Toxic Relationships With Mothers & Tips for Managing Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is approaching quickly and as with all holidays, it can bring some uneasy feelings for some individuals. Most of us are brought up in society, believing and sometimes directly told that the relationship should be rewarding and close for both parties, yet rarely do we hear open discussions of dissatisfying relationships with your mother. If you find yourself having some mixed feelings on Mother’s Day, this could be due to some of your relationship dissatisfaction.  If you are reading this thinking, “what relationship?” or even something more along the lines of, “yeah, that’s a toxic relationship,” don’t worry! You are not alone. In 2020, research by sociologist Karl Pillemar showed that 1 in 4 Americans are estranged from their families—roughly 67 million people. Based upon work by Pillemar and psychologist, Dr. Karyl McBride, a common reason for children to have difficult relationships with their parents is due to toxic behaviors in the parent. While this article is primarily focused on mothers, these behaviors can also be present in any parent-child relationship.

Toxic behaviors in parents can look different to different people. Commonly what we would define as toxic behaviors in parents would be described as refusing to respect boundaries, lacking empathy, being extremely critical, or even malicious or gaslighting. An example of a parent who is refusing to respect boundaries could be one that frequently misgenders a child that has repeatedly asked them to correct the pronouns, or a parent who frequently inserts themselves into their child’s relationships or finances. Another example would be a parent who comes over unannounced after the child has repeatedly asked for communication/to ask before visiting. A parent who is lacking empathy could look like a parent who never validates any of your difficult experiences. When you come to them, telling them about a hardship or difficulty you are going through, your parent moves onto another subject, explains that others have it harder, or minimizes your experiences. A parent who is extremely critical could provide explanations as to their judgments on why you are dealing with the hardship, how you are to blame for the hardship, or criticizes your thoughts, behaviors, and/or feelings. A malicious parent might be someone who engages in name calling, put downs, overt judgements about your life/behaviors/feelings. Gaslighting is a behavior to be cautious of, as it often makes individuals feel as if they cannot trust their own realities. Gaslighting is where an individual manipulates another into questioning their own realities. An example: Your parent tells a neighbor that they believe you are the smartest child in the neighborhood. When you ask them later, “Mom! You really think I’m the smartest kid in the neighborhood?” They respond with, “What are you talking about? I would never say that.” This is an example of gaslighting behavior. 

Some parents may even display narcissistic behaviors. Dr. McBride has dedicated quite a bit of her research on dysfunctional parent-child relationships, specifically that of narcissistic parents. Parents with narcissistic behaviors can cause their children to have difficulties with (to name just a few): boundaries, relationships, trust, and not feeling good enough. This, oftentimes, transfers into adulthood and can have long lasting effects on the relationship. If you are concerned you have a narcissistic parent, you may find that the best solution is to limit or discontinue contact with this parent. Please go to the end of this blog for more resources if you are concerned about having a narcissistic parent. 

How might we manage these situations? There are always multiple ways to address any situation, so firstly you may need to decide, “Do I want to interact with my parent or not?” 

If you decide you want to interact with your parent, one way to effectively manage these difficult parent interactions is by utilizing DBT interpersonal effectiveness skills.

DEARMAN can be an effective strategy for communicating a boundary (saying no) or communicating what you actually need from the other person. You would do this by:

  • Describing the situation
  • Expressing your thoughts and feelings about the situation
  • Asserting your want OR boundary concisely and clearly
  • Reinforcing (rewarding) your mother as to why she should keep your boundary/complete your request
  • Staying Mindful of your request/boundary if your mother attempts to attack or get you off topic,
  • Appearing Confident in your ask/boundary
  • Negotiating (when necessary) your ask/boundary. 

Here’s an example: You call your mother to wish her Happy Mother’s Day. Your mother responds with how frustrated she is that you’re only calling her, not visiting her, and you did not even get her a gift. 

DEARMAN response: 

  • Describe: You’re upset that I did not get to visit you or get you anything for mother’s day.
  • Express: I’m feeling overwhelmed with the limited time and finances I have, so the best option for me was to give you a call. 
  • Assert: I would really like some understanding as I am trying to do what I can, with the time and resources I have to still make an effort to wish you a happy Mother’s Day.
  • Reinforce: I would feel a lot more connected and understood by you if you see where I’m coming from. 
  • Stay Mindful: I still would like some understanding from you. 
  • Appear confident (this may be more of how you apply the DEARMAN than an actual script): Maintain a steady vocal tone, refrain from using “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” “Whatever,” etc.
  • Negotiate: I won’t be able to visit you today or this week, but maybe we could try to schedule a visit soon to make up for not being able to visit you on Mother’s Day. 

