Dismissive parenting can impact the way you see yourself, others, and the world in general. Identifying the signs may help you heal.
Feeling unloved and rejected by your parent at any age can be an extremely painful situation. If not addressed, you could carry this pain with you into other relationships.
This may be particularly the case if this has been your experience with your mother, the primary bond for many people.
Feeling unloved as a child may impact how you navigate life later on.
But healing is possible. It’s a process that starts with awareness of how your mother’s behavior may have affected you.
You can’t change the way your mother behaved toward you. But you could work on how you feel about it and how you’d like to approach relationships from here on.
Dismissive parenting is a pattern of behaviors and attitudes that signals rejection, scorn, and disdain toward the child.
Dismissive behavior has many manifestations. It may depend on the context, culture, and type of interaction.
This behavior isn’t exclusive to mothers. Other caregivers and parents can also engage in these patterns.
Not all signs of a dismissive parent are easily identified.
Emotionally absent or cold mothers can be unresponsive to their children’s needs. They may act distracted and uninterested during interactions, or they could actively reject any attempts of the child to get close. They may continue acting this way with adult children.
“A dismissive mother is unable to empathetically respond to the child’s needs,” explains Kimberly Perlin, a clinical social worker in Towson, Maryland. “They often send the message to their child that they are too needy or clingy when the child is expressing developmentally appropriate needs.”
Dismissive mothers of adult children may also behave in severely critical ways that imply “you’re unworthy of my attention.”
According to Avigail Lev, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco, these are the main signs of dismissive mothers:
- Constant criticism: They persistently point out inadequacy, shortcomings, and negative qualities in the child.
- Unrealistic expectations: They set unreasonable standards for their children in even the simplest scenarios.
- Blaming: They may place blame about negative outcomes or specific behaviors they engage in.
- Unavailability: They may be physically absent or rejectful, or they may constantly seem busy and distracted during interactions with their children.
- Gaslighting: They may use manipulation tactics to make their children doubt themselves and their perception of reality.
- Shaming: They may question their children’s intentions and character.
- Inconsistency: Their behavior may be unpredictable and oscillate from being available, loving, and supportive to being distant, critical, and rejecting.
- Accusations: They may accuse their children of things they know they didn’t do, including lying.
- Undermining: They may criticize or make fun of their children’s life choices and decisions.
- Emotional avoidance: They might have a hard time expressing or accepting intense emotions.
Not everyone with a dismissive mother will experience the same effects or with the same intensity.
But the quality of your primary bonds can impact your adult relationships and how you think of yourself.
“Children need touch, praise, and positive reinforcement to thrive. They need to be heard and feel that they matter,” explains Nancy B. Irwin, a clinical psychologist in West Los Angeles. “When these needs are unmet, a whole host of behaviors can crop up later.”
Avigail Lev explains some of the general effects of growing up with a dismissive mother include:
- low self-esteem
- paranoid tendencies
- difficulty making decisions
- tendency to be a people pleaser
- codependent traits and self-sacrificing
- taking over responsibility for others
- self-blaming and shame
- insecure attachment style
- difficulty trusting others
- a hard time identifying toxic people or relationships
- repeatedly getting romantically involved with unavailable partners
- difficulty ending unhealthy or abusive relationships
Effects on relational patterns
Experts agree that one of the main effects of growing up with dismissive parents is reflected in the quality of adult relationships.
“In adulthood, we may find that our relationships […] feel distant or others feel we are distant like there’s some invisible barrier preventing us from getting closer,” explains Ronnie Doss, a clinical psychologist in Oakland, California. “We may not have any deep connections because those require a level of vulnerability that we have come to view as dangerous.”
In the same way, Irwin explains that some people may end up replicating the same parenting style once they have children of their own. They may also become dismissive partners in romantic relationships or the exact opposite.
“This poor foundation of self can show up in adult intimate relationships: excessive neediness, passive-aggressive behaviors, avoidance, withholding, and depression,” says Irwin.
