Your ‘Mother Wound’ Can Make It Hard To Form Healthy Relationships as an Adult—Here’s How To Cope

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Mothers mold us. Sometimes this effect is subtle—like how you crinkle your nose just like she does when you laugh, or how you drink leftover pickle juice from the jar because that’s what your mom always does when it’s empty. Other times, a mother’s impact can be more profound, leaving you with lasting emotional and psychological idiosyncrasies. The more damaging of these effects are sometimes referred to as “mother wounds,” a type of childhood attachment trauma1.

“I conceptualize [a mother wound] as a mental, emotional, or spiritual wound,” says Kate Truitt, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist. A mother wound isn’t a clinical diagnosis like, say, generalized anxiety disorder. Rather, it’s an aspect of attachment theory—the idea that the emotional bond between parent and child dictates how that child will approach relationships in adulthood. In the case of the “mother wound,” a child’s dynamic with their mother gets disrupted by various factors—like neglect, substance abuse, or lack of emotional connection—which can have lasting effects on that child’s future relationships and mental well-being.

"A mother is such a critical, primary caregiver and they really define, at a very neurochemical level, how our system learns to be attached to another human." —Kate Truitt, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist

Mother wounds, or inner child wounds, may seem unavoidable. After all, as children, there’s little we can do or say to influence our parents’ behavior, but there are always opportunities to heal. Ahead, learn how to spot the signs of mother wounds and see what experts have to say about managing mother wounds as adults.

Experts In This Article

What is a mother wound?

“The mother wound is an attachment trauma defined by feelings of abandonment and not feeling worthy of love,” says Carlos M. Flores, LMFT at Octave, based in California, who is trained and specializes in trauma. “These feelings are then internalized by the child who creates a belief system in which they believe they are to blame for their mother’s inability to provide a secure attachment.”

A child’s bond with their primary caregiver plays a crucial role in development and emotional health2. Typically in American society, a person's mother is their primary caregiver. That important mother-child bond can be impacted by multiple factors, including emotional absence, conditional expressions of love (like only receiving attention or affection for certain achievements or behaviors), hypercriticism, poor boundaries, minimization of the child’s lived experience, and an inability to provide security, says Flores. If you couldn’t rely on your mom to pick you up from school on time, or to take care of you when you were hurt or struggling, you might still be processing those experiences subconsciously.

“A mother is such a critical, primary caregiver and they really define, at a very neurochemical level, how our system learns to be attached to another human,” says Dr. Truitt.

It’s important to remember, though, that most moms who cause mother wounds aren’t intentionally inflicting trauma on their children. Sometimes, the many other challenges of life can collide with a child’s needs and desires. “If a mother is under the influence of a substance or dealing with the valid and unjust stressors of poverty, she may miss cues, such as being able to tell when their toddler is hungry or when their teen is struggling,” says Flores. “Children may interpret those missed cues as coldness or a lack of care.”

Some women may also feel alone and unsupported amidst the demands of raising a child in a patriarchal society that expects mothers to be everything for their children without providing any material support (like paid leave, flexible work schedules, or affordable childcare). “There’s nowhere else to put this anger and resentment [towards their situation], so it boils over and it’s directed at the child,” says Becca Reed, LCSW, PMH-C, licensed perinatal mental health and trauma therapist. Even though that resentment has nothing to do with the child and everything to do with the unrealistic expectations placed on her by society, the mother—whether she realizes it or not—may leave lasting emotional wounds on her child.

Who experiences the mother wound?

For the most part, anyone who has a mother can experience a mother wound, regardless of gender. But certain individuals might be more at risk of having a mother wound than others. “Children of individuals who have been impacted by intergenerational trauma are most at risk, and that risk can be potentiated by environmental stressors such as financial and housing insecurity,” says Flores. Essentially, if your mom has unaddressed trauma, or is facing other serious issues like homelessness, she might be less able to meet your needs.

“If somebody has a mother wound and hasn’t done their own healing work and broken the cycle, there is a great likelihood that the mother wound will be passed on,” adds Dr. Truitt. For example, if a child is particularly good at a sport or subject in school, the mother might find this difficult to accept because she was never afforded the opportunity to develop that kind of skill, making it near impossible for her to praise her child’s achievements. Or if a mother shows love using words of affirmation but her child’s love language is quality time, that child’s needs won’t be met, likely resulting in a mother wound.

This theory plays out in research. A 2014 small study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology surveyed 47 first-time mothers before giving birth, and then followed up with them when their child was 11 months old. Researchers found that mothers with unresolved trauma had insecure attachment styles and were more likely to have infants with insecure attachment—suggesting the transference of the "mother wound" from one generation to the next. Meanwhile, older research shows that women who were accepted by their own mothers and had balanced relationships with them were more sensitive with their own young children4.

"If a mother is absent, critical, abusive—or, if a mother is continually self-sacrificing and doesn’t model how to have healthy boundaries or prioritize their own needs—the child will learn that is how they are to be in the world." —Dr. Truitt

“[Mother wounds] can look different from generation to generation,” says Dr. Truitt. “Some people model their mother’s behavior and other people will pendulum swing to the other side. They say, ‘I will not be like my mother,’ but they correct to a different extreme.”

