The purpose of this article is not to explain “how” the narcissistic mother came to be but to help validate adult children of narcissistic mothers. You may have found yourself among people from “healthy” families who cannot fathom how a mother can possibly treat her child the way you have been treated, and your experiences inadvertently invalidated.
It is strongly recommend that you work with a professional and knowledgeable therapist, counselor, or coach to help you effectively progress through your healing and recovery of childhood traumas.
Why They’re So Scary and Dangerous
We first learn about ourselves and the world around us through our interactions with our mothers. We establish our sense of self-worth from how she nurtures, cares for, and protects us from harm. We learn that we have value by her empathy in response to our feelings, wants, and needs.
Our mothers are the foundation of how we grow as an individual and how we integrate ourselves in the world. However, if this important foundation is contaminated with emotional, verbal, and even physical abuse, it is very possible the child will grow into an adult with a heightened risk for anxiety, depression, self-doubt, low self esteem, lack of self worth, and self loathing.
While a healthy mother protects her child early on from harm and danger of the outside world… the narcissistic mother is the SOURCE of fear for her children and distorts the child’s self perception. Instead of being given the knowledge and tools to build and maintain a healthy self-esteem, children of narcissistic mothers have seeds of doubt and low self-worth planted deep into their being.
While a healthy mother embraces her child with unconditional love and acceptance to provide confidence and a safe space to discover and grow into who they are, the narcissistic mother gives performance-driven, conditional love – only for stakes to be raised even higher without the reward being given. This creates a persistent sense of anxiety, self doubt, and distrust.
This is where it all starts. Narcissistic mothers contaminate their defenseless children who trust and depend on their mothers for love, attention, validation, guidance and protection.
Weapons of Choice
Your mother says or does something to hurt your feelings, and when you try to talk to her about how it’s affected you, she answers with a sarcastic, “Oh, poor you. Did I hurt your little feelings?” or an accusation that you’re being “over-sensitive” as usual. Perhaps even a response similar to, “It doesn’t bother anyone else, so why should it bother you?”
Tonya, a 28 year old single mom told me:
I was overweight as a teenager and as you can imagine, very self conscious about it. So much that I would avoid social events altogether. But family gatherings were the most dreadful. My parents would guilt-trip me to join in when relatives flew in for visits, and without fail, my mother always managed to take jabs at my weight and appearance in front of everyone. My dad, who I now realize is an enabler, would join in just to get on my mother’s good side.
I would begin to tear up right on the spot, or run out of the room to avoid making a scene. Mom would always call after me and say as she laughed, “Why are you always SO dramatic?”
At times, your feelings are completely dismissed with, “No, that didn’t happen.” And when others compliment you for being kind, smart, selfless, and helpful, your mother quietly whispers, “You sure fooled them!” … or “You’re lucky they don’t know how you REALLY are.”
My client Juliet discovered that her husband of 12 years was having an affair. She was understandably devastated and turned to her mother for support. However, the first thing her mother asked was, “What did YOU do to make him cheat on you?” In the following weeks after the discovery, Juliet would randomly burst into tears. But instead of offering love, compassion, and support, her mother demanded, “Stop making everyone around you miserable.”
Narcissistic mothers are masters of invalidation. As far as they’re concerned, you’re allowed to only have the emotional responses that are acceptable to them. They dismiss your feelings and your commendable qualities in order to treat you however they want. It’s a setup to manipulate the situation and dictate what you can and cannot feel.
You know where this leaves you? Unable to clearly identify and own your emotions. You’ll constantly question what you’re feeling and if it’s even appropriate to be feeling that way about whatever is going on. For example, if you’re unable to trust your feeling of fear, how do you know if you’re in danger, and how can you do what’s needed to protect yourself?
2) Shame and Fault Finding.
You finally earned the grades she’s been demanding from you, and her response? “You think doing this just once is impressive?” Or perhaps you’ve carefully picked out a gift for her, hoping you got it right – this time. But she barely glances at it as she says, “I already have that” or maybe an obviously unimpressed – “How nice” if anything at all.
