13 Strategies For Handling A Toxic Mom

It’s all about boundaries.

Originally Published: 
Experts share 13 ways to deal with a toxic mother.
Getty Images/ Kentaroo Tryman

If you have a toxic mom, your knee-jerk reaction to her most dramatic moments might include: arguing, yelling, crying, hanging up the phone, and generally acting exactly the way she’s acting. It’s tough not to respond this way when someone is guilting you, manipulating you, and generally playing with your emotions. But it’s more helpful if you learn how to deal with a toxic mother in a healthier way — for the sake of both of you.

Most of the best strategies are all based on setting boundaries. “If you don’t set up boundaries and limits, you are subjecting yourself to her toxicity, mind-games, gaslighting, emotional deficiencies, rage, or whatever it is that makes her toxic,” Lesley Koeppel, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker, tells Bustle.

These are the techniques many toxic parents deploy when trying to get their way, and that’s what’s at the root of it all. Toxic moms like to ignore the fact that you have your own agency and needs, psychologist Dr. Therese Rosenblatt, PhD, tells Bustle. They’re often too self-absorbed or immature, and can potentially feel threatened by the fact you’re thriving — either intentionally or not. “This [type of] mother is temperamentally more concerned with her own needs,” Rosenblatt says. “She may not realize it, but she treats the child as an extension of herself.”

It may be tough to change this dynamic, especially if your toxic mom’s behavior has been impacting you since the dawn of time. But try to remember that now, as an adult, you get to a) recognize all the ways her actions negatively impact you, and b) develop coping strategies. As Koeppel says, “You are now stronger, older, and wiser and although it is difficult, you can protect yourself in a way that your younger self could not.” Here, 13 ways to deal with a toxic mom that are definitely worth a try.

1. Figure Out Your Boundaries

It may be difficult to tear yourself away from your mother’s behavior, much less have the guts to set up healthy boundaries — especially if you’ve been dealing with her toxicity for a long time. She’s taught you to rely on her, react to her, and bend over backwards for her approval. But boundaries will help to change the way you interact.

"Becoming less codependent is a process of recovery," Dr. Alicia Meyer, PsyD, a psychologist, tells Bustle. "Boundaries are so important, but developing the internal self-confidence to set those boundaries is necessary first."

It may help to meet with a therapist as you figure out what’s OK and what isn’t. They can help you identify all the areas of your life that her toxicity has impacted and which boundaries will help create a healthier situation. Pro tip: Write it down so you don’t forget.

2. Have A Serious Conversation With Her

Find a time — preferably in a neutral setting, like a coffee shop — where you can have a heart-to-heart with your mom about how her behavior makes you feel. (You won’t want to spring the conversation on her over breakfast, during a phone call, or after you’ve both had a long day.) If you time it right and establish the conversation as important, she may have an easier time listening.

As you talk be sure to use “I statements” to keep the focus on yourself as you explain how her words and actions make you feel. Give her a chance to respond, then share what your boundaries will be going forward and ask if she’ll be able to respect them.

If she agrees, cool. You can refer back to the talk whenever she needs a reminder. "If that doesn’t work, you will at least feel better that you tried,” New York City-based licensed psychotherapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT tells Bustle

3. Limit The Amount Of Time You Spend Together

If your mom is unwilling or unable to respect your boundaries, that’s when you’ll want to start limiting the amount of time you spend together. "Back off slowly," Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, LCSW-C, a licensed clinical social worker, tells Bustle. "For example, if you usually see or talk to her daily, pull back to five to six days per week."

If her toxicity is still bringing you down, slowly pull back to three days a week, until the level of interaction feels right. And if you have the option to visit less often, do it without guilt. Hopefully, more space will allow you to hold onto some form of a relationship, without it ever getting too intense.

It’ll also show her that you don’t need to see her, which might cause a problem at first. Toxic people tend to react negatively to change and boundaries, but don’t let them prevent you from doing what you need to do. With time, she will start to understand that no amount of drama will change your mind.

4. Pick & Choose What You Tell Her

When you’re dealing with a toxic relationship, you may want to limit what you talk about with your mom. “It can be helpful to reflect upon past experiences where you have shared personal information with her,” Jennifer Grant Schliessman, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker, tells Bustle. “How did she react? Did you feel safe, acknowledged and seen, or judged?” If your mom’s toxicity centers around throwing things back in your face, or having an over-the-top reaction, you may find it helpful to keep personal life details to yourself.

For example, Schliessman says, if telling her about your recent date will lead to prying questions, negative commentary, or uncomfortable judgment, tell your friend instead. It would be amazing if you could share these parts of your life with your mom, but keeping them to yourself — and sparing yourself the drama — is always going to be the healthier option.

