(I started this file a couple of year ago and never posted it because I never finished it to my satisfaction, but I've decided it has enough helpful information on it to post as is. Steve Hein, March 2005)
I started noticing how mothers treated their children and teens around 1994 when I began to make mental notes on a mother in the neighborhood where I grew up. She had a daughter named Zoey. (1) The last time I saw Zoey she was 14 or 15. As a teen she was already more mature than her mother. Zoey and I had long talks about her mother, a single parent. Zoey could see how she acted hypocritically, inconsistently, irresponsibly and irrationally. Among other things, Zoey felt critical of her for the way she drank and acted with men. When Zoey told her mother what she thought of her behavior, the mother only got more defensive. In my 1996 book Zoey's mother was the subject in the following observation:
One day I heard a mother hurling imperatives at the family dog. "Get back here! Get over here! Get inside the house!" A few moments later her teenage daughter came outside and the mother began ordering her around in exactly the same tone of voice she had just used on the dog. EQ for Everybody, S. Hein, p 125
Since the creation of the EQI website in 1996 I have documented many examples of emotional abuse by mothers. While the organization of these examples is not yet complete, I've decided to publish a summary of what I have so far because I feel a responsibility to share it with the public. In particular, I was motivated by a book titled "Saving Jessie." This is a mother's account of her trying to "save" her daughter from a multi-year heroin addiction which began as a teen. Throughout the book the mother fails to take any responsibility for causing the pain which led Jesse directly to use the drug to try to numb this pain. By the mother's own words we see example after example of emotional abuse. It is the same kind of abuse I have seen in the homes of the suicidal and self-harming teens. But never before have I seen such a detailed account, written by a mother herself, of emotional abuse. The most troubling thing to me is that not only did this mother fail to see what she was doing, but I believe she is representative of most mothers who are convinced their teenagers are growing up in "loving, supportive" families.
I personally believe society has failed to see what is really going on in so many seemingly "good" homes -- homes where the material needs are met, but the emotional needs are not. I further believe society has vastly underestimated the damage done through emotional abuse. My conviction is that only when the prevalence of emotional abuse is recognized and addressed will teen suicide, self-harm and drug addiction be prevented. Till then the teens will simply be in too much emotional pain, pain which comes when their emotional needs are not being met over long periods of time.
It is my hope that my work will make a serious contribution to the body of knowledge on emotionally abusive mothers.
I've chosen to focus on mothers, rather than fathers, for several reasons.
First, most of the suicidal teens I talk to are being raised by mothers, so I have been able to collect more data on them. Second, more and more children and teens are being raised in single parent homes, where the mother is likely to have primary custody. Third, if there is abuse in the home, the fathers tend to be more physically (and sexually) abusive, while the mothers, though often physically abusive as well, tend to use verbal and non-verbal communication, such as silence, frowns and hate-filled faces, to do the damage. Also, women seem to have a special gift for vicious and toxic emotional attacks. As Shakespeare said, "Hell hath no fury like a women scorned."
What is an "Emotionally Abusive Mother"?
Generally, I don't like to use labels, but in this case the subject is important enough to try to define the term and create a profile of those who might fairly be called "emotionally abusive mothers". There are many degrees of abuse, so it may sometimes be difficult to say someone definitely "is" or "isn't" an emotionally abusive mother. Can a "good" mother sometimes be emotionally abusive? Yes, I believe so. What matters is the overall nature of the relationship with her children/teens. Though it may be difficult to achieve consensus on exactly what qualifies someone as an "emotionally abusive mother," we can at least try to arrive at some common characteristics.
In broad terms I would say an emotionally abusive mother is a mother who uses her son or daughter in an attempt to fill her own unmet emotional needs. This is similar to defining sexual abuse as someone who uses another person in order to fill their own sexual needs.
An emotionally abusive mother is a mother who uses her son or daughter in an attempt to fill her own unmet emotional needs.
By nature, women generally have instinctive needs to raise and nurture children. The fulfillment of these needs is natural and healthy. Emotional abuse occurs only when the mother attempts to use the child or teen to fulfill needs which are not consistent with those of an emotionally healthy adult. Emotional abuse occurs, in other words, when the mother tries to fill those needs of hers which normally would have already been filled during a healthy childhood and adolescence.
It might help to consider the distinction between the emotional needs of a child, of an adolescent and of an adult.
A child has a need to feel loved. A child has a need to feel secure. A child has a need to feel protected. A child has a need to feel approved of.
A teen has a need to feel independent and in control of himself and over his environment.
Both children and teens have a need to feel accepted and respected. Both children and teens have a need to feel appreciated and valued.
For the species to survive, the emotional needs of the adults must compliment those of the children. For example, while the child needs to feel loved, safe, secure, and protected, the adults must need to feel loving, non-threatening, secure, and protective. While the child needs to feel respected and accepted, the adults needs to feel respectful and accepting. While the child needs to feel appreciated, the adult needs to feel appreciative for the gift of nature that is called "their child."
If the mother did not feel adequately loved, safe, secure, protected, appreciated, valued, accepted and respected before giving birth, she will, in all likelihood, attempt to use the child (and later the teen) to fill these needs. If she did not feel adequately in control of her own life as a child and teen, she can be expected to try to control her son or daughter as compensation. This is the recipe for emotional abuse.
