Emotionally Abusive Mothers
by Steve Hein
What is an "Emotionally Abusive Mother"?
Generally, I don't like to use labels, but in this case the subject is important enough to try to define the term and create a profile of those who might fairly be called "emotionally abusive mothers". There are many degrees of abuse, so it may sometimes be difficult to say someone definitely "is" or "isn't" an emotionally abusive mother. Can a "good" mother sometimes be emotionally abusive? Yes, I believe so. What matters is the overall nature of the relationship with her children/teens. Though it may be difficult to achieve consensus on exactly what qualifies someone as an "emotionally abusive mother," we can at least try to arrive at some common characteristics.
In broad terms I would say an emotionally abusive mother is a mother who uses her son or daughter in an attempt to fill her own unmet emotional needs. This is similar to defining sexual abuse as someone who uses another person in order to fill their own sexual needs.
An emotionally abusive mother is a mother who uses her son or daughter in an attempt to fill her own unmet emotional needs.
By nature, women generally have instinctive needs to raise and nurture children. The fulfillment of these needs is natural and healthy. Emotional abuse occurs only when the mother attempts to use the child or teen to fulfill needs which are not consistent with those of an emotionally healthy adult. Emotional abuse occurs, in other words, when the mother tries to fill those needs of hers which normally would have already been filled during a healthy childhood and adolescence.
It might help to consider the distinction between the emotional needs of a child, of an adolescent and of an adult.
A child has a need to feel loved. A child has a need to feel secure. A child has a need to feel protected. A child has a need to feel approved of.
A teen has a need to feel independent and in control of himself and over his environment.
Both children and teens have a need to feel accepted and respected. Both children and teens have a need to feel appreciated and valued.
For the species to survive, the emotional needs of the adults must compliment those of the children. For example, while the child needs to feel loved, safe, secure, and protected, the adults must need to feel loving, non-threatening, secure, and protective. While the child needs to feel respected and accepted, the adults needs to feel respectful and accepting. While the child needs to feel appreciated, the adult needs to feel appreciative for the gift of nature that is called "their child."
If the mother did not feel adequately loved, safe, secure, protected, appreciated, valued, accepted and respected before giving birth, she will, in all likelihood, attempt to use the child (and later the teen) to fill these needs. If she did not feel adequately in control of her own life as a child and teen, she can be expected to try to control her son or daughter as compensation. This is the recipe for emotional abuse.
To fill her unmet need for respect, a mother might try to demand that her daughter "respect" her. To fill her unmet need to feel loved, the mother might try to manipulate the son into performing what she perceives as acts of love. To fill her unmet need to feel appreciated, the mother might try to spoil her daughter or she might constantly remind the daughter of all the things she does for her and all the sacrifices she makes for her.
Mothers are particularly adept at emotional manipulation. They are skilled in setting up their sons and daughters to fill their unmet emotional needs left over from childhood and adolescence. Ultimately, though, this arrangement fails. It is impossible for a son or daughter to fully meet the unmet childhood and adolescent emotional needs of the parent. A child or teen can not be the filler of someone else's needs when they have their own needs. This is a clear case of role reversal, the consequences of which are very serious.
A child in this situation feels overwhelmed, facing an impossible burden yet still trying his or her best to do the impossible. The child will necessarily feel inadequate as he fails to do the impossible. By the time the child is a teen, he will feel not only inadequate, but drained and empty. He will feel insecure and afraid of failure, disapproval, rejection and abandonment. The implicit, if not explicit, message has always been "if you don't fill Mother's needs, she will reject or abandon you."
The teenager will have also learned that it is is impossible to make mother happy. No matter what the teen has done to try to make her happy it is never enough. So the teenager starts to feel like a failure, or "failful" as opposed to successful. This shatters his or her self-esteem.
This, briefly, is the danger of the emotionally needy, and therefore often, emotionally abusive mother.
General Characteristics of Emotionally Abusive Mothers
- Making the child/teen feel responsible for the mother's feelings.
- Threatening them in general.
- Threatening them specifically with rejection or abandonment.
- Threatening them with vague, unstated consequences.
- Using force upon them.
- Invalidating their feelings.
- Laying undeserved guilt on them.
- Placing undeserved blame on them.
- Dominating the conversations.
- Refusing to apologize.
- Always needing to have the last word.
- Judging or rejecting their friends.
- Sending them to their rooms for crying.
- Locking them out of the house.
- Using punishments and rewards to manipulate and control them.
- Invading their privacy.
- Under-estimating them.
- Failing to show trust in them.
- Labeling them.
- Criticizing them.
- Giving them the silent treatment.
- Failing to give them real explanations.
- Giving non-explanations such as "because it is wrong" or "because it is inappropriate" or "because it is a sin"
One clear sign of an emotionally abusive mother is slapping the son or daughter in the face. I call slapping is emotional abuse because it is intended to intimidate more than to physically hurt. It leaves an emotional scar, not a physical one. It is usually designed to oppress unwanted opposition. It is, therefore, oppressive. Typically, a mother slaps her son/daughter in the face in response to their spoken words.
Some abusive mothers will call slapping "discipline" or "correcting wrong behavior." Here is an actual story from my travels.
Does Slapping Teach Respect?
I just talked to a mother and father from Ireland. I said, "Since you are parents, I have a question for you about raising children. I just got this email from a friend of mine who is 18. She said her mother slapped her last week. She asked me what gives her mother the right to do this. She said that if she were not happy with someone at the store, she would not be able to reach out and slap the sales clerk. She said this would be illegal. It would be assault. What do you think about this?"
The mother answered by saying, "Well, you need to be able to correct your children." I then said, "I agree, but it seems to me that 18 is a bit old to still be slapping your child. What do you think?"
She said, "Well, yes, I suppose it is. If you haven't been able to teach your child respect by that age then there is probably something wrong."
I then said, "But is it really respect you are teaching, or fear? For example, if you respect me and I ask you to pass me the sugar, you probably will. But if I have been treating you disrespectfully, without respect for your feelings or needs, then you might tell me to get lost. You might even pull the sugar away from me so I can't reach it. On the other hand if I point a gun at you and say, "Will you please pass me the sugar?" you will probably pass me the sugar. But is this because you respect me or because you are afraid of me?"
She seemed to see my point, but said "I suppose you think it is never necessary to slap a child." I said, "I don't know. I don't have children myself." She then said, "Well, you have to teach them right from wrong."
Her teenage daughter was sitting there in silence the entire time. The look on her face told me she was too afraid to even look up from her meal. I suspected that she one of the things she had been "taught" by the mother, was never to voice her own opinion. To do so would be "wrong" and deserving of a slap to the face. In this way the daughter had indeed learned right from wrong, at least according to her mother.