What's the Psychology Behind Mommy Issues?

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What Are Mommy Issues?

"Mommy issues" is a term used to describe the issues females face later in life due to the relationship they had with their mothers as a child. When referring to males, having mommy issues can mean being too close to their mother or seeking a partner who is like their mother, often comparing the two.

While these challenges can manifest differently in males and females, they're no less real. If the mother was unkind or continuously critiqued the child's appearance, for instance, it can compromise the child's self-worth for years to come.

Although mommy issues isn't an actual clinical term, the concepts behind it can often be explained with psychological theories. This is partially because the role of a mother is still widely considered to be the most important, especially in early childhood.

The idea of daddy issues is thrown around pretty frequently. However, the notion that someone may experience mommy issues can be just as prevalent as these issues can pop up for anyone who had a toxic, estranged, or even overly-doting relationship with their mother or mother figure.

What's The History Of Mommy Issues?

Just as the concept of daddy issues is more notable in male children, mommy issues are more prevalent in female children. Sigmund Freud would argue that this is because of the Oedipus and  Electra complexes, which he described in his psychosexual stages of development:

  • Oedipus complex: This is when male children feel as though they are competing with their father for their mother's affection and attention.
  • Electra complex: Similarly to the Oedipus complex, this is when female children feel as though they're competing against their mothers for attention from their fathers.

That's right, the entire idea is that kids view their same-sex parent as competition. Freud theorized that this concept arises between the ages of three and five, and that if it continues, it can lead to the child having issues in their romantic relationships as they grow older.

Freud initially researched this in regard to male children, however, the larger concepts aren't gendered and actually led to the formation of the attachment theory. This theory came from John Bowlby, who figured out that attachment styles formed in early childhood can dictate the nature of a person's relationships in the future. Many times, people who had issues with their mothers develop an insecure attachment style.

The following are three types of insecure attachment styles:

  • Anxious-preoccupied: If you find that you are particularly clingy or demanding in relationships, it could be a sign of an anxious-preoccupied attachment style. It's basically the ongoing concern that your partner won't be around when you need them the most.
  • Fearful-avoidant: If you find it hard to connect and generally become more distant and detached in romantic relationships, this can be a sign of a fearful-avoidant attachment style. This happens when someone is afraid of getting hurt, so they close themselves off in order to protect against the possibility.
  • Dismissive-avoidant: If you find yourself avoiding romantic relationships altogether, this could be a sign that you have a dismissive-avoidant attachment style. In this case, people typically avoid deeper relationships as a whole because they have proven too difficult to navigate in the past.

Why Do Mommy Issues Occur?

The way that mothers treat their children was found to directly correlate with the way their mothers treated them. For example, one study found that mothers who felt that they were accepted and supported by their own mothers as kids went on to have balanced relationships with their own children. They were more sensitive to their child's needs and less intrusive.

That same study found that mothers who remembered being accepted by their moms formed secure attachments with their own children and in other relationships later in life.

Alternatively, mothers who remembered feeling overprotected and constantly entangled with their own mothers went on to form insecure or avoidant attachments with their own children. The same goes for moms who were dismissive or overly critical of their children.

Intergenerational mother-daughter relationships have been found to have a huge impact on the child's future in regard to their parenting and relationship styles. Basically, this is a cycle that can easily continue if you don't recognize and take action against it.

In a study that surveyed college students, attachment styles were predicted by paternal care and low scores of maternal overprotection. This demonstrates the importance of letting your child have autonomy over their decisions, all while offering support and guidance, of course.

When Is the Term Used?

Coming as a surprise to no one, "mommy issues" is typically used in a negative or even insulting way.

For men, it can often be associated with the term "mama's boy," which is basically saying that someone is too close to their mother. This can happen when moms are super servile and instill in men a sense that this is how women should behave.

It can lead to men having expectations of such behavior in romantic relationships, and even seeking out female partners who check this box. It can also lead to them mentally pitting their romantic partners' attributes against their mother's.

This term manifests completely differently for women. If a female child has mommy issues, it's more typically referencing that a mother nitpicked or verbally put down their daughter. This can lead to self-confidence and self-image issues later in life. It can also lead to trust issues since the person that you trusted for your primary care let you down in this way.

Should You Salvage Your Relationship With Your Mother?

This will depend largely on your ability to set up boundaries, and your mother's abilities to abide by them.

If the relationship is causing you stress, take steps back and evaluate why this is: Is your mom trying to involve herself in your life too heavily again? Is she offering constant input on your decisions?

If these things are happening, talk to your mom about it and let her know that you won't be welcoming this kind of interaction. If she can take these notes, then the relationship is probably worth maintaining. If not, you may need to take a step back for a while before giving her another chance.

How To Overcome Mommy Issues

In a study that looked at parents who were abused as children, parents that broke the cycle had a few things in common. These commonalities demonstrate how people have overcome mommy issues in their pasts.

  • Building emotional support networks: People who were abused by their mothers, but went on to break the cycle typically have supportive significant others and networks of supportive friend and mentor relationships. Both the relationship with their significant other and their community of friends provided extensive emotional and social support.
  • Awareness of the past: Everyone who broke the cycle of intergenerational abuse had an awareness of their past experiences. They also had a certain amount of anger toward what had happened to them, which is a sign of recognition of the actions that were abusive. Pinpointing these actions prevent people from perpetuating them.
  • Participation in therapy: Finally, people who went on to recover from their mommy issues underwent psychotherapy. This helped them identify the abuse in their past, mourn it, and provided them with an outlet of understanding toward how it happened and how to prevent it from happening in the future.

A Word From Verywell

Mommy issues can have lasting impacts that seriously hurt. It's totally understandable if it takes you a significant amount of time to overcome the mental strife that you were put through as a child or adolescent. Be patient with yourself and work through these issues so that you can stop the cycle of unhealthy relationships in your family.

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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  3. Maor Kalfon Hakhmigari, Yoav Peled, Haim Krissi, Sigal Levy, Maayan Molmen-Lichter, Jonathan E. Handelzalts, Anxious Attachment Mediates the Associations Between Early Recollections of Mother's Own Parental Bonding and Mother–Infant Bonding: A 2-Month Path Analysis Mode, Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2021 doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2021.682161

  4. Matsuoka N, Uji M, Hiramura H, Chen Z, Shikai N, Kishida Y, Kitamura T. Adolescents’ attachment style and early experiences: a gender differenceArch Womens Ment Health . 2005;9(1):9-23. doi:/10.1007/s00737-005-0105-9

  5. Langeland W, Dijkstra S. Breaking the intergenerational transmission of child abuse: Beyond the mother-child relationshipChild Abuse Review.

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.