Your narcissistic mother managed to always find fault in you. And even when you work hard to make the changes and improvements, you hardly get an acknowledgement. Always leaving you to question, “Why can’t I ever be good enough?”
Ashley, a former beauty pageant winner confessed…
This whole beauty queen thing isn’t really my thing, but I did it because mom seemed so enthusiastic about it, I thought it will bring us closer. But when I won my first pageant, mom’s reaction confused me. She “Congratulations dear. It’s a shame you couldn’t lose a little more weight. The camera adds 10 pounds, you know? You’re lucky the judges looked past that and gave you the crown anyway.”
The narcissistic mother uses shame to make certain that her children never develop a stable sense of identity or self-esteem. They block their child’s growth as an independent individual, trapping the child so they will constantly need her validation and approval.
3 Triangulation and Comparison Among Siblings and Their Peers.
The narcissistic mother stirs up drama and competition between two or more siblings against one another. This is usually done by speaking ill about one to the other, or pulling the classic “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” or even, “No one asked you to the dance? How strange. Your sister always had everyone fighting for her attention!” This is to plant seeds of anxiety and tension among the children about each other, so they’ll always compete for the mother’s love, approval, and attention.
Bethany, a graduate student who currently lives with her mother AND has a golden-child sister in Colorado shared…
I once introduced myself to my mother’s friend at a party, and much to my dismay, her friend said with a look of confusion, “I’ve heard stories about your sister in Colorado, but your mom has never mentioned having another daughter who lives right here!”
Sadly, while siblings from healthy families grow into the strongest of allies, many siblings with a narcissistic mother become estranged.
The narcissistic mother will also compare her children to their peers, making it clear that they will always fall short in her eyes. Children are often left wondering, “Why does she love and appreciate other people’s kids more than she does her own?”
This also teaches the children to treat with contempt, those who do not meet their standards and preferences, as well as to withhold feeling any form of happiness towards others who succeed. Because they’ve been conditioned to believe when something good happens to someone else, that same amount of goodness is subtracted from their own lives.
4) The Child’s Thoughts & Feelings Must Always Align with the Mother’s.
Id like to first make this clear: While a narcissistic mother projects her own fears, dreams, plans and everything else to her child, it is also natural for a healthy mother to project those same things onto her child. This is our very own little human, and us moms fantasize about how amazing our kids will become! My baby is gonna change the world!
However, the difference is, the healthy mother eventually RELEASES her projection so her child has the space to figure out who they are and how they fit into this world. The narcissistic mother does not. Her child will always be an extension of herself and must always reflect well on her. Their thoughts and emotions must always align with hers at all time.
Simon, a father of 2 teenagers shared…
My mother recently told me that I need to secretly monitor my kid’s internet activities because she heard there are websites that motivates children to become criminals. Let me tell you, I find that absurd. I told her I occasionally do random checks on what they’ve been doing online, but I don’t feel the need to sneak around like that. Besides, websites alone won’t transform responsible kids with strong values into criminals.
Mom immediately blew up and said, “Why is it so hard to talk to you? Why can’t you just agree and do what I say? You always did enjoy disagreeing with me!”
I calmly answered, “Mom, I’m their father and I trust how I’ve been raising my kids… a few websites won’t wipe out everything they’ve learned. They’re responsible kids who constantly demonstrate their honesty”
Mom snapped back, “You have responsible kids? That’s a laugh! Look at how you disrespect your own mother! And you think you have the ability to raise good kids? You’re delusional!
5) Competes with Her Children – Especially Her Daughters.
Regardless of what you’ve achieved, your mother has achieved more. Whatever challenges you are struggling through, your mother’s struggles overshadows yours. She absolutely refuse to acknowledge, accept, and appreciate you as your own person, because you are simply an object she uses as a step-stool to make herself feel superior.
My client Maria told me…
When I was in high school, I’d have my friends over. Of course, mom would always make an appearance wearing a revealing outfit and flirt with the guys. It was embarrassing. I tried to explain to her how uncomfortable that made me feel, and she just said, “Jealousy is not attractive.”
