When a child’s emotional needs aren’t met in childhood, her development and personality are shaped in specific ways. While it’s true that everyone’s childhood experience is different—one daughter may have an emotionally absent and dismissive mother who pays no attention to her, another might have a thoroughly enmeshed one who also ignores her needs but for different reasons, while a third daughter might be seen as only an extension of a mother high in narcissistic traits—there are nonetheless broad and reliable statements which can be made about the effect of these experiences. They are invaluable to understanding how your childhood shaped your personality and behaviors.
In the years before and since I wrote Mean Mothers, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from literally hundreds of women who have shared their stories. They reveal common themes, on the one hand, and unique, individual variations, on the other. As an unloved daughter myself, these stories amplify and expand the discussions offered by psychological research.
Here, in no particular order, are the most common—and the most lasting—effects these childhood experiences have on daughters. Their influence lasts long into adulthood, sometimes even into the sixth or seventh decade of life, unless they are addressed through therapy and self-knowledge.
- Insecure attachment
A loving and attuned mother raises a child who feels understood and supported; she learns that relationships are stable and caring, that the world is a place of opportunity to be explored, that people take care of you. She has a secure base.
The child of an emotionally unreliable mother—sometimes there and sometimes not—understands that relationships are fraught and precarious, and that nothing is guaranteed. She grows up anxiously attached, hungry for connection but always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The child with a mother who’s withheld or combative learns to armor herself, to be as self-reliant as she can be; she is avoidant in her attachment style. While the securely attached daughter seeks out intimacy, her avoidant counterpart wants no part of it; the anxiously attached daughter seeks it out but can never find her footing since she’s terrified of rejection.
These patterns of attachments arc into adulthood and affect friendships and romantic liaisons alike.
- Undeveloped emotional intelligence
A child learns what she’s feeling through dyadic interaction; a mother’s gestures and words teach the baby to self-soothe when she’s stressed or uncomfortable. Later, the mother will play a key role in helping her daughter articulate her feelings, name them, and learn to manage her fears and negative emotions.
The insecurely attached daughter doesn’t learn to regulate her emotions; she’s either engulfed by them or walled off from them. Both insecure styles of attachments get in the way of naming emotions and using them to inform thought—key aspects of emotional intelligence.
- Impaired sense of self
A mother’s face is the first mirror in which a daughter catches a glimpse of herself. The attuned and loving mother’s face reflects acceptance, communicating, “You are you and you are just fine as you are.” The unloving mother’s face reflects supposed flaws and inadequacies; if the daughter is shunned or ignored, she absorbs the lesson that she’s not worth dealing with or, if she’s constantly criticized, she thinks she’ll never be good enough.
Few unloved daughters see themselves with any clarity at all, especially if they’ve been scapegoated in the family.
- Lack of trust
To trust others, you must believe that the world is essentially a safe place and the people in it well-intentioned, if sometimes imperfect. With an emotionally unreliable mother or one who is combative or hypercritical, the daughter learns that relationships are unstable and dangerous, and that trust is ephemeral and can’t be relied on. Unloved daughters have trouble trusting in all relationships but especially friendship.
- Difficulties with boundaries
The attuned mother teaches her baby that there’s healthy space and breathing room even in close relationships; she doesn’t intrude into her baby’s space, forcing her to interact when she’s not ready. Her behavior reflects the understanding that there’s an area of overlap but that each person in the dyad is whole unto herself.
The avoidant daughter sees any overlap as too close and intrusive; she prefers to interact on more superficial levels so that her independence is never threatened. This tends to be a response to either a mother’s intrusiveness or unreliability. The anxious daughter doesn’t understand healthy space and mistakes a friend’s or partner’s need for boundaries as rejecting. She wrongly believes that being subsumed is a synonym for love.
- Choosing toxic friends and partners
We all seek out the familiar (see the shared root with the word family?) which is just dandy if you have a secure base, and definitely less than optimal if you’re an unloved daughter. The chances are good that, initially at least, you’ll be attracted to those who treat you as your mother did—a familiar comfort zone that offers no comfort. Until you begin to recognize the ways in which you were wounded in childhood, the chances are good that you’ll continue to recreate the emotional atmosphere you grew up with in your adult relationships.
- Dominated by fear of failure
No one likes to fail, of course, but a securely attached daughter is unlikely to see a setback or even a failure as defining her self-worth or as proof positive of some basic flaw in her character. She’ll be bruised but she’s more likely to understand her failure as a consequence of having set the bar high in the first place.
That’s absolutely not true of the unloved daughter who will take any rejection or failure as a sign that her mother was right about her after all. She remains highly motivated to avoid failing at any cost, often to her own detriment; many unloved daughters are chronic under-achievers as a result.
- Feelings of isolation
Because the culture stubbornly believes that all mothers are loving and that mothering is instinctual, the unloved daughter mistakenly believes she’s the only child on the planet to find herself in this predicament. As a result, she feels isolated and afraid, and is likely to continue to self-isolate because of her deep shame. She’s not likely to tell anyone. More than anything, she wants to belong to the tribe—those girls who hug their moms and laugh with them.
- Extreme sensitivity
Fear of rejection often dominates the daughter’s inner world because she’s afraid of more proof and evidence that her mother is right and that she really is worthless and unlovable. Her sensitivity is only increased by the likelihood that her mother and others accuse her of being “too sensitive”—the most common “explanation” of verbal abuse offered up by abusers.
What I call the core conflict—the daughter’s continuing hardwired need for her mother’s love and support versus her growing recognition of how her mother has wounded her—can dominate a daughter’s life well into adulthood. It feeds her confusion, insecurity, and inner turmoil.
The first step of the long path to healing is recognition.
Photograph by Brandon Day. Copyright fr