Is your mother 'toxic'? Experts reveal 10 signs to look out for (and #4 hits really hard)

It's not always easy to identify a toxic parent or come to terms with having one

Mother and daughter having coffee
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Wondering if you actually have a 'toxic' mother? Although it's difficult to realise a parent's behaviour is harmful, our family psychotherapy experts share 10 signs to look out for - and what to do if you believe your mother displays these red flags.

If grandparent fails are leading you to ghost your own mother, it could be more than just a few disagreements - you might be left wondering if your parent is toxic. Despite the concept of children needing a good relationship with grandparents to experience fewer emotional and behavioural problems, that notion needs to be reconsidered if the grandparent in question is your problematic mother. 

Sometimes, rifts can be healed by good communication and a parent simply acknowledging that their behaviour hasn't always portrayed the best version of themselves - certain phrases adult children need to hear from their parents can be a great place to begin processing childhood difficulties and healing cracks in the relationship. 

Others might wonder if they have a toxic mother but aren't sure. To understand the signs you have one, and how to navigate a relationship with a toxic mother, we spoke to BACP registered family psychotherapists Kemi Omijeh and Kamalyn Kaur. Kemi says "The mother and child relationship is a complex one, and a lot gets stirred up and activated in us when we become parents. If we have unresolved trauma, we can unintentionally (and in some cases internationally) cause harm to our children with our parenting response. 

"This is also sometimes influenced by how you were parented. In thinking about if your parent/mother is a difficult parent, the first thing to pay attention to is how you feel around them or after you have been around them. Take the time to think about your thoughts, feelings and actions after an interaction and allow yourself to explore and examine if this is a result of the difficult mother's action or words, a communication difficulty between the two of you or unresolved issues." 

Signs of a toxic mother

  1. Constant criticism: This involves belittling or criticising you, making you feel inadequate or that you’re not good enough. Kamalyn says "Regularly criticising or making negative comments, alongside showing a resistance or failure to see the positive or the good- particularly - when asked or brought to their attention, is a sign of toxicity. Some parents might not be aware of how critical they come across, but most well intentioned parents should be able to take on board feedback about it and change their behaviour. A parent who is unable to do this is a difficult parent who might need support in understanding the impact of their words."
  2. Emotional manipulation: Using guilt, shame, embarrassment, or humiliation to control you and the choices you make. Kamalyn shares words of caution here, telling us "They must use emotional blackmail often. I stress the word often, because it's quite common for parents to use occasional emotional blackmail. In an otherwise robust, healthy and positive relationship, it's fine. Pay attention to the frequency of the emotional blackmail and what they stand to gain from using it."
  3. Lack of boundaries: Disregarding your personal space, privacy, and choices, often intruding on your life.
  4. Narcissism: Lacking any empathy for your feelings, needs, situations, or experiences and making everything about her instead. Kamalyn tells us "They will centre themselves or their lives. The inability to allow you your experiences and stories without bringing it back to them and their lives indicates a parent who is unable to think about their child's needs and or lacks that self awareness and empathy skills."
  5. Jealousy or competitiveness: Competing with you or showing jealousy towards your achievements and successes as opposed to being supportive and happy. Kamalyn says "They will only give you positive feedback or a response when you have done something for them or given them something, then this is an unhealthy foundation for any relationship, much less a parent/child one."
  6. Gaslighting: Denying your reality, feelings, or words to the point where you question your own sanity.
  7. Playing the victim: Portraying herself as a victim in every and any situation to avoid accountability.
  8. Control and dominance: Controlling or trying to control every aspect of your life, your relationships, your life choices, how you raise your children.
  9. Blaming and shaming: Blaming you for her problems, how she is feeling, or the quality of her life as opposed to taking responsibility. Sometimes, using shame to control you.
  10. Emotional neglect or abuse: Ignoring your emotional needs by being emotionally abusive or doing all of the above actions.

Kamalyn urges those with a toxic mother to accept the behaviour is related to her own insecurities, fears, worries, and inadequacies. She also advises not to expect your mother to change. She tells us "Despite what your mother may have said to you or made you believe: you are not the problem.

"You can’t expect your mother to change. You may think having a conversation, explaining things to her, sharing your side of the story will help change the relationship you have with her, but I can assure you that it won’t. You will have to focus on changing your own behaviours."

There are ways to manage and reframe how you feel about your mother's behaviour towards you. Kamalyn suggests the following ways: 

How to deal with a toxic mother

  • Minimise contact by reducing the amount of time you spend with your mother to limit exposure to toxicity.
  • Establish boundaries by defining what behaviour, actions, and responses are unacceptable and stick to those limits. Stay firm and be consistent when enforcing your boundaries- because a toxic mother will do anything and everything possible to breach that boundary, from making you feel guilty, shaming you, criticising you, to faking an illness.
  • Educate yourself on toxic behaviours so you can understand the dynamics of the relationships and how unhealthy it is. It will give you a different perspective on the situation and help you process some of the guilt you may experience at the thought of stepping away. 
  • Consider cutting them off. If it comes to it and in extreme cases, it may be necessary to cut off contact entirely to protect your own wellbeing. If you do need to do this, then give yourself permission to do so.

A parenting expert shares the one emotional habit that can affect kids' security and trust in themselves - this is especially useful in the process of raising confident kids and bringing up resilient kids

Kamalyn Kaur
Kamalyn Kaur

Kamalyn Kaur is a BACP accredited psychotherapist and anxiety expert who helps women overcome anxiety so they can feel in control and live the life they want.

Kemi Omijeh
Kemi Omijeh

Kemi Omijeh is an experienced BACP registered child and adolescent psychotherapist who has worked with children and families for over 15 years.  She is also a trainer, and speaker with her specialist subjects being cultural competence, racial identity, racial trauma and antiracist practices in education. Kemi champions inclusive mental health for children and young people, and states that support for young people should include a consideration of the child’s context, culture and identity.

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.