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Child Development

Five Things an Unloving Mother Never Does

These maternal behaviors shape a daughter in their absence.

Key points

  • Unloving mothers do not reliably respond to their children as infants or model a world for them that can be trusted.
  • An unattuned mother will insert herself into a baby’s space, misreading her signals, intruding when the child needs to withdraw.
  • Unloving mothers will often engage in verbal abuse, targeting a child’s personality, looks, or actions.
Marijus Auruskevicius/Shutterstock
Source: Marijus Auruskevicius/Shutterstock

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy observed that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Nonetheless, amid the differences, there are broad commonalities. That’s true of unloving mothers, too, even though there are observable differences in how they behave and treat their daughters.

As I explain in my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering From an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, specific maternal behaviors shape daughters in very specific ways. But it’s not just what happens at home that matters; what doesn’t happen matters as well.

Mothers with a combative style create an atmosphere in which a daughter learns to self-protect and quash emotional responses; these daughters often disconnect from their feelings, because their reactions — tears, trembling, a look of fear — may actually make things worse by energizing their mothers’ reactivity. This daughter does what she can to stay under her mother’s radar; invisibility is preferred.

The opposite is true for the daughter of a dismissive mother, who ignores her in ways that are more literal than not, and tends to marginalize or be unresponsive to everything her daughter says or does. That daughter will do whatever she can to make herself heard and get her mother’s attention, and that includes becoming a “star” in some sense (good grades, popular, athletic, etc.) or acting out in bad or self-destructive ways; as one daughter remarked wryly, “At least she saw and acknowledged me when I got into trouble. That was better than her not seeing me at all.”

Daughters of controlling mothers battle finding their own voices, carving out space that belongs to them alone, being heard, and making choices that express their thoughts, needs, and desires; they’ve been taught that without their mothers’ controlling hand, they’re likely to fail, and most of the time, they believe it. Daughters of women high in narcissistic traits lose sight of themselves, but in a different way, since they are valued for what they do and the glory they reflect on their mothers, and not on who they are. Daughters of emotionally unavailable mothers are more like the daughters of dismissive ones and share more experiences with them than they do with the offspring of combative ones, but they are emotionally even hungrier and more confused. It’s very hard figuring out how can a mother be physically present and emotionally absent at once. Daughters of enmeshed mothers have no sense of themselves because their mothers don’t see them as separate; deprived of emotional oxygen, they fail to flourish even though, in truth, their mothers love them, if not in ways that are healthy for them.

The differences are many and profound, but that said, there is much that is shared in terms of experience.

A Psychological Truism: Bad Is Stronger Than Good

I got a rather nasty message from someone recently which accused me of having women “wallow in the past” and said that they should be “moving on.” The problem is that you can’t move on until you understand clearly where you’ve been and how it has affected you. That sounds deceptively simple, but in truth, it’s a complicated and usually lengthy process. And there are reasons for it.

First of all, unhappy-making events release powerful emotions, such as pain, sadness, panic, or shame, that require processing and management; the emotions released when life is good require neither. That means that a childhood in which your emotional needs weren’t met is going to affect you more and produce more hard-to-deal-with feelings than a reasonably okay or decent childhood will affect someone else, not to mention a really loving family. The double whammy? Children whose emotional needs are met in childhood learn how to process negative emotions; unloved children do not. We suffer impairments in emotional intelligence.

When I write about the effect of unloving mothers, I usually focus on the toxic behaviors present in the household and how they affect a daughter’s development. They include ignoring or actively marginalizing her, being hypercritical, scapegoating, and gaslighting, among others. But it’s also critical to understand how the absence of positive behaviors shapes a daughter’s development, because these potential deficits have to be tackled in the course of healing and recovery. Understanding the formation of different styles of insecure attachmentanxious/preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant — has to take into account both present and absent maternal behaviors.