The narcissistic mother is known for criticizing her daughter’s appearance, shames her for her body and even try to win over her daughter’s object of affection to demonstrate her superiority and desirability.
6) Supermom in the Public Eye – Terror Behind Closed Doors.
Admired by everyone in her personal and professional circles, she has her life together with the enviable marriage, perfect children, and great career. She’s the always understanding and supportive aunt, friend and neighbor, never failing to give back to the community that consistently supports her.
No one – NO ONE would believe you if you told them about the mom YOU know. The self-centered, easily angered, dismissive, invalidating, manipulative, malicious, and the always right mother who makes it clear how insignificant you are and how disgusted she is with her own family.
Image and status is everything to the narcissistic mother. And the false image she has created for the public eye is one that would make all your friends envy you for being her child! She’s sweet, selfless, loving, supportive, nurturing, hardworking, and charitable, but you know her secret. That she looks at everyone with contempt, gossiping about the very same people she welcomes with a gentle smile and open arms. She rarely cooks for her family or cleans the house for that matter – yet she’s always the first to volunteer a home-cooked dish to the church potluck. This is how things really are, but that’s none of her concern. There’s no one to impress behind closed doors anyway.
Tara, a work from home mom shared with me…
I have a mother, but I don’t. does that make sense? When I told her about the lump in my breast and how afraid I was to get it looked at, she demanded I keep it to myself and stop looking for attention.
But every time I meet my mother’s friends and their families, I always hear about what a wonderful person she is. What a rock she has been during their most difficult times and their biggest supporter when celebrating their achievements.
I can’t help but wonder – What is so bad about me that she can’t provide me with the same acceptance, support, and love that she freely gives to everyone else? Why do they get the mom I so desperately want and need?
7) Force Her Children to Walk on Eggshells.
You have no idea what will set her off. You’ve tried your best to take note of what would throw your mother into a rage, but her erratic behavior is completely based on her mood at that particular moment so it’s never consistent.
The narcissistic mother is emotionally and mentally fragile, and as such, she needs constant validation of her sense of importance and superiority. Her emotions are like a never ending psychological roller coaster.
24 year old Janelle recently told me,
My mom is psycho. But we’ve been getting along surprisingly well the last 2 weeks so I decided to take her out to a nice dinner. We chatted as we enjoyed a delicious meal, and afterwards, I asked if she wanted to look at the dessert menu. She answered “Oh no no! I am sooo full!” So we finished up and I drove her home.
The next day she kept declining my calls and ignoring my texts. She finally told me she’s furious at me for not insisting she should order dessert. I reminded her that I asked if she wanted to look at the dessert menu, but she accused me of being cheap and in a rush to get home.
But the day after that, she called in her usual tone and asked when we’re getting together for dinner again because she had such a lovely time. What kind of crazy is this?
At any given moment, she can burst into a full-blown rage because you failed to meet her demands (that she never told you about, but you were expected to know anyway), and the next moment, she’s love-bombing you because she needs something. There is little or no consistency in the narcissistic mother’s household. Her children walk on eggshells every day, fearing their mother’s rage.
8) Total Disregard of the Child’s Boundaries.
Because the narcissistic mother views her children as extensions of herself and not independent humans, these mothers feel entitled to disregard her children’s basic needs for privacy and autonomy and keeps her children in a state of perpetual childhood.
Narcissistic mothers may also become so enmeshed with her children that she engages in covert emotional incest where she makes her children responsible for fulfilling her emotional needs and expectations.
My client, Erica shared…
When I was in high school, my mom caught my dad having an affair. She immediately divulged all kinds of things to me that kids don’t want to hear about their parents… including sexual things. I was absolutely appalled when mom called to tell me in detail, “Your father no longer does *blank* or *blank* to me. He probably stays late at work doing *blank* and *blank* to the other woman. I told her I don’t want to know these things! She angrily replied, “You know, I thought I could trust you. I thought you were my best friend. I guess I was wrong. I’ll just find someone else to confide in.”
