Mommy Issues in Women

19 Jan 2024
12 min read
Mommy Issues in Women: 4 Major Signs and Coping Strategies

Usually, when we talk about “mommy issues,” we refer to a male child who had a dysfunctional mother-child relationship. But women can experience these unhealthy relationship dynamics. Mommy issues in women can appear when an adult daughter experiences an excessive influence from her mother as she remains overly involved in her life and overly critical.

Rarely does anyone speak about adult mommy issues in women. However, given that the mother is the most important figure in the child’s life, anyone can become affected by mommy issues. So, addressing them will be just as important for adult females as for males.

2 Origins of the “Mommy Issue” Concept

Let’s dive into the subject of mommy issues in women and see how they manifest themselves and which coping strategies you can use to help yourself in addressing mommy issues.

1. Oedipus, Electra, and Sigmund Freud

What do Greek mythology and Sigmund Freud have in common? The answer is in what Freud calls “complexes,” specifically Oedipus and Electra.

In mythology, Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Electra (aka Elektra) conspired with her siblings to murder their mother and her lover who had killed their father.

Freud drew upon these two myths to describe his concept that male children see themselves in competition with their fathers for their mother’s love and affection and that female children compete with their mothers for the love and affection of their fathers. These daddy issues can impact a woman’s adult life in many ways. But so can her mommy issues.

While Freud’s treatment of these issues was narrowly focused on sex, his work was the beginning of a field of psychoanalysis that deals with the impact that early childhood mother-child relationships have on people as they move into adulthood. There are both mommy issues and daddy issues, but this article will focus exclusively on mommy issues in women that result in relationship difficulties in their adult lives.

Related reading: What Do Women Look For in a Man, Clarified

2. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory

Psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed attachment theory, which now forms the basis for our understanding of mommy issues in both males and females as they move into adulthood. In short, the types of attachment and emotional connection impact their ability to form healthy and “normal” relationships with others as adults. Before we speak to attachment issues, though, let’s look at the signs of mommy issues in women.

As this field has matured, the concept of mommy issues has been termed attachment theory and relates to the types of attachments between mother and child during the formative years. These mommy issues tend to impact the relationships of the female child in her intimate relationships as an adult, and more modern psychology refers to these mommy issues as attachment disorders.

Related reading: Are You In Love or Just Clingy? 8 Love vs Attachment Differences

4 Signs of Mommy Issues in Women

Mommy issues in women are complicated. At one extreme, adult daughters want to be their mom’s best friend. At the other extreme, they never want to communicate with their mothers again. Neither of these is healthy. In between are all sorts of mommy issues that have come from those formative years.

One thing for certain: women with mommy issues will have those issues extend to their relationships with everyone – other women, romantic partners, and even their children if and when they have them.

Several mommy issues can negatively affect an adult woman’s functioning and relationships and present psychological challenges as an adult. Here are the most common.

1. She Is Too Attached to Her Mother

When a mother has literally “hovered” over her daughter, this results in mommy issues in women, including:

  • Troubles with functioning independently: