A toxic relationship is typically a two-way street. But in a mother-child relationship, the parent does wield the bulk of the emotional responsibility — hence why there are a lot more toxic moms than toxic daughters. It’s not always clear when a parent is crossing a line, but experts agree that
signs your mom is toxic can be found in the way she speaks to you.
Although it’s a fine line,
a toxic relationship isn’t always synonymous with emotional abuse, which can also come out in the words your mom uses. "A toxic relationship is a dynamic between two or more people where emotional needs generally go unmet because of issues that have nothing to do with the other person," Danielle Forshee, Psy.D, L.C.S.W., tells Bustle. " It becomes emotional abuse when there is character assassination and put-downs that continue despite your attempts at communicating how it affects you." This can be a sign of a toxic daughter, too, but because the parent is supposed to be in charge in a relationship, the onus is on them to model good behavior. Only, that doesn’t always happen.
A key indicator of a toxic mother-child relationship “is the mother being dependent on the child for her own emotional needs, or for needs not typically met within a mother-child relationship," family therapist
Julie Williamson, L.P.C., tells Bustle. (Not exactly “best mom ever” behavior.) And while evidence of this imbalance might be clear to an expert, people inside of the dynamic might have a hard time recognizing toxicity for what it is. It is up to you how you proceed with this relationship once you have that info, but a family therapist might be able to correct the relationship, or a personal therapist could help to support you independently.
Here are 13 phrases that toxic parents might use.
1 "It's Your Fault I ..." milan2099/E+/Getty Images
Blame is up there with the most signature toxic behaviors. And it's all the more tricky in a mother-child relationship.
"[It's toxic if a mother is] blaming a ... child for their own personal problems," licensed marriage and family therapist,
Sara Stanizai, L.C.S.W., tells Bustle. "This puts the child in the position of being responsible for their parent, when really it's the other way around!"
If your mother actively blames you for something that she did, all signs
point to toxicity. 2 "Don't Tell Your Father"
Secret-keeping is another major toxic mom red flag, according to Stanizai, who says the behavior is not a component of a healthy mother-child relationship.
"People have their own relationships, and just like between friends, they should be able to be honest and open with each other. If a
parent has a child keep something from their [other] parent ("Don't tell your father") this makes the child the protector of the parent," Stanizai says.
If your mom asks you to do something like this for her, maybe point it out. Hopefully she'll realize that it's not appropriate.
3 "Why Didn't You Do Better?"
Your mom should be your biggest cheerleader, not
your biggest critic. If you come to her with your accomplishments, and she fires back with nitpicking, you might need to take a step back and re-evaluate the relationship.
This is still true if her reactions are simply inconsistent. If sometimes she's proud, but sometimes inexplicably rude, that's a sign of toxicity too. "Some days [toxic moms] are happy for their child's success, other days they are minimizing it," Stanizai says. "They might say, 'Why didn't you do better?' or worse, not respond at all. When children don't know what to expect from their parents, it can make the
relationship unhealthy." And while your self-worth should not be reliant on your mother's praise, it can still feel awful to have someone that close throw you around emotionally like that. 4 "Where Were You Last Night?"
You're an adult. You don't need your mom still on your case about where you are, all the time. "A toxic mother-child toxic relationship is one where the mother believes they have the right and the ability to manage their adult child’s life," clinical psychologist
Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., tells Bustle.
For both you and your mother, having healthy boundaries are necessary. You both deserve to have a sense of self outside of your relationship with one another. Forshee calls this "
helicopter parenting," a term to describe “when the mother has significant anxieties with regard to separation from her child, and it manifests itself in overbearing ways at times when the child is trying to figure themselves or do their own thing.” Forshee says this behavior does not help to “facilitate a healthy separation for individuals to figure out [their] own sense of confidence.”
If your mom is always on your case, you can talk to her, or a professional, about how to create better distance between you.
5 "Why Are You Spending So Much Time With Them And Not Me?"
While on the subject of boundaries, it's important to unpack other ways your mom might showcase these toxic traits. If she wants your social life to include her, or for her to be prioritized over your other relationships, that's a major red flag. There's a word for this too:
"Enmeshment is when your mom has difficulty allowing you to have your own life outside of her," Forshee says. Regardless of how close the two of you are, you need to have your own life, and your own social space. If she can't accept that, that's a bad sign.
6 "You're My Best Friend"
Experts repeat this time and time again when it comes to identifying toxic mother-child relationships:
she's not your friend, she's your mother. It may seem like a positive thing to be super-close to your mom, especially if you have ~the best mom ever~, but really this sort of blurred relationship could be paving the way to other major types of boundary crossing.
