Think about your most recent interaction with your mom: Did she make you feel bad about yourself and then somehow play the victim? Did she pin the blame on you? Was she judgmental and maybe even mean? Did she try to make you feel guilty? We hate to break it to you, but you’re dealing with a toxic mother.
We can’t promise you a Gilmore Girls bond, but you can have a relationship with your mom that doesn’t revolve around drama. Therapist Irina Firstein answered our most pressing questions about toxic parent behavior and offered up her advice to help us work through this complicated relationship dynamic…and keep our sanity in the process.
What is toxic behavior, exactly?
Toxic patterns vary from person to person, but there are a few textbook characteristics to look out for, Firstein tells us. “Toxic behavior is behavior toward other people that makes them feel bad about their life and themselves,” she says. “It is characterized by criticism, control, manipulation and guilt—a big maneuver that toxic mothers use.” For example, if your mom constantly criticizes your life choices (like badmouthing your spouse), and if this has been an ongoing pattern for as long as you can remember, you might be dealing with a toxic mother.
And why is my mother so toxic?
There’s no one reason why or how a mother becomes toxic. There could be underlying mental illness that she’s never dealt with, or abuse in her childhood. Maybe she had a toxic mother, she’s a narcissist or she has a personality disorder. But whatever the cause, it can be extremely painful when the symptoms of her toxicity are aimed at you, her child.
“Parents who have their own psychological problems or addictions often exhibit toxic behaviors toward their young or grown children,” Firstein says. “Toxic parents don’t treat their children with respect as individuals, and they don’t take responsibility for their actions or apologize.”
How do I talk to my mom about her toxic behavior?
It will undoubtedly be difficult to tell your mom that the harsh way she picks apart your life is hurtful. You might not get anywhere, Firstein warns, because the very traits of toxic behavior make it difficult for her to accept that she’s wrong. Taking the higher road and attempting to work on your relationship instead of walking away is a huge step—kudos to you—but it’s smart to be armed with a few key phrases to say.
“An adult child needs to be honest about what the relationship is like for them,” Firstein says. “Some of the phrases you can use include ‘This is not acceptable’ when discussing her behavior and how she makes you feel without merit, or, ‘I don’t like how this feels.’ Really drive home how severe her words can be and how strongly they affect you. If the conversation and repeated attempts to work on it go unacknowledged by her, saying, ‘If this does not stop, I will not be able to continue this relationship in the same way’ would be warranted.”
This creates a boundary without severing ties completely, Firstein explains.
How do I enforce and stick to healthy boundaries?
If your mother still refuses to acknowledge your feelings, it’s time to set up a boundary. But this doesn’t mean you’re cutting off your mom entirely. Instituting a boundary means you’ll still be a part of each other’s lives, but only in situations that you feel comfortable with. You call the shots here.
“Lay out for your mom the specific things she says or ways she acts that hurt you—an eye roll and hurtful words every time you mention your partner, or when she’s dismissive and disrespectful when you mention your career, for example,” says Firstein. “Tell her that you won’t be around her if she’s going to speak to you like that. You can also let her know that if she chooses not to check her attitude at the door when you see her, those visits will be fewer and farther between, for your own sake.
Will setting boundaries solve all of your issues with your toxic mother? Nope, probably not. But will it help you have a civil lunch without wanting to strangle her? Definitely.