Freud Was Right: Mean Mothers Scar for Life

On Mother's Day, psychiatrists say emotional abuse as bad as physical abuse.

May 6, 2010, 5:20 PM

May 7, 2010— -- Leslie was never allowed to call her mother mom.

"We had to call her by her first name and when we were kids, if we tried to climb on her lap, she would move her legs and not let us -- there was no affection whatsoever," said the now-grown Oregon mother of two.

"She spanked us without warning and pitted my sister and I against each other," said the 45-year-old, who now works in a recording studio. "She was very clever at using emotional abuse to get my sister and I to do what she wanted. The two emotions I remember growing up were fear and obligation."

Leslie said she tries not to "embellish" the numerous dark incidents of her childhood, but she is convinced her mother "just liked to take the joy away -- to be mean."

As Mother's Day approaches, not all have warm and fuzzy memories of maternal love. Some adults say they never escaped the scarring clutches of mommy dearest, while others learned to forgive, move on and raise their own children in a far-different way.

Psychiatrists say that good mothering is critical to healthy development and that children carry her voice, good or bad, throughout their adult lives, sometimes repeating the trauma upon their own children.

An estimated 56 percent of all abusers -- physical, mental and sexual -- are women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common form is psychological.

"It happens a lot," said Dr. Philip R. Muskin, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. "Neglect and emotional abuse are every bit as damaging as sexual abuse."

Abuse can include name calling; threatening to kill the victim's family or pet; controlling access to finances; isolating the victim from family and friends; coercing the victim to perform degrading, humiliating or illegal acts; interfering with job, medical or educational opportunities; or making the victim feel powerless and ashamed.

Numerous studies have shown that maternal behaviors like constant criticism, withholding affection or humiliation can take a toll on children, adversely affecting their academic achievement, social growth and self-worth.

"Mother's Day has always been tough for me as I always just wanted a normal Mom," said one middle-aged Missouri woman whose mother was a verbal tyrant.

The most vulnerable years are when a child is in infancy and a toddler, when the mother is usually the chief nurturer.

"Freud was right in attributing a major responsibility to mothers in the culture as he knew it," said Robert E. Simmons, clinical psychologist from Alexandria, Va. "This of course includes fathers and any others who are caretakers for the child. The fundamental question is whether the child experiences an environment that is predictable and not chaotic and feels emotionally and physically safe."

"Freud did not sufficiently emphasize the importance of innate temperament, biological vulnerabilities or the quality of the attachment between child and primary caretaker," said Simmons. "But he was reasonably on the mark that very important developmental processes are shaped in the first few years of child's life."

Mother's Abuse Learned From Her Own Mother

At the age of about 5, Leslie remembers watching her mother fold towels and jumping in to help, hoping she could "earn some attention."

"She quickly grabbed the laundry basket from her left side and placed it next to me and said, 'Fine, you want to fold them, here you go,' and walked out of the room," she said. "So feeling a knot in my stomach because that was completely not the outcome I was seeking, I kept myself from crying and started folding towels thinking that maybe I could still salvage some attention by finishing folding the towels."

A minute later, still with no acknowledgement and a lump in her throat, Leslie found a way to do the job faster, folding two towels at once. But when her mother returned she slapped Leslie across her head and shoulder and undid all the towels.

"The saddest part of this story for me was the moment I was showing her my fancy new folding trick, when I saw her arm coming up out of the corner of my eye," said Leslie. "I thought for a split second that she was going to hug me for thinking of something so clever ... I was wrong."

Leslie says she was lucky to break free at the age of 17 when her mother changed the locks on the door while while she was at her high school job. Today, she has a loving and close relationship with her own children, 9 and 11, but Leslie has seen how the abuse can carry through generations.

"My parents didn't speak to their parents," she said.

She learned to expect the worst and not let herself get hurt emotionally, a survival skill that sent her into counseling later in life when she had trouble in relationships.

Wendy, a single parent from Monterey, Calif., was raised by a mother who likely had a narcissistic personality disorder, defined by the psychiatric diagnostic manual as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy."

"I felt like I grew up with no floor," said Wendy, who wrote to but did not want her last name used. "The attention my mother needs is dumbfounding."

A pathological liar, her mother told her daughter she was "Queen Maria Theresa of Austria" -- a would-be Hapsburg princess or queen. She once advised Wendy, "If you say something enough it becomes true."

She exaggerated her accomplishments and took all the credit for her daughter's as well. "I thought there was something wrong with me a lot of the time," said Wendy, who was talented at art, but never got praise.

Her mother told her daughter to refuse a scholarship to college. "I loved my mom," she said. "I worked to get her love. I turned down the scholarship."

Sometimes mental illness plays a role in bad mothering.

Mental Health Disorders Can Trigger Child Abuse

Pamela grew up in the 1950s and 1960s with a mother who had undiagnosed bipolar and multiple personality disorders. "It was a horrifying experience," said the Springfield, Mo., woman who did not want her last name used. "Many things I have blocked."

"The embarrassment, the treachery, the verbal and physical abuse left me scarred for many years," she said. "I think my greatest fear was growing up to be just like her."

Pamela, now 52 and the mother of two, remembers her mother screaming that she hated the children, threatening to leave and never come back. "We formed a human chain against the door but she threw us to the side and left getting in her car and driving away."

Pamela doesn't know how long her mother was gone, but the "record player of her hateful words still play in my mind."

Her mother died of a stroke in March at the age of 79, and Pamela was finally able to forgive.

"Suddenly everything fell into place and I can say now that the forgiveness came easily after I knew I was living with insanity," she said.

"Clearly there are moms that are just not good moms -- they may wish to be, but they don't get it right," said Columbia psychiatrist Muskin. "Often they weren't mothered well themselves."

Learning to move forward from a painful past is difficult, though not impossible. And psychiatrists still don't understand why one sibling fares well psychologically and the other can be destroyed.

"We wish we understood the hearty child concept," said Muskin. "Through all the horror of growing up, some move on and marry, have a successful family. There are psychological factors that enable all of use to put things in perspective, to take responsibility for ourselves and to create the life we want. It doesn't mean we don't have limitations and issues, but my life is my life."

"Living in the past doesn't work," he said. "Some people get it on their own, some get it through therapy and some get it through religion. But it's very powerful to be able to say, 'She was what she was, and it wasn't good. But here I am today.'"

As for Leslie, she tried to reconnect with her mother when she had her own children, but was disappointed when the manipulation began again. They have since parted ways.

"I don't feel compassion, maybe because she was the one who was supposed to be taking care of me," she said.

Leslie said she "broke the chain" of anger that had passed from mother to daughter. "I love my kids so much and I couldn't imagine not feeling any connection with them," she said.

On Mother's Day, her children will let her sleep late and try to make her breakfast. "They will shower me with cute and hilarious stuff they made and dad makes me things for the garden," she said.

Leslie has also learned not to be a victim and not to dwell on the negative.

"I was born with a great sense of humor, so I was always able to find something funny in even a bad situation and it helped me through," she said. "The last and most important thing is that as we become adults we have to move on. There is some forgiveness there, but in many cases that may be really, really hard to do, but you have to."

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