"Instead of a mom developing her own friends and support network, the mother relies on the child to fulfill these needs — for example — [a toxic mom has] no friends of her own and [refers] to her child as her 'best friend,'" Williamson says. This is particularly tricky
if your mom calls you her best friend, but you definitely don't feel the same way.
Even if you do feel like she's your BFF, it's important to unpack that, too. "If a mother and daughter are codependent on each other, the young woman may have trouble developing and maintaining successful relationships with others," Forshee says. So, for a bit, spend some time focusing your energy on other adult relationships. It'll be refreshing.
7 "So Last Night In Bed..."
Another major sign of the mom-as-bff conundrum is a mother who overshares. While everyone has different relationships with their parents, if you find that your mother is way more of an open book than your other friends' mothers, that might not necessarily be a good thing.
"[A toxic mother] mother shares information that is not typically shared between a parent or child,” Williamson says, such as sharing details of her intimate life or physical relationship with a partner. Especially if she asks for advice or a reaction, this type of behavior is indicative that she wants more from you than you should be providing as a child. Even if from the outside she’s trying to seem like a "cool mom" (hey, Amy Poehler), you don't have to put up with it.
8 "You Should Break Up With Them"
Once again: Your mom does not have a right to control your adult life. And while, yes,
parents are allowed opinions on your partner to some degree, it’s not good if your mom consistently dictates your dating choices.
"[The child of a toxic mother often] risks their own friendships, and romantic interests frequently to appease their parent," Klapow says. And you absolutely don't need to concede happiness for this type of behavior. So if your mom, and other people in your life are giving you concrete reasons why your partner or friend is not so great, listen. But if your mom continues to rattle off disapprovals of everyone who comes into your life, draw a line.
9 "Your Father Doesn't Know This, But"
Your relationship with your mother can be close, but it probably shouldn't be the primary relationship where your mom unloads her feelings. Especially if your mom has a life partner or a group of close friends.
"[Be careful of] the
mother sharing more with her child than with her husband or partner — for example: the child may know the mom is struggling with depression, but the ... partner doesn't know," Williamson says. This puts you in a really uncomfortable position, and also indicates that she's valuing the relationship in a way that goes beyond regular mother-child dynamics. Talking it out with her, or bringing it up to a professional, might help. 10 "You're So Dumb"
This one might seem obvious reading it on its own, but for a lot of people, it can be hard to notice that insults are actually harmful, not just playful fun. "The
parent who scolds or verbally berates an adult child on a regular basis [is toxic]," Klapow says. Most likely, no amount of "just kidding" or laughter afterwords can make up for the fact that your mother is using her power dynamic with you to make you feel down on yourself. So if your mom is berating you or picking on you well into your adult life, it's important that you know that you deserve better. 11 You’re Too Sensitive
Expressing your feelings to your mother is a healthy habit, especially if it’s in response to something she said that you found to be hurtful; emotional communication is good. According to family therapist
Dawn Friedman, M.S.Ed., it’s considered gaslighting if a parent pushes back and says you’re being sensitive when you express that their words or actions hurt your feelings. “In healthy relationships, people will listen to us when we have a problem with the way they’re communicating.” 12 Nobody Else Has A Problem
If you bring up a concern you have with your mother and she shuts you down with the excuse that no one else has expressed that problem, Friedman says it can indicate a toxic relationship. A parent should
care about their child’s individual experience, even if it’s perceived to be singular. “It’s a defensive insinuation that because everybody else is fine that you have to be fine, too,” which is a “dismissive attitude,” Friedman adds. 13 Why Can’t You Be More Like Your Sister? Comparing siblings, Friedman says, whether the comparison compliments you, or throws you or the sibling under the bus, is always a toxic behavior. “Even a comment like ‘your sister has always been jealous of you’ puts you in conflict to center herself in your relationship,” Friedman adds. These kinds of comments can sometimes sound flattering, which can make them hard to spot, but almost always contribute to “ toxic gossip dynamics.”
Having a toxic relationship doesn't have to mean you should cut your mom out of your life. But recognizing any of these behaviors in your relationship with your mother might be an indicator that you should prioritize putting work into making the relationship more balanced and healthful. Boundary setting, open communication, and even family therapy can help. You deserve to do what's right for you, and not have your mother breathing down your back years after you've left home.
Experts: Danielle Forshee, Psy.D, L.C.S.W. Julie Williamson, L.P.C. Sara Stanizai, L.C.S.W. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Dawn Friedman, M.S.Ed.