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Dealing with a Manipulative Mother

Among the things I hear most often from adult daughters is the regret that they don’t have the kind of relationship they long for with their mothers. Sometimes, it’s expressed as jealousy of other women who do have that kind of connection—you know, those daughter-mother pairs who laugh in each other’s company and like spending time together—and sometimes, it’s just a heart-wrenching sense of loss because the truth is that the relationship remains toxic and hurtful.Milada Vigerova

As I’ve written before, a daughter’s need for her mother’s love and support doesn’t seem to have an expiration date and continues long past childhood. And, often, it results in a daughter’s continuing efforts—despite her childhood experiences and her feelings of hurt—to somehow wrest the love she wants from her mother. All of that co-exists with the daughter’s emerging understanding of how she was affected by her mother’s treatment. The conflict between what a daughter knows to be true and what she wants to be true can be ongoing for years, even decades.

The real problem is that a solution requires the participation of both parties and, in many cases, that’s just not going happen. Changing the status quo would require a mother to stop denying her actions and words and to take responsibility for being less than nurturing and supportive, and usually that’s not going to happen. (It does sometimes but not often enough to call it a trend. This much I know for sure.)

Mothers who are combative, controlling, or high in narcissistic traits are often skilled manipulators, making it well-neigh impossible to change the script that’s been played out and continues to. These mothers are highly motivated to have their needs met first, without regard for their daughters’ welfare or desire for some kind of meaningful dialogue. The ways in which they manipulate their daughters aren’t subtle but tried and true patterns they’ve honed over the years. Gleaned from the stories of many unloved daughters, including my own, here is my unscientific but colorful take on the motives that underlie the manipulation.

The Attention-Getter

Yes, Mom is the sun around which all the planets revolve and no matter where the conversation starts, it will always be about her. She’ll do what she can to marginalize your successes so that she can shine more brightly, just as she did when you were a child. This mother likes the rush of power that getting attention gives her, and she’ll favor the child or children who are happy to give it to her. If she sees you at all, it’s only as an extension of herself.

Here’s Jackie’s story:

“I called my mother to tell her about my promotion at work and she started in on me immediately about how it’d been weeks since I’d called her and what an ingrate and neglectful daughter I was. Somehow, I found myself apologizing over and over again and getting totally sucked in. I never did tell her about the promotion, by the way. Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

The Rabble-Rouser

This mother loves pitting one child against another because control makes her feel good about herself and she’ll craft drama out of the stray remark, amplified and repeated, or compare you unfavorably to a sibling or someone else. Here’s one example, offered up by Maria, 40:

 “So I took my mother to lunch just to talk and right off, she starts complaining about the restaurant and how it’s not nearly as nice as the place my sister took her to. At that moment, I knew what was going to happen and, of course, it did. The next two hours were all about how fabulous my sister is and what a bust I am comparatively. You’d think I’d know better by now but I keep doing it anyway. I felt like hell afterward.”

The Blame-Shifter

The daughter’s intention is to change things in the relationship in a more positive direction which includes setting boundaries and having a discussion about a specific event or incident that seemed to summarize all that needed fixing in their mutual connection. But one of the most common patterns of childhood—making the child responsible for the mother’s actions—once again makes that impossible. Most daughters report that justification of words and deeds were the norm in their childhood as in “I wouldn’t be yelling at you if you didn’t give me so many reasons to be angry” or “I lost my temper because you made me.” This continues in adulthood as underscored by Rebecca’s observation:

“We’d had my mother over for a picnic and, out of nowhere, she suddenly starts in on my older daughter who’s 13. About how she’s too fat and needs to start playing attention to her looks. Needless to say, I jumped in right away, and told my mother to stop and to apologize. She wouldn’t. It ended in a shouting match, and my mother insisted that she had every right to speak her mind as a grandmother and that it was my fault that my daughter was overweight. My daughter isn’t overweight, in fact, but that’s not even the point. Getting her to take responsibility is and has always been impossible. She made my kid cry and that, for me, is the bottom line. I’m not including her again unless she admits what she’s done. Which will never happen.”

The Competitor

Many combative, controlling, and self-involved mothers need to win at all costs; they see an open discussion as a threat to themselves and their authority, just as they did when their daughters were children. They are in it to win it, no matter what, and that—not the elephant in the room—will be their main focus. Ellie,46, is one of three siblings, two of whom have “divorced” their mother and one of whom, a sister, goes back and forth. Here’s what she wrote:

“I know without a doubt that there is no way to have a healthy relationship with my mother. To know her is to be abused by her. I often wonder as a mother of two daughters why she doesn’t learn how to pretend to be sorry.  I can’t imagine my two daughters disconnecting from me. I would do whatever it takes—even if it meant pretending to be sorry for something I didn’t do. The unloving mother does not have the introspection to do this. I was on a run about 2 years into my no contact and my mother pulled her car over and demanded I talk to her. She was saying we need to do family therapy and what can she do to make things better. When I started to say that she needed to take responsibility for her behavior and actions, her face went sour. That same sour face (we called it the ‘poo’ face growing up) of unacceptance, disgust and ‘what ever could you be talking about?’ I told her that I could tell by her face she was not interested in changing or taking responsibility for her behavior so there was no way to mend things. It felt really good to finally be truthful and let her know that we certainly did not have a normal childhood and why would I want to try to get that back.”

The truth is that the old patterns of interaction between mother and daughter may be impossible to change without cooperation. This is something we all need to understand when we hear of a daughter going “no contact” or divorcing her mother before we rush to judgment.

Photograph by Milaca Vigoro. Copyright free.

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Dealing with a Manipulative Mother

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

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APA Reference
, . (2016). Dealing with a Manipulative Mother. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Aug 2016
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