What to do about your dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship

The relationship between Yara and Keri Shahidi is loving and extremely close. It’s the type of mother-daughter relationship many women crave and deserve but never know. Many are downright toxic! If you’re in that group, you probably want to know what you can do about your dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.

Peg Streep, author of the book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life wrote in Psychology Today about the different approaches women coping with difficult mothers are taking–from trying to salvage the relationship to divorcing a mother who is incapable of change.

In the article, Streep wrote:

The core conflict for the daughter whose mother didn’t love her or meet her emotional needs in childhood and adolescence isn’t resolved by reaching adulthood. It’s an ongoing war between the hardwired need for maternal love and support—as well as a sense of belonging, and the daughter’s growing appreciation of how toxic the connection is and her need for some stress-free normalcy.

The choice between trying to salvage the relationship or divorcing a toxic mother is always a difficult decision for unloved adult daughters to make. After reading Streep’s article, I wanted to look at the questions it raised:

  • When do you try and salvage some kind of relationship,
  • When do you let go and move on, and
  • What is the emotionally healthy way to do whatever you decide to?

When do you stay?

If your mother has made some changes and you see growth, it’s worth the effort to try and salvage your relationship.

If her criticisms don’t extend to your parenting or extend to your spouse / significant other, the relationship might be worth salvaging.

Of course, if grandchildren are involved, it’s usually worthwhile to try and make your relationship better.

And if your mother is willing to work on the relationship with you, it’s definitely worth it to try.

When do you leave?

This is not a decision someone else can make for you. But I will say this, it’s absolutely within your right and healthy for you to divorce a narcissist and anyone who belittles and hurt you, not just in the past, but is still doing it.

When she was alive, I had to limit contact with my own mother and recently, divorced a sister. Both these decisions led to estrangement from most of the people on my maternal side of the family.

Because I didn’t grow up with that sister or my mother and lucky for me, I have a fairly healthy family on my dad’s side, the ostracization didn’t affect me as much as it might someone who spent their entire life knowing or living with their mother. Still, it was one of the most difficult situations I ever dealt with. The inner conflict you go through is too-too real. Years after she died, I figured out why I didn’t divorce my mother even though I had considered it: I was worried about what others would think of me.

What kind of person divorces their mother? Even looking at it in writing looks awful. So, yes, I was worried others would judge me. That might not have been the right decision for me, but it’s helpful to understand why we make certain choices.

By the time it came to my sister, I had learned from that experience and knew what I had to do. Because she’s a narcissist, I had compromised my integrity, silenced my voice, and assumed blame for things I hadn’t done many times in order to keep a relationship going with my sister. The relationship was hella toxic when we were talking. And when we weren’t talking, it was because she was freezing me out (sometimes for years) hoping to teach me to bend and “comply” next time.

I saw divorce as the healthiest option after I had tried everything else and had become tired of our relationship pattern. Divorce, for me, doesn’t mean that I’ll never talk to my sister, it was about changing the expectations and redefining our roles. It meant I could move on without bitterness. We now text each other on birthdays and Christmases, and I view her as a relative with communication problems. I no longer hold out hope that we can be best friends or think, If only she could change.

Divorce meant that I could heal for good instead of continuing the cycle of reconciliation and forced estrangement. They say the knowledge that you’ll never go back to the well can be liberating. I think it was for me but I can’t say what it might be for you.

Choosing emotional health

As you get to understand the importance of emotional health and understand how toxicity can harm your well-being and affect young children looking on, you must weigh your decision and make the best choice for not just you, but for everyone involved.

Ceci, one of Streep’s followers shared how she came to her decision to divorce her mother:

“I can’t fix what she’s broken. I would like a distant relationship with her for my kids, but it’s not safe, and our age of connectivity means the distance I’d be okay with isn’t possible anyway. And she still smears me to others and claims our rift is a result of my brokenness, not her continued abusive behavior.”

Like I said, as you mull this difficult decision, it’s natural to worry about what others will think. Most cultures buy into the myth that all mothers should be loved, even when they’re unloving. Cutting off ties might open you up to the judgment of even strangers and most likely a good chunk of your family.

This risk of being ostracised by the rest of your family may take divorce off the table. If you don’t have strong bonds with friends and others, it may feel like even an abusive relationship with your mother is preferable to being cast out of your tribe.