5 Things an Unloving Mother Never Does

A secure attachment style — being able to forge emotional connections, sustaining and flourishing in a relationship, having a foundation of healthy self-esteem, being able to manage difficult or painful emotions, being capable of taking calculated risks and recovering from failure or setback — is the result of a mother acting in the following ways, either consistently or most of the time. Unloving mothers do not, by and large, exhibit these behaviors either reliably or consistently, if at all.

These are the behaviors that shape a daughter by their absence.

1. Demonstrates empathy and attunement.

Beginning in infancy, the dyadic dance of mother and child lays down the mental representations of what the world of relationship is like. When she’s reliably responded to, given space to calm herself down when she needs to, and is comforted when she’s upset, the daughter learns that the world is a safe place that can be trusted. While all humans are born with the capacity for empathy, it’s developed through these intimate interactions between mother and child. The unloving mother demonstrates neither.

2. Respects boundaries.

The securely attached child knows she is separate and individual, and she’s given the space to be herself. An unattuned mother will insert herself into a baby’s space, misreading her signals, intruding when the child needs to withdraw; alternatively, an emotionally unavailable mother doesn’t respond, teaching the child that she’s on her own and needs to self-protect. Unloved daughters have trouble understanding that boundaries are a part of a healthy relationship; the anxiously attached panic, mistaking another’s need to be alone for rejection, while the avoidantly attached think that boundaries are walls, meant to keep others at bay and themselves safe.

3. Models acceptance.

The loving mother communicates the message that “You are you, and you are fine as you are,” which provides the foundation for a daughter’s healthy self-esteem. Acceptance doesn’t mean that a mother looks away from her child’s flaws or things she needs to learn, nor should it be confused with handing every kid a trophy for just showing up; a loving mother disciplines and sets rules, but without denigrating or shaming the child in the process. Self-acceptance includes admitting defeat or failure.

This, alas, cannot be said of mothers with combative, hypercritical, or dismissive behaviors who often engage in verbal abuse, targeting a child’s personality, looks, or actions. What is said to these daughters is internalized as self-criticism, the habit of mind that attributes problems, setbacks, or failures to fixed flaws in character that can’t be changed. This habit is hard to break, even for an adult, because it’s an unconscious default position — the very opposite of self-acceptance.

4. Sees her daughter wholly.

This is part of acceptance, but goes beyond that: Truly seeing your child as she is and recognizing her needs, wants, and thoughts as legitimate, even if sometimes debatable. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you necessarily agree with all of her choices, even when she reaches adulthood; it simply means that you accept them as hers and are open to discussion. Authoritarian, controlling, and narcissistic mothers filter their view of their children through the lens of their own needs and wants, which basically means that they don’t see them at all. Since our mother’s face is the first mirror in which we catch a glimpse of ourselves, unloved daughters rarely see themselves clearly, if at all; they see a pastiche of their mother’s projected needs and desires.

5. Takes responsibility.

It’s impossible to mother perfectly — to stay on the high road and never lose your temper, to be attuned 24/7, and never make a mistake. We are imperfect by definition. But — and it’s a big but — the loving mother takes responsibility for her missteps and bad judgment, and steps in and acts to repair the breach in the relationship. She’s conscious and aware of her influence and power, and is careful never to abuse it; she knows the value of an apology.

That never happens with the unloving mother, who justifies her behavior at every turn or, if she gaslights, denies it ever happened. Most unloved daughters blame themselves and their failings for the dysfunction in the relationship during childhood, adolescence, and even long into adulthood. In truth, it is easier to blame yourself, since it lets you hang on to the hope that by changing yourself, you can get the relationship to be “normal.” That’s way easier and less painful than seeing the toxicity and truth of the connection head-on, alas.

In both their presence and absence, a mother’s behaviors shape a daughter’s development. Connecting the dots and understanding how her behaviors influenced yours are key steps in recovery.

Copyright 2017 Peg Streep


The research I've relied on for these observations is drawn from my book Daughter Detox.

Baumeister, Roy and Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology (2001), vol.5, no.4, 323-370.

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