5. Don’t Let Her Sway You

Just like with toxic partners, a toxic mom will try to manipulate you by acting as if you and your choices are the reason she’s upset. “This often results in feeling as though you need to caretake your mother’s feelings, as opposed to her being responsible for them herself,” Rachel Landman, LMHC, a counselor with Humantold, tells Bustle.

The guilt trip could be about anything. “For example, stating that switching majors would be very disappointing to her, which in turn causes feelings of insecurity and a sense that one cannot trust their own instincts about their interests and desires,” Landman says. And do you need that? No.

Remind yourself that you no longer have to make her happy or change your life so she doesn’t get upset. "[Say to] yourself over and over and over, 'This is my life and I may love my mom, but I cannot let her manage, influence, and bring me down,'" Dr. Joshua Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. "Say it in the morning, say it midday, say it before you go to bed." Hopefully it'll stick.

6. Let Another Family Member Know What’s Going On

While it may be tempting to keep this toxic relationship a secret, it really does help to let another family member know what’s going on. “Perhaps you are not the only one bearing the brunt of her toxicity,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PhD, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, tells Bustle.

You may be able to form an alliance, so to speak, with a sibling or another parent. It’ll also help to know you aren’t alone in this treatment.

7. Ignore Toxic Comments

Another strategy? Ignoring toxic comments completely. “They are designed for engagement and the minute a response is given, boom, you are back in the dynamic most likely feeling awful about yourself and angry you engaged,” Jennifer Kelman, LCSW, a mental health expert and licensed clinical social worker, tells Bustle.

Instead, laugh to yourself internally and stay neutral. But if you do want to respond, Kelman says, you could say, “Mom, I love and care for you, but I will not respond or be able to spend time with you if you say these things. If you can relate to me with empathy and positivity, then I am all for spending time together.”

8. Don’t Take It Personally

While a toxic mom’s comments can feel very personal, begin training yourself to let it go. “Let it go in one ear and out the other and remind yourself that this is her stuff and lack of self-esteem that is being dumped on you,” Kellman says. It’s not a reflection of who you really are.

If tough emotions start welling up, remove yourself from the situation and reach out to a friend, family member, or therapist. Vent, ask for advice, or simply talk about something else until the feeling passes.

9. Prioritize Yourself & Your Needs

After years of being controlled by a toxic mom, it can feel pretty radical to focus on yourself and your own needs. But that’s exactly what you need to do when you’re around your mom, and also when you’re not.

“If you don't fulfill their needs — if that's who you are, if you recognize yourself in that — then remind yourself verbally that you're allowed to prioritize yourself,” Rosenblatt says. Do whatever feels right in the moment for you, especially if your mom is pushing your proverbial buttons.

10. Try To Be Empathetic

It could be that your mother’s behavior stems from something in her past. “Often, a toxic mom is toxic because her own needs were not met as a child,” Koeppel says. “So you can try an empathic response to get her to calm down.”

Think about what’s upsetting her or why she’s over-reacting, and respond in a way that’s caring and kind. Say something like, “It sounds like you are very angry about XYZ. That has to be really difficult.”

Let her talk and see if that leads to a productive conversation. But remember to bring up your boundaries if she starts dragging you down.

11. Try A “Feedback Sandwich”

Since many toxic people react negatively to feedback, attempt a “feedback sandwich” the next time you need to talk to your mom. “This is a form of communication where your constructive criticism is sandwiched between positive feedback,” Molly Zive, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker, tells Bustle.

Say something positive, then offer some constructive feedback, then immediately follow with more positivity. Going forward, this may be the best way to chat with your mom without the convo going south.

12. Adjust Your Expectations

Apart from reiterating your boundaries, it can help to give up the idea that if you do this one thing (whatever it may be) that your mom will change and magically become the mother you wished for and deserved, Landman says. Continuing to hold onto hope that she will one day wake up different sets you up for painful disappointment, so adjust your expectations and look for the love, support, and advice elsewhere.

13. Consider Cutting Off All Communication (At Least For A While)

If things are particularly toxic, it may be best to avoid talking to your mom altogether, Meyer says. This is called going “no contact” and it’s often the best course of action when dealing with a toxic person. “In cases of abuse this is certainly appropriate,” she says.

Not only will it allow you to find peace, but the space will also give you time to work on yourself and sort through all the trauma you’ve likely experienced. Once you come out to the other side, you can decide if you’d like to reach out. But if not, that’s 100% OK.


Lesley Koeppel, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker

Dr. Alicia Meyer, PsyD, psychologist

Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist

Jennifer Grant Schliessman, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker

Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, LCSW-C, licensed clinical social worker

Rachel Landman, LMHC, counselor

Dr. Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PhD, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University

Jennifer Kelman, LCSW, mental health expert and licensed clinical social worker

Dr. Therese Rosenblatt, psychologist

Molly Zive, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker

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