Our culture tells us that one of the most important relationships is the mother-daughter relationship. We’re expected to have a relationship that consists of heartfelt Mother’s Day cards, hour-long girl chats on the phone, and all the other works.
However, many mother-daughter relationships don’t look like the romanticised movie version of family. Even relationships that are not outright abusive can be toxic and detrimental to your well-being. Many adult women struggle with mothers who undermine their self-esteem, are co-dependent, or repeat toxic patterns from childhood.
If you catch yourself repeating unwanted cycles from your childhood or feeling emotional distress due to your relationship with your mother, you’re not alone. Millions of women struggle with mother-daughter relationships. You’re also not helpless. By identifying toxic patterns and using strategies to break them, you can rebuild your sense of self and even your relationship with your mother into something healthy.
This article covers four strategies you can use to build a healthier relationship with your mother or daughter.
What Is a Toxic Relationship?
Put simply, it’s any relationship in which your well-being is at risk. This includes your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
There are many misconceptions about toxic relationships. Too many people see relationships as dichotomies, where they’re either abusive or healthy. Your relationship with your mother does not have to include outright abuse to make you feel bad, and your feelings of discomfort and sadness around a such a relationship are valid even if you don’t think things are “bad enough.”
Another misconception is that toxic relationships can only occur in romantic partnerships. Any interpersonal relationship that is important to you can be toxic if it is not based on a foundation of mutual respect. This includes romantic partners, but also family members such as mothers and even friends.
Being in a relationship that is toxic does not mean that either of you are bad people. Especially in mother-daughter relationships, many of the toxic behaviours arise from a mother acting in overbearing ways because she wants the best for her daughter, or because the adult unintentionally repeats toxic patterns learned from her own childhood. Don’t think that you are insulting your mother by identifying toxic patterns in your relationship: you’re helping both of you grow as people.
How to Identify if Your Mother-Daughter Relationship Is Toxic
Identifying if your relationship with your mother is toxic is often difficult. Chances are, she’s the only example of a mother-daughter relationship that you are intimately familiar with. If you’ve grown up with a toxic mother-daughter relationship, you might think that what you are experiencing is normal.
Every relationship is different, but here are some of the most common signs of a toxic parent-child relationship. If you recognise several of them in your relationship with your mother, it’s time to take action.
One of the most common signs of a toxic mother-daughter relationship is a lack of boundaries. This can manifest in several ways.
One common way toxic mothers overstep boundaries with their daughters is by micromanaging their lives. If your mother continues to dictate your appearance, career, or romantic choices, or even meddles in your life long after you’ve reached adulthood, that is a sign of toxicity. You can be close with your mother while still having separate lives, especially when you’re both grown adults.
Another sign of poor boundaries is if your mother relies on you for everything, particularly if this pattern started when you were a child. Many toxic mothers use their children as relationship therapists or emotional support providers. It’s the job of adults to seek out support networks made up of other adults, not children.
Lack of Support
Another common sign of dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships is a lack of support, which can manifest in several ways.
If your mother shows a lack of empathy or understanding for your problems while expecting you to drop everything to help her manage her problems, that is a sign of a relationship that is unhealthy. As an adult, you can help your mother more than you did as a child, but that help and understanding should flow both ways.
Many of the behavioural patterns showing a consistent lack of support begin in childhood. If your mother spent your childhood blaming you for her problems or overreacting to minor mistakes on your part, such as a bad grade on a test, that is a toxic behavioural pattern. This pattern may continue into adulthood with nit-picking and criticising all of your decisions.
Don’t underestimate the effect that lack of parental support can have on your wellbeing. The job of parents is not only to support children physically but also emotionally, which includes making children feel loved and supported.
Nobody can be positive all the time, and everyone experiences negative emotions. However, if your relationship with your mother involves constant negativity, it is probably toxic.
This includes negativity directed towards you. If your mother constantly criticises your appearance and life choices without ever praising you, that will take a toll on your mental well-being.
A parent-child relationship where the parent is constantly negative about everything else, even if she praises you, is also toxic. If your mother is constantly negative about her other relationships, including your other family members, or the world, that is a toxic pattern. If this behaviour began when you were a child, it could cause consistent anxiety.
Constant negativity about the rest of the world can also be an attempt to isolate you from everyone else. Your mother may be trying to create an “us against the world” mentality with you (intentionally or unintentionally), which is another way of overstepping personal boundaries by impacting your relationships with others.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of signs of a toxic relationship, just some of the most common toxic behaviours in mother-daughter relationships. If your relationship with your mother consistently makes you feel sad, angry, insecure, or as if you are the worst version of yourself, then it might be toxic.