It’s not uncommon that children of dismissive mothers also become demanding adults, “constantly looking to get their needs met by others yet distrusting that others will do so,” explains Perlin.
Effects on self-image and thinking patterns
If you’ve grown up with a dismissive mother, you might tend to doubt yourself and your role in relationships. It may be that you blame yourself for the things that don’t work, or you may feel you don’t deserve better.
“If your mother is dismissive or unavailable, you have difficulty trusting your gut, your perception of reality, and your decisions,” explains Lev. “You blame yourself for circumstances that are out of your control, you doubt your own experiences, and you invalidate yourself.”
If your mother wasn’t available or willing to soothe you during difficult times, it might also be difficult for you to regulate your emotions and manage everyday stress.
“When we don’t have a mother to mirror our experiences and validate our emotions, we never learn the skills for emotional regulation and distress tolerance,” says Lev. “We never learn to effectively cope with difficult emotions and soothe ourselves in moments of trigger.”
This may also lead you to experience symptoms of anxiety and other mental health conditions.
The experience could also take you to internalize what your dismissive parent told you and their appreciation of your character.
For example, if they repeatedly said you couldn’t do anything right, you may now have difficulty seeing yourself as capable of achieving your goals.
“We may even unknowingly repeat our interaction with our early caregiver, dismissing or getting angry with ourselves or others who show vulnerability,” says Doss.
But the opposite is also possible. Having a dismissive mother may lead you to constantly try to prove you can do what you set your mind to.
“It may manifest in high achievers, who are overly self-reliant because they have come to believe that others are unreliable or uncaring,” adds Doss.
Healing is a process, and it doesn’t look the same for everyone.
You may find working with a licensed mental health therapist particularly helpful. They’ll be prepared to guide you every step of the way.
Lev also offers these tips for your consideration:
- Establish clear boundaries.
- If interaction is too painful, minimize contact or seek support of loved ones for moving toward ending contant.
- Focus on self-care.
- Develop self-soothing skills as well as self-compassion.
- Try limited reparenting by talking to yourself the way you needed your mother to do so.
- Practice recognizing trustworthy and untrustworthy people and relationship patterns.
- End relationships that hurt you.
- Develop communication skills to express your needs in relationships.
- Opt to spend more time with people who support and validate you.
- Identify core beliefs from your childhood and find how they impact your current relationships.
- Establish your values and what you want in relationships.
“You would also need to process the grief and pain of never having the emotional support you needed and deserved,” adds Lev.
It may be difficult to achieve but not expecting attention or love from your mother can feel liberating.
If you’re not ready to break the relationship, you could try finding common ground that allows you to spend some time together with no further expectation.
“Let go of the expectation for your mother to be different,” recommends Perlin. “One needs to accept their mom as who she is and strive to connect over mutual interests and activities.”
Establish new healthy relationships
“When we use the same coping mechanisms that we learned in childhood, in our adult relationships, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that mirrors our relationship with our mother,” explains Lev. “The most important part of healing is to help individuals break the pattern of getting into toxic relational dynamics.”
You deserve love, support, and acceptance. And it is possible to experience these in romantic partnerships and friendships.
“First, you need to learn to validate yourself, and then you can recognize partners who are emotionally available,” adds Lev.
“Go to therapy that focuses on attachment work,” says Perlin. “You may want to explore EMDR [eye movement desensitization and reprocessing] or brainspotting to decrease the feelings of loss or abandonment.”
Irwin says there are a few other therapeutic modalities that can help you recover from childhood trauma and attachment challenges:
Being the child of a dismissive mother can be a painful experience. But the effects it’s had on you don’t have to be permanent.
You have coped the best way you found possible. You’ve protected yourself, but now it may be time to let go.
“It is important to note that as humans, we are wired to avoid pain and protect ourselves for survival,” says Doss. “So, try to be empathic toward yourself.”
Your past experiences don’t have to determine your present or future.
“Are we doomed thanks to our parents and our childhood? No! The best thing about this knowledge is that it can help us change,” adds Doss.