Toxic Mother: Definition, Signs, and How to Cope

Mother and daughter having a stressful conversation

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While toxic relationships are not at all exclusive to parent-child relationships, toxicity in these relationships can often be the most damaging since parents are responsible for helping shape how their children view themselves and the world around them.

Mother and father figures can mean different things in different families, especially in single-parent or multi-generational homes. That said, we will look primarily at what it means to have a toxic maternal relationship. We'll also look at how these relationships can impact a person's self-view and how that relationship can carry into adulthood.

What Is a Toxic Relationship?

To understand what it means to have a toxic relationship with a parent, it's essential to understand what that term means concerning any relationship.

Simply put, a toxic relationship is in which your mental, psychological, or physical well-being is put in danger. Often, toxic relationships can be borne out of good will, like if a parent finds themselves getting too involved in the intricacies of your personal life because they don't want anything bad to happen.

That said, this can easily transition into a relationship that lacks personal boundaries. Toxic relationships can also come from a lack of communication or happen when all means of communication are primarily in the form of critiques.

While toxic relationships can happen in romantic relationships and even friendships, parental relationships that are toxic can often be the most damaging due to the role parents play in forming your views of the world.

Signs of Toxic Parent-Child Relationships

One study noted that parents who are toxic to their children suffer from depression themselves, showing how important it is to address your own mental health. If you're wondering if you or someone you know experienced a toxic parent-child relationship, ask yourself if you've witnessed or experienced these things:


Toxic parents often blame their children for their own problems. For example, if a parent is constantly upset about a dirty house, they are likely to blame their child for the mess, even if their kid had no part in creating it.

Lack of Empathy or Understanding

Toxic parents typically don't make an effort to understand their children and their struggles. This can apply to their child doing poorly in school, sports, or any number of activities. What's worse is that they typically complain to or berate their child as a result of any behavior they deem sub-par. As a result, the child may feel like they have nowhere to turn for support.


Toxic parents expect a lot from their children, but they don't give them very much in return. An example might be them expecting their child to look past their own negative behavior while refusing to do the same for them.


Toxic parents aren't just negative about their kids, they're often negative about the state of the world. They will typically voice this to their kids, which can lead to more stress for the child.

Poor Boundaries

Toxic parents may overshare with their children, treating them like their therapist regarding several things that the child can't control or understand. This can lead into adulthood and cause problems for the child as they figure out how to navigate their relationships.

If these problems continue into adulthood, it's important to recognize when it's happening and note to your parent that you will not tolerate this type of behavior. If it's continually impacting you, it may be time to consider limiting the amount of communication you allow from that parent.

Why These Relationships Can Cause Such Harm

While you may understand that these relationships are hard to deal with, they can have serious repercussions—including potential damage to the brain. Dr. Richard A. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, noted in an essay that prolonged exposure to stress and trauma could actually harm the brain by killing cells in the hippocampus.

Luckily, therapy and proper treatment can help mend this damage.

That said, here are some of the things that children and adults of toxic parents can deal with long into adulthood:

Difficulty in relationships

In the book "Poisonous Parenting: Toxic Relationships Between Parents and Their Adult Children," the authors note that a lack of confidence in early emotional bonds can lead to children forming unhealthy relationships as adults. As adults, these kids can suffer from feelings of abandonment, fear, violation, and loneliness. They can also have a difficult time trusting romantic partners or close friends.

Behavioral Issues

One study observed 10 abusive and 10 loving mothers as they interacted with their children in a daycare setting. They found that the abusive mothers were inconsistent in their parenting techniques and less flexible when their children didn't meet their commands.

The result was that their children acted out more frequently than the children with caring mothers. These results show that this type of parenting can negatively shape a child's behavior patterns in the future.

Toxic Stress

Another report found that the result of toxic relationships is toxic stress. In looking at adults who experienced toxic stress as children, the researchers found that it resulted in learning impairments and behavioral issues and negatively impacted people's mental and physical well-being long into adulthood.

How to Cope

While finding a therapist is certainly a good idea, there are things that you can do every single day to make sure you're managing your emotions in a healthy way. This journal explains how to positively cope with parents who continually display unhealthy behaviors.

  • Establish boundaries and stick to them: Even if you're still living under your parents' roof, you can set physical and emotional boundaries. This is especially important in adulthood. In both cases, make it clear to the parent that if these boundaries aren't respected, you will limit contact or time spent with them. An example of a healthy boundary would be limiting the number of phone calls that you accept from your parent, or letting them know that they can't drop by your home unannounced. Be explicit but kind in explaining these boundaries to your parents, and then stand by them by holding true to your word.
  • Take care of yourself: This means physically through exercise and eating well, as well as mentally by seeking out therapy and partaking in activities like meditation.
  • Find ways to express your emotions: This could be through sports, exercise, or art. The main point here is to find a constructive way to let your emotions out.
  • Practice voicing your needs: Practice forming healthy relationships with others by voicing your needs and saying how you feel. This will also help you avoid seeking constant approval from others.

Press Play for Advice On Influencing Someone's Behavior

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares that while you can't make anyone else change their behaviors or habits, you can certainly influence positive change in your loved ones. Click below to listen now.

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A Word From Verywell

Know that you are not what happened to you, you can overcome your past no matter what happened. While it may take consistent work in therapy and in daily practices, it's totally possible and you'll never regret making yourself better by overcoming this obstacle.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. FRIEDMAN, R. A. (2009, October 19). When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate [Therapy Blog]. Better Days and Nights, PLLC.

  3. Oldershaw, L., Walters, G. C., & Hall, D. K. (1986). Control Strategies and Noncompliance in Abusive Mother-Child Dyads: An Observational StudyChild Development57(3), 722–732. doi:10.2307/1130349

  4. Shonkoff, J. P., & Garner, A. S. (2012). The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic StressPediatrics129(1). doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2663

  5. Al Ubaidi , B. A. (2017). Cost of Growing up in Dysfunctional FamilyJournal of Family Medicine and Disease Prevention3(3). doi:10.23937/2469-5793/1510059

By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.