Another effective way to manage some of these situations would be with the FAST skill. This skill is utilized when you need to maintain your own self-respect in an interaction. You would do this by being:

  • Fair to yourself and others; validating your points and theirs
  • not Apologizing for making a request or giving an opinion, or even disagreeing
  • Sticking to your values and boundaries related to the situation and not selling out for something not very important
  • Be Truthful by not lying or exaggerating. 

An example of FAST related to the previous example:  You completed the DEARMAN with your mother about wanting understanding, but your mother is not happy or understanding of where you’re coming from. 

FAST response: 

  • Be Fair: I can tell you are very frustrated by this situation and I am too. I am unable to afford more time or money to see you or obtain a gift for you. 
  • No Apologies: I cannot come visit you or get you a gift at this time. My limit right now is being able to call you. I wish I could do more and this is all I am capable of at this time. 
  • Stick to your values: I will not be able to visit you or get you a gift at this time. (TIP: Just because someone increases their frustration/emotional dysregulation with you does not equate to giving into their wishes!)
  • Be Truthful: I am not able to afford a gift and I cannot make it to visit you. I am financially unable to accommodate this at this time. 

There are going to be some situations where skills do not work and you may not even be willing to engage in interacting with your mother. Everyone has their own personal reasons and limitations with their parents, which is completely normal. These last skills, in my opinion, are most important regardless of how you decide to approach situations with your parent. These skill are dialectical thinking and validation. These skills are more for you, the individual, to figure out how to recover from difficult interactions and also assist you in understanding yourself, as well as your relationship dynamic. 

Dialectical thinking is a skill that is defined as being able to look at a situation from various perspectives. It is reminding us that all things in the universe are connected and that everything has a cause, even painful events in life. It is switching from seeing things as “yes, but…” to “yes, and.” Dialectical thinking is where we acknowledge that two items that seem opposing or as opposite, can actually be true at the same time. An example would be: “ I love my mother and see many ways she has helped me over the years AND she has not been validating and as supportive as I would like.” OR “My mother frequently makes invalidating comments to me and I know she still supports me.” 

Validation is a valuable tool that comes in handy in interpersonal situations, yet it is also EXTREMELY important to use validation on ourselves. We validate ourselves JUST as we would others. There are 6 levels of validation proposed by the DBT Skills Training Manual which are: 

  1. Pay attention – to yourself and observe your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 
  2. Reflect – by describing to yourself your own private thoughts and feelings, and public actions in a nonjudgmental way.
  3. Be Mindful of your emotions and situation – be sensitive to what your emotions and the situation might be telling you that you need
  4. Try to understand – your thoughts and feelings, remembering that all behaviors are caused, meaning that they are all understandable.
  5. Acknowledge the valid – stand up for yourself when your behavior, emotions, and thoughts are valid, even if others cannot understand it.
  6. Treat yourself with respect – treat yourself equally to others. 

While the complexities of parent-child relationships may still be difficult to navigate, these skills can be effective ways to minimize the invalidation and hopefully some of the mixed emotions that may arise with the upcoming holiday. My hope is that you realize that regardless of the type of relationship you have with your mother, your mother’s day can be pleasant and effective, as well as, having mixed emotions, especially when the relationship has tension or toxicity, is completely normal, as well as a valid response to interpersonal difficulties. 

If you are concerned you may have a narcissistic parent, please check out this link for more information.

To take a survey to see if your parent has narcissistic behaviors check out this link.

About the Author

Alyssa Eichhorn (she/her), M.A., LPCC, is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor that specializes in dialectical behavior therapy. Alyssa works with all ages in a radically genuine and nonjudgmental setting to help individuals identify more effective and balanced behaviors to create a life worth living. Alyssa provides a directive and warm approach with her clients to facilitate solutions, growth, and change where they want it. Click Here to learn more about Alyssa’s experience and therapeutic style.


DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, by Marsha M. Linehan, Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills Handouts 5 (pgs 125-126), 7 (pg130), 15, 16,16A, 16B, 17, 18, & 19 (pgs 150-160) .