“My mother would ask me what I wanted to eat and then serve me whatever she felt like, as if I hadn’t said a word. That was true of everything: any time I expressed a wish or preference, she made it clear that what I wanted didn’t matter. They were repainting my room and she asked me what color I wanted and I said blue but also said I was fine with anything but pink. I should have known better but guess what? I came home to bubble-gum pink walls.”
Of the eight toxic patterns of maternal behavior I use in my book, Daughter Detox, the dismissive mother looks quite different at first glance; unlike the controlling mother, she doesn’t seem to micromanage, nor does she impose rules and regulations for getting her approval like the mother high in narcissistic traits. No, the message she sends to her daughter isn’t overtly hostile but consistent and highly damaging: What you think and feel doesn’t matter to me.
The daughter of a dismissive mother often has trouble seeing how she’s been wounded because of the absence of conflict; there’s none of the hyper-criticality that the child of a combative mother experiences and there appears to be an absence of verbal abusive. But—and this is an important point—ignoring and dismissing a child is emotionally abusive nonetheless.
A daughter starved for attention and understanding
“My mother made it clear that I was a burden, an item on the to-do-list that plagued her. I was the last-born, a mistake, the one who prevented her from going back to her job when my older sister and brother were in elementary school. She made short shrift of everything that had to do with me. She always told me to get over it when I was unhappy, marginalized my feelings, made light of my concerns—and I mean always. You have no idea how hard I tried to get her attention. In every way I could think of. And nothing worked.”
A child catches her first glimpse of herself in the mirror that is her mother’s face, and learns how to manage her emotions and calm herself through the dyadic interactions she has with her primary caretaker. The dismissive mother provides none of that but that only ramps up the child’s hardwired need for attention at first; she may begin to shut down emotionally in the wake of her mother’s lack of response in order to manage her pain. As an adult, she may demonstrate an avoidant style of attachment; she may feel herself above needing close connections (dismissive-avoidant) or she may want and need close connections but is afraid of their emotional cost (fearful-avoidant).
Other children respond to being ignored by becoming incredibly needy and focused on getting their mothers’ attention any way they can; that can include faking illness when they’re small, deliberately acting out or breaking rules, or indulging in self-destructive behaviors during the teenage years. Alternatively, they may become high-achievers—doing well in school, gaining kudos at sports or artistic endeavors—in order to get attention, nonetheless feeling empty and like an imposter. Their own adult attachment style is likely to be anxious-preoccupied.
This is what “Shelli” messaged me:
“No matter what I achieved, my mother’s attention was always on my brother and still is. I honestly didn’t realize how her treatment of me belittled me in subtle but meaningful ways until I met my now mother-in-law and saw what love looks like. I went into therapy and, ultimately, cut my mother out of my life. I couldn’t stay in a relationship where it was incumbent on me to work overtime to have her see or hear me. It was too painful.”
The round-about way Shelli finally recognized that her mother was abusive isn’t unusual; even in adulthood, these daughters of dismissive mother experience a great deal of emotional confusion and they often end up trying endlessly to please their mothers, to no avail.
6 common effects of a dismissive mother
These points are adapted from my book. Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
- Difficulty articulating her own needs and wants
This is not surprising since she’s been told since early childhood that her thoughts and feelings don’t matter; knowing what she wants will be hard to distinguish from what other people want of her. This ties in directly with the next point.
- Tendency to please or mollify by default
Because, deep-down, she’s unsure of her own self-worth, trying to please other people may co-exist with high achievement in the outside world; even as an adult, she may struggle with getting herself heard, especially in relationships. This may not plague her in the area of work or career where she may come across as strong and capable but can dog her in friendships as well as other intimate connections.
- Avoidance of confrontation and conflict
Unfortunately, this can also extend to situations where her efforts at peace-making effectively mean accepting blame or responsibility for things she hasn’t done. Her inability to see her own needs as worthy of attention as well as her fear of confrontation may keep her in relationships that are, in their own way, toxic and abusive.
- Trouble maintaining relationships
Many women who were ignored as children talk about not being able to participate in the give-and-take that healthy relationships require in order to thrive. They don’t know how to speak up but then harbor resentment at not being heard. They often misread cues since they’re on the defensive about being ignored and marginalized.
- Low self-esteem
Not a great surprise but it’s the foundation for almost everything else. The message that she doesn’t matter has been fully absorbed and it serves to complicate all of her efforts at connection.
- Drawn to others who treat her as her mother did
This is true not just of the daughters whose mothers were dismissive; humans seek out what they know and this is just dandy if you had a loving, attuned, and supportive parent or parents, and not so great if you didn’t. We are all drawn to comfort zones but, in the case of the unloved daughter, it’s a comfort zone that offers no comfort. Alas, we normalize abuse until we recognize it for what it is.
Healing is hard but attainable. The first step is recognition. Were you ignored as a child?
Photograph by Engin Akyurt. Copyright free. Pixabay.com