What to Do When You Realise You’re in a Toxic Relationship
Realising that you’re in a toxic relationship with your mother can be devastating. It can feel as if you are doomed to repeat these unhealthy patterns forever.
The first step is to get support for yourself. You may go through a period of mourning where you grieve the relationship with your mother that you could have had if it was respectful, safe, and healthy. Find a support network that can include other family members, friends, and a professional therapist. Working to undo the sadness from an unhealthy parental relationship can take time but be patient with yourself and look at it as a journey to get to know the real you.
Once you have a support network in place, you can start thinking about what to do with regards to your toxic maternal relationship. Sometimes, you need space away from each other, whether that’s a temporary break or cutting off contact forever. Cutting off family members is a very difficult decision, but one that’s sometimes necessary for your well-being.
If your mother is open to working on your relationship, then you don’t need to cut her off. Through talking with her, using strategies for healthy communication, and seeking a professional relationship therapist to mediate, you can unlearn toxic patterns together.
Tips For Building a Healthy, Sustainable Mother-Daughter Relationship
Just because your relationship with your mother currently fits the pattern of a toxic relationship doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to feel this way forever. Just like people change and grow, so can relationships.
Here are some strategies to help build a healthy relationship and break patterns of toxicity.
Set Strong Boundaries—and Enforce Them
One of the biggest problems with toxic mother-daughter relationships is a lack of boundaries. Setting healthy boundaries can help you regain a sense of self that is independent from your mother.
The first step is deciding what your boundaries are, whether that means not discussing certain topics or limiting family communication. Think about which aspects of your relationship with your mother cause you the most grief and address those areas first.
The next step is to communicate those boundaries with your mother. Be prepared for her not to react well at first. Your mother’s overstepping may come from a place of love, and it may take her some time to realise that what she thinks is best for you does not align with what is best for you. Try to communicate your boundaries firmly and without judgment.
Finally, enforce the boundaries that you set. Your mother will probably take some time to get used to them and will either intentionally try to test your resolve or forget. Something as simple as hanging up in the middle of the conversation if she brings up a topic you asked her not to discuss will drive the message home that you are serious about the new direction of your relationship.
Be Open About Your Needs
One of the biggest problems that women with mother daughter conflict is trouble communicating their needs. Chances are, your mother made you feel as if your needs were not important or less important than hers, so you may even struggle with articulating your needs in other relationships.
Part of the process of healing a toxic or unhealthy relationship is healing your relationship with yourself. You deserve to express your needs in relationships and have them met.
Make a conscious practice to express your needs in relationships. Start as small as picking a restaurant when a friend asks you where you want to eat and move on to bigger, more vulnerable needs. Learning to stand up for yourself won’t happen overnight but is an important part of the healing process.
Take Care of Yourself
The process of realising you are in a toxic mother-daughter relationship and working on healing from that relationship can be very emotionally draining, particularly if your energy is already depleted from managing a difficult relationship nearly full-time.
Building a self-care process can help you manage the difficult emotions that come with working through a relationship issues. Regular self-care can also help you feel more energised and ready to meet other challenges in your life.
Many people who grew up with toxic parental relationships have trouble with self-care because they’ve been conditioned to put the needs of a parent over their own. Finally looking after your own well-being can help you heal from years of a toxic relationship.
The concept of self-care includes physical and mental self-care. Prioritise activities that make you feel good physically, such as regular exercise, eating well, and drinking water. You should also treat your mental health with as much care as you treat your physical health and work obligations. Prioritise things that make you feel good, such as therapy visits, meditation, and creative hobbies.
Talk to a Relationship Counsellor or Psychologist
Undoing toxic elements in relationships often takes months, if not years, of work. You have to work through years of toxic patterns, resentment, and other negative emotions.
Toxic parental-child relationships often arise because of mental health problems that the parent may have gone through, such as neglect or trauma, and never addressed before. Working through unhealthy relationship patterns may bring up traumatic memories for your mother.
Getting the input of a professional counsellor will be helpful for both of you. A psychologist can help you work through emotional problems individually and build a healthier relationship. Choosing to build healthier relationships is a difficult process that may unearth sadness and grief for both of you—don’t work through it alone.
Toxic Mother-Daughter Relationships Can Become Healthy
If the reality of your relationship with your mother is not exactly movie-worthy, you’re not alone. Millions of women struggle with toxic patterns in their maternal relationships well into adulthood.
If both you and your mother are open to making a healthier relationship, you can rebuild through communication, strong boundaries, and the help of a professional counsellor or psychologist. The process is not easy, but it can help you feel more secure and confident.