How to proceed healthily

Whichever decision you make, the process will be challenging. I recommend you try to do it with grace and with compassion—for yourself and everyone involved. I recommend that you think about what you want for your life, and if kids and others are involved, what example you want to set for them.  Let those things that matter to you be your guide on how you proceed. Once you have your intention(s) figured out, arrange to have a conversation.

How to have the conversation

  • Do it privately and away from other family members.
  • Try not to let it turn into an argument, even if goaded.
  • Aim for a calm and thoughtful tone.
  • Prepare by getting emotional support from your spouse and others, and a glass of wine if you need it.
  • If you can, have a third-party or a professional in the room to mediate.
  • Speak from the heart. If tears happen, let them.

Before the talk, set up the rules for the conversation. Let her know you’re going to speak and that you’d like her to listen without interruptions or questions.

Sample script

(for a relationship you hope to salvage)

Your behavior (in a few words state what she does without attacking her as a person) often makes me want to cut ties with you. I haven’t because that would deprive you of spending time with your grandchildren and them with you. I’m concerned though that if there isn’t a radical change in our relationship, they may grow up thinking our parent-child dynamics is normal. 

  • If you are, indicate that you’re willing to have couple’s counseling.
  • Give her time to respond, but don’t entertain rationalizations.

Hopefully, she asks you what this new relationship might look like or say she will try. Be prepared to tell her what you reasonably expect in this new relationship. State what you want to stop immediately, for example, calling you names. Ever. Anywhere.

If she insists there’s no problem or say that you’re exaggerating or if she takes any position other than a willingness to work on the relationship, I encourage you to end the conversation.


I was hoping you would, but I see that you don’t get it. 

And leave the room.

You don’t want to say things like, “What did I expect” or play the victim. Keep in mind, it’s hard for some parents to change, especially hard if your mother is a narcissist. Narcissists are kings and queens of denial and you cannot underestimate the damage they can do to your self-esteem.

Sample script for when it’s over:

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and you can’t imagine how much I’ve struggled with my decision, but I won’t be able to have you in my life anymore. It’s painful but I realize you won’t change so I’m doing the best—and only thing—left for me to do.

You can look at this as a divorce, but our mother-daughter relationship is over.

I don’t recommend keeping grandkids away from grandparents if their toxicity doesn’t extend to the kids. If you decide to let your kids continue to have a relationship with your mother (I hope you can), figure out how to do visitations in a healthy way. Maybe have someone drop the kids off and pick them up from her place. Whenever you’re in the same room with your kids and mother, be a respectful grown-up… ditch the long face, short curt responses and anything toxic. Your kids should not have to witness that.

Follow through

You must be willing to follow through before you have these difficult conversations. It could worsen your relationship if you talk big, but there are no consequences. Hopefully, you see a change in the relationship. Be prepared for the fact that some mothers can’t change and know what steps you’re ready to take if that’s the case for you.

Will you…

  • Have limited contact?
  • If so, how will it look (no phones calls, home visits, for example)?

Consider these steps if you decide to divorce

  • Share the news with the rest of the family.
  • Only see your mother when you have the emotional capacity for her.
  • Try not to have family events in your home—a sibling’s home might be better.

With boundaries and follow-through like these, some mothers may change when it sinks in that you’re dead serious.

  • Be open to mother’s growth but don’t assume “good behavior” means she has.
  • If usually takes years for real change of this nature so if after a couple of months she claims to have changed, don’t simply let her back into your life without proof she has.
  • Be open to changing the terms of your relationship.
  • If a visit is planned where you two will have to be around each other for hours and you feel your emotional capacity changing, cancel the event or excuse yourself.
  • Don’t make it uncomfortable for others to be around you both.

Get emotional support

  • While you’re working out the relationship, you’ll need help to manage your emotions and you might need professional guidance to ensure you don’t fall back into old communication patterns.
  • Make siblings and friends your allies.

Be the change

Only in extreme cases, should divorce mean never interacting with your mother again. With the mother-daughter relationship over, try to cultivate a human one where you treat your “bio mom” with respect and dignity.

  • You should not tolerate abusive language, insults, and undercuts, or dish it out either.
  • Show your mother the respect you know every life deserves. If she’s very sick, you show up.
  • Forge a new relationship, if you can. Time will tell what that looks like.

Divorcing a toxic mother is about placing boundaries and retraining her (hopefully) how to treat you. It’s then up to her whether she changes. Whatever your mother does, try to move on and live your life in the healthiest way possible.



Christine Angelica

Christine is a Mindfulness trainer and Emotional Health Coach living in Los Angeles. She's big on meditation, routines, systems and personalization.

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