ally in on your mom's behaviors, they can give you a simple look of reassurance when she says something harmful.
If one or more of these passive-aggressive statements are things your own mom says, do your best to use strategies like setting healthy boundaries and having people around you to keep them from affecting you too much. If you need extra support, look for a therapist who can guide you through the relationship.