My mother has an opinion on everything and I always went along to get along. But now that Im married, its an impossible situation. Ive tried talking to her but she wont listen. My dad says I should know better than to try to teach an old dog new tricks. My husband says she cant continue to meddle in our lives. This is horrible and once the baby is born, Im scared Ill have to do something drastic.

This is a message I got from Lacey, 35, and pregnant with her first child. Her relationship with her mother has always been tense since, as Lacey tells it, youre either in Moms good graces or youre not. She just cant tolerate disagreement, Lacey says. Its her way or the highway. She still tries to micromanage me and I am way beyond that. Worse, I honestly dont think she has any idea who I am and could care less about what I think or feel. As an only child, thats a blow, you know?

I do know, and its a painful revelation for many adult daughters of controlling mothers who realize, at one point or another, that their mothers dont actually have any idea who they are or what they want. Of the eight types of toxic maternal behavior I outline in Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, the mother who needs absolute control robs her daughter of her voice, makes her feel dependent and weak, and teaches her that her value as a person is defined by other people. As a young child, the daughter may not even realize the ways in which her mother is controlling; she may understand her mothers behavior as what good parents do. This is what Jenna, now 40, wrote me in an interview for my book:

You have to realize that my mother was widely admired in our community, and even looked up to. She was a librarian, had three kids all of whom succeeded in school, and ran a shipshape household. But behind closed doors, she was a tyrant. She mocked you if you failed and mocked you if you dared to disagree. I was fifteen when I realized she was a control freak and cared about nothing except what other people thought of her. I became the family scapegoat from that moment forward. My two siblings are just as controlling as she is.

How the controlling mother sees herself

The chances are good that shes a perfectionist and she honestly believes that shes helping her child or children succeed; she thinks shes saving them from making bad choices and, most important, failing. Because she cares deeply about public opinion, shes much more motivated by avoiding failure than stepping out into the unknown and she tells her children precisely that. Shes emotionally disconnected enough that she doesnt realize that the message shes sending by constantly interfering and running her childrens lives is Without me, you are nothing and, even more hurtfully, No one will love you if you disappoint them or fail.

Its a pity that the relatively benign term helicopter parenting has made its way into our contemporary dialogue about raising children because the term denies the real damage this type of parenting inflicts, and the long-term problems in the mother-daughter relationship it creates.

Surveying the damage done

Like the daughter of a dismissive mother who ignores her, the daughter of a controlling mother goes virtually unseen, if for different reasons; her mother sees the daughter only as an extension of herself and a vehicle for fulfilling her dreams and aspirations, not a unique individual in her own right. It may take years for the unloved daughter to actually see the damage because shes normalized the experience; it may take a change in her circumstances such as a marriageas in the story of Lacey with which I began the piecefor her to understand her mothers behavior in fullness.

Whether she goes along to get along or actively rebels, becoming a scapegoat in the process, the unloved daughter is likely to:

  • Understand love as something that must be earned and is always conditional
  • Lack an independent sense of self and relies on other peoples definition of her
  • Be afraid to take risks and be motivated by a fear of failure
  • Be inflexible because she believes life has rules you must abide by
  • Lacks resilience and is easily defeated by a setback or misstep
  • Push off from her emotions
  • Be drawn to other controlling people in the area of relationship because it feels familiar and allows her to avoid making her own choices and possible mistakes

Flashpoints and the question of resolution

As the daughter comes into her own and begins to sort out her own wants and needsand this may take many years since the controlling mother has taught her daughter to ignore her own voicethe friction in the relationship will usually increase. Robbed of her authority, the mother may push back harder to regain control. Thats what happened with Robyn, now 38:

When I decided to divorce my husbanda man my mother adoredshe went on the offensive, and actually started a smear campaign against me in the family. I couldnt believe it. She kept hounding me about the shame Id brought to the family and more. She believes she did the right thing and that I made the mistake of my life. I am happily remarried and the mother of a boy shes never met and wont.

The larger problem, of course, is that the controlling mother believes she is doing the right thing and even a great job; she’s not likely to be convinced otherwise. Other daughters whove continued their relationship with their mothers do so with full understanding that their parents arent likely to change:

Low contact is my answer to the problem. I go to Thanksgiving dinner knowing that I will be criticized for everything I do differently. But I am vigilant as is my husband. If she criticizes or demeans either of my kids, that will be a turning point. We shall see.

Yet another writes me this:

I turn a deaf ear and just let it roll past me. I am working on healing myself, and shes just not a priority. It still hurts but less and less as I grow more confident through therapy and a supportive husband and kids.

The controlling mother may look perfect from the outside, as may her children. This is a kind of emotional damage that requires a nuanced eye to see.

Photograph by cocoparisienne. Copyright free.