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Five Things an Unloving Mother Never Does

Posted Dec 18, 2017

Source: Photograph by abeer_almshrafi. Copyright free. Pixabay.

In his novel Anna Karenina, Leo 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, (link is external) specific maternal behaviors shape daughters in very
specific ways. But it’s not just what happens in the home that matters; what doesn’t happen
matters as well.

Maternal behaviors and their effects

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 very 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 who they are. Daughters of emotionally unavailable mothers are more like the
daughters of the 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.

Bad is stronger than good: a psychological truism (and it applies here too)

I got a rather nasty message from someone recently who 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.

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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 to
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.

Now, back to bad is stronger than good as we take a look at what the unloving mother never does.

The absence of these behaviors affects the daughters in important ways

When I write about the effect of unloving mothers, I usually focus on the toxic behaviors present
in the household and how they affect the 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 how styles of insecure attachment—anxious/preoccupied, dismissive-
avoidant, and fearful-avoidant—are formed 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, sustain and flourish 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 a 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.

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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 the 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 her child in the process. Self-acceptance includes
admitting defeat or failure.

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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. Humans 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 unloving 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