I know I did nothing wrong, so why do I feel SO GUILTY telling mom I can’t listen to her talking about stuff like that anymore?
9) The Narcissistic Mother is Never at Fault. She is Never Wrong.
She will never admit to fault. She has buried her insecurities and self loathing deep into her unconscious and constantly protects and nurtures the perfect false self she has created. Don’t you dare tell her she’s wrong or find fault in anything she does because it will be met with terrible consequences including being told yet again, how stupid, disrespectful, and ungrateful you are.
Scott, a 36 year old single father recalled a recent event…
We were at my parents’ house for a family get together when my siblings and I heard mom screaming from the kitchen “Who took the serving spoon? Whoever took it BETTER put it back!” We all headed to the kitchen to see what the problem was, but mom was already beyond fuming. We answered, “Mom! We all just got here and none of us touched your serving spoon!”
That’s when mom looked straight at me and said, “Where did you put it, Scott? THIS is why you couldn’t save your marriage! You’re SO irresponsible!” I was at loss for words! Moments later, my sister found the serving spoon in a container in the fridge. Mom apparently left it in there as she was putting some food away.
Mom then told her, “You should’ve looked there in the first place so I wouldn’t have had to search for it!” We all looked at each other with confusion. Of course, no apology for her cruel attack on my character.
Admitting to fault means she loses absolute control of her false image. It threatens her superiority over others and it means she has to get back in touch with that fragile true-self she has long forgotten about – and that would absolutely destroy her.
The Narcissistic Mother is Not Her Child’s Responsibility
Many adult children of narcissistic mothers continue to believe mom can’t accept them because there’s something wrong with THEM. Many are absolutely blown away when they first realize others have experienced very similar abuse in the hands of their mothers during childhood.
These dysfunctional mothers cause unbelievable psychological injuries to their children. From constantly doubting themselves and feeling worthless, anxious and inadequate no matter what they’ve accomplished, to seeking out emotionally unavailable and abusive partners who provides the familiar hurtful feelings they received from their mothers throughout their lives.
The bottom line is, what your mom is, is NOT your fault. No matter what she’s said throughout your life – and may continue to say until the end of times. Processing this is painfully challenging because all we see is a MOM. We expect her to play the role of a mother… behaving like the loving moms everyone else has. But mothers are humans too. And like all humans, some moms become very sick. If you have a narcissistic mother, she has a personality disorder – an illness that’s very difficult to repair.
It’s Time to Look at Yourself Through a Clear Lens.
It can feel almost impossible to deal with a narcissistic mother, but you can survive and rise above her behavior. Turn to those in whom you can trust for validation for who you really are. You’ve probably asked yourself, “Why do others commend me for being a great person while my own mother constantly accuse me of being a horrible disappointment, no matter how hard I try to prove myself worthy?”
As a child of a narcissistic mother, you’ve been looking at a reflection of yourself thru a very distorted mirror that’s been constantly manipulated by your mother. And as such, it’s of utmost importance for you to turn to your trusted circle of support who will hold up a clear mirror in front of you. A mirror that hasn’t been tampered with. One that reveals your wonderful TRUE self!
You grew up leaning on something that was very damaged. It’s very sad and unfortunate. But while you couldn’t defend yourself as a child, you can defend yourself as an adult. You must begin healing and rebuilding, so you can step out of the lies your mother conditioned you to believe about yourself.
It’s time to see and accept the narcissistic mother for who she really is… and more important, it’s time to step into who YOU really are.
* Names have been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.
I was moved to write this article after listening to Christine Hammond’s podcast episode: Narcissistic Mothers and Their Daughters, and inspiration for some of the ideas in this article came from Shahida Arabi’s article: 8 Toxic Ways Narcissistic Mothers Emotionally Abuse Their Children.
You’re invited to listen to my Choose You Podcast Episode 11: The Narcissistic Mother where I discuss actual events of emotional and mental abuse in the hands of a narcissistic mother, shared by my coaching clients. (Available on iTunes and on your favorite Podcast app.)