Freud Was Right: Mean Mothers Scar for Life

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

ByABC News
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."