What are the symptoms of a mother wound?

Mother wounds manifest in myriad ways that can affect a child—even in adulthood—mentally, emotionally, and physically. Here are some common signs of a mother wound, according to the experts:

1. Overdependence

The more critical a mother is of her child, the more likely the child is to become reliant on her to define their self-worth. If the mother recognizes their child becoming overdependent, she may distance herself from them, which can worsen the child’s self-esteem and create a vicious cycle, says Flores.

2. Perfectionism

Perfectionism in children can look like a child who, after being dressed for school by their mother, goes through great efforts to return home exactly as they left the house. This might mean sitting still during recess and not playing with their friends all day. Even if the mother is not abusive toward the child for scuffing up their clothes, the child continues to behave this way because they’ve observed their mother’s deeply perfectionistic approach to her own appearance. “The child internalized that in order to have the mother’s love,” says Dr. Truitt.

3. Issues with emotional regulation

“A child who has trouble self-regulating might find that they are wildly disconnected from themselves, their bodies, and how they feel both physically and emotionally,” says Reed. In boys, this can look like high-energy, interruptive behavior. In girls, who are socialized to make themselves small, this can manifest in more subtle behaviors, such as eating disorders.

If this self-regulation isn’t checked, it can lead to huge emotional outbursts. “If they can’t manage that, those feelings become rather big,” says Reed, adding that it may impact a child’s ability to make friends or do well in school. At times, this behavior can extend into adulthood, affecting the adult child’s friendships, employment, and relationships.

4. Avoiding conflict

A person with a mother wound might be afraid of conflict, preferring to bottle up their feelings rather than get into an argument. “If one partner is making more money and that’s problematic within the dynamic, this person will keep themselves small because they don’t want to cause conflict,” says Reed. “They don’t want to negatively impact the other person’s sense of self.”

5. Dissociation

Though some parents might believe their child is not stressed because they always seem “calm,” the child may just be dissociating. “They’re not feeling, and then when something happens and the feelings break through, they break through in really big ways: through anger, through really intense worry, ruminations,” says Reed. Over the course of time, this can lead to more severe coping mechanisms, such as eating disorders or utilizing sex for connection.

6. Masking

A person with mother wounds may present themselves differently depending on who they’re with as a result of having to alter their behavior around their mother growing up. “They’re an actor in every single relationship, and their job as the actor is to embody the characteristics, behaviors, tone, and body posture that they have perceived the other person needs for them to be,” says Dr. Truitt.

7. Parentification

Sometimes, the mother and child can even switch roles so the child feels (or actually is) responsible for the mother’s physical or emotional well-being. “Maybe the mother is sickly and the child is inadvertently told that it is their job to care for the mother,” says Dr. Truitt. As a result, the child may grow up to be severely self-sacrificing or flip and become very controlling of their environment.

8. Lacking a sense of self

As children, we develop a sense of self by observing the adult figures around us. “We’re taught who to be and how to be. So, if a mother is absent, critical, abusive—or, if a mother is continually self-sacrificing and doesn’t model how to have healthy boundaries or prioritize their own needs—the child will learn that is how they are to be in the world,” says Dr. Truitt.

What is the difference between the mother wound and the father wound?

Parallel to the mother wound is the father wound, a similar type of attachment trauma that stems from growing up with an abusive or absentee father. “Both wounds are due to a parent’s emotional absence in the child’s life,” Flores says. How these attachment wounds manifest, though, varies significantly based on the cultural and societal expectations of the parent.

“For women, there are these messages we receive from society that tell us that we need to be nurturing, we need to give ourselves up to be mothers,” says Reed. On the other hand, Dr. Truitt says, “The father is the authority, the protector in the house. He models strength while the mother models nurturance.” Here, mothers are expected to be nurturing, soft, and supportive, while dads are expected to be strong, confident, and slightly emotionally removed.

In this way, the difference between mother wounds and father wounds is less about the parent’s actual gender and more about the role they play in the family. Not every child needs a mother and a father, or two caregivers for that matter, but they need at least one person who makes them feel safe and supported holistically.

How does a mother wound affect relationships?

Unhealthy attachment styles formed in childhood can have negative effects on a person’s intimate relationships well into adulthood. “Someone who has experienced mother wounds will likely not have a secure attachment style,” says Flores. “They may choose to distance themselves relationally from others. This might look like someone avoiding get-togethers, choosing to not text back, declining to return phone calls, and not showing up when they said they would.”

In romantic relationships, these wounds may also manifest in the form of codependency, acting jealous, not trusting the other person, keeping secrets, having difficulty expressing feelings, and being emotionally unavailable. “They may be more likely to distance themselves when things become difficult, or simply when emotions run high, and they may choose to self-sabotage,” Flores says. For example, Dr. Truitt recalls speaking with a client who constantly found himself in relationships with highly unavailable women. “He was replaying the mother wound over and over again, but what he really wanted was a sense of belonging and he didn’t know what that felt like in a safe way,” she says. “The system goes to what it knows and the mother wound creates the foundation of what is known.”