To fill her unmet need for respect, a mother might try to demand that her daughter "respect" her. To fill her unmet need to feel loved, the mother might try to manipulate the son into performing what she perceives as acts of love. To fill her unmet need to feel appreciated, the mother might try to spoil her daughter or she might constantly remind the daughter of all the things she does for her and all the sacrifices she makes for her.
Mothers are particularly adept at emotional manipulation. They are skilled in setting up their sons and daughters to fill their unmet emotional needs left over from childhood and adolescence. Ultimately, though, this arrangement fails. It is impossible for a son or daughter to fully meet the unmet childhood and adolescent emotional needs of the parent. A child or teen can not be the filler of someone else's needs when they have their own needs. This is a clear case of role reversal, the consequences of which are very serious.
A child in this situation feels overwhelmed, facing an impossible burden yet still trying his or her best to do the impossible. The child will necessarily feel inadequate as he fails to do the impossible. By the time the child is a teen, he will feel not only inadequate, but drained and empty. He will feel insecure and afraid of failure, disapproval, rejection and abandonment. The implicit, if not explicit, message has always been "if you don't fill Mother's needs, she will reject or abandon you."
The teenager will have also learned that it is is impossible to make mother happy. No matter what the teen has done to try to make her happy it is never enough. So the teenager starts to feel like a failure, or "failful" as opposed to successful. This shatters his or her self-esteem.
This, briefly, is the danger of the emotionally needy, and therefore, emotionally abusive mother.
One clear sign of an emotionally abusive mother is slapping the son or daughter in the face. I call slapping is emotional abuse because it is intended to intimidate more than to physically hurt. It leaves an emotional scar, not a physical one. It is usually designed to oppress unwanted opposition. It is, therefore, oppressive. Typically, a mother slaps her son/daughter in the face in response to their spoken words. Here is one example:
"Sally" "Sally" told me her mother slapped her around age 17. They were arguing about religion. "Sally" was questioning things too strongly and her mother could no longer give answers, so she slapped "Sally" in order to stop the pain of her questions. Perhaps the pain came from the fear that the her whole belief system might be based on myths and lies rather than science and truth. Whatever the case, "Sally"s mother did not want "Sally" to continue using her mind to question things and to search for real answers.
"Sally" is an intelligent woman and has a large need for understanding and to have her own voice and opinions heard. The mother, though, was too insecure with her belief system to help "Sally" fill those needs. Had the mother been more secure, she could have listened to "Sally" without feeling threatened. More than that, she could have helped her in her search for understanding. She also could have helped fill her needs to feel admired and approved of with a simple statement such as, "I don't know the answers to your questions. And honestly, I feel a little threatened by them and a little defensive. But they are good questions and I admire you for asking them. Keep asking questions, honey. It is the best way to learn, and to find out who feels secure enough to either give you real answers or admit that they don't know."
When we are insecure we feel a need to be in control. "Sally"'s mother felt out of control. She wanted the questions to stop. She needed them to stop. She felt desperate that they stop. And they did... once she slapped her daughter across the face. Clearly, it was her needs, not "Sally"'s, that took priority.
In this incident, we see how the mother's need to feel in control (and safe in terms of her religious beliefs) was not yet filled. The mother was using "Sally" to try to fill her own unmet childhood/adolescent emotional needs at the expense of her "Sally"'s need for understanding and need to be heard. This is what makes this slap in the face emotional abuse.
"Sally" is a pseudonym
Some abusive mothers will call slapping "discipline" or "correcting wrong behavior." Here is an actual story from my travels.
Does Slapping Teach Respect?
I just talked to a mother and father from Ireland. I said, "Since you are parents, I have a question for you about raising children. I just got this email from a friend of mine who is 18. She said her mother slapped her last week. She asked me what gives her mother the right to do this. She said that if she were not happy with someone at the store, she would not be able to reach out and slap the sales clerk. She said this would be illegal. It would be assault. What do you think about this?"
The mother answered by saying, "Well, you need to be able to correct your children." I then said, "I agree, but it seems to me that 18 is a bit old to still be slapping your child. What do you think?"
She said, "Well, yes, I suppose it is. If you haven't been able to teach your child respect by that age then there is probably something wrong."
I then said, "But is it really respect you are teaching, or fear? For example, if you respect me and I ask you to pass me the sugar, you probably will. But if I have been treating you disrespectfully, without respect for your feelings or needs, then you might tell me to get lost. You might even pull the sugar away from me so I can't reach it. On the other hand if I point a gun at you and say, "Will you please pass me the sugar?" you will probably pass me the sugar. But is this because you respect me or because you are afraid of me?"
She seemed to see my point, but said "I suppose you think it is never necessary to slap a child." I said, "I don't know. I don't have children myself." She then said, "Well, you have to teach them right from wrong."
Her teenage daughter was sitting there in silence the entire time. The look on her face told me she was too afraid to even look up from her meal. I suspected that she one of the things she had been "taught" by the mother, was never to voice her own opinion. To do so would be "wrong" and deserving of a slap to the face. In this way the daughter had indeed learned right from wrong, at least according to her mother.
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