At other times, the mother wound can cause a person to be manipulative to the point of being childlike in relationships. “I had a client who literally threw temper tantrums when she felt like her partner was working too much: pounding on the bed, screaming, yelling,” Dr. Truitt adds. “As a child, that was the only way she would get the attention of her mother. It was negative attention, but any attention was better than no attention.”

In an effort to avoid being like their mother altogether, a person might also overcorrect. For example, if someone wants to avoid being weak, a trait they associate with their mother, they might work so hard to be independent that they deprive themselves of the ability to develop an intimate bond with a partner.

How do you fix a mother wound?

Mother wounds might seem inevitable if you have a mother—no parent is perfect, and many moms likely have their own wounds they might be inadvertently passing on to you. But experts say there are ways to start healing from your mother wound and other childhood trauma.

1. Educate yourself

It may feel strange at first, but reading up on your trauma can help you discuss what you’re feeling. “Once this vocabulary has been created, start talking about it to someone you trust,” Flores suggests. In this way, we’re able to normalize conversations about childhood trauma and create safe spaces to process our emotions.

2. Reflect on your experiences through creative expression

Having trouble expressing your thoughts with words? Flores suggests using artistic mediums, such as making music or journaling, as a form of release that allows you to do that inner child work, process any lingering wounds, and release them in a healthy manner.

3. Work on self-compassion

Self-compassion work can be invaluable in healing from any type of trauma. If, as a child, you mentally cataloged every instance that you upset your mother, the negative emotions that you carry with that perceived sense of failure follow you into adulthood. Dr. Truitt, however, adds “self-compassion can start to create space for the adult to see their developing self through a different lens.” Some self-compassion practices that can be helpful include reframing negative self-talk, or documenting your “wins” or successes.

4. Be open to emotionally corrective experiences

“In Matilda, Matilda’s mother is cold and uncaring, but she has a corrective emotional experience with Miss Honey, who offers Matilda the kind of mother’s love and tenderness that she hadn’t received from her mother,” Flores says. “You can also work on your own emotionally corrective experience by developing other healthy maternal relationships such as with friends, relatives, teachers, or a mentor.”

5. Seek professional help

“A therapist can help you safely and effectively unpack the childhood trauma,” says Flores. “They can also support you in creating or mending your current relationships and help you develop skills to foster relationships characterized by trust, open communication, good intentions, and healthy behaviors.” By healing your inner child or healing your inner teenager through the use of narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, reparenting therapy, harm reduction therapy, and EMDR, you set yourself up for a better future.

How do you not pass on a mother wound?

If you’re a parent struggling with your own mother wound, there are several steps you can take to avoid passing those wounds on to your kids. “Ask yourself, ‘What kind of mother do I want to be?’ or ‘What kind of woman do I want to be?’” suggests Reed. “Examine how you maintain your own self outside of motherhood.”

Sometimes, this is easier said than done. “That active, internal inquiry can be very scary and it takes a lot of courage when somebody turns around and asks themselves those questions,” says Dr. Truitt. If that’s the case, start by looking into your own mother’s history with her mother. By asking questions about this relationship, you can learn more about what parenting behaviors may have been inherited. “Past pain holds so many secrets to what we’re experiencing in the present day,” Dr. Truitt adds. It can be beneficial to do this with a trained therapist, who can provide a safe space and some guidance for this work.

If you find yourself holding onto these past pains, try a dominant/non-dominant handwriting exercise—something often done in therapeutic settings to access one’s “inner child” in order to start healing mother wounds and other childhood issues. When you notice you’re having negative feelings toward your child, write down what is making you angry or upset with your dominant hand. Next, ask yourself “what is going on?” and switch your pen or pencil to your non-dominant hand. Writing this way is inherently messy and creates a throughline to more vulnerable types of expression.

Once you’ve given yourself time to process your own wounds, use what you’ve learned to influence your parenting style, namely by building a dialogue with your child, Reed suggests. “Give the child the choice of being able to say ‘No, actually I don’t want to go to dance classes anymore,” she says as an example. “It’s not about saying ‘yes’ to everything but about being able to hold conversations so you’re not just saying, ‘No, because I said so.’” By giving your child a sovereign sense of self, you overcome one of the most prominent effects of a mother wound.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Bosmans, Guy, and Jessica L Borelli. “Attachment and the Development of Psychopathology: Introduction to the Special Issue.” Brain sciences vol. 12,2 174. 28 Jan. 2022, doi:10.3390/brainsci12020174
  2. Frosch, Cynthia A et al. “Parenting and Child Development: A Relational Health Perspective.” American journal of lifestyle medicine vol. 15,1 45-59. 26 May. 2019, doi:10.1177/1559827619849028
  3. Iyengar, Udita et al. “Unresolved trauma in mothers: intergenerational effects and the role of reorganization.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 5 966. 1 Sep. 2014, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00966
  4. Kretchmar, Molly D, and Deborah B Jacobvitz. “Observing mother-child relationships across generations: boundary patterns, attachment, and the transmission of caregiving.” Family process vol. 41,3 (2002): 351-74. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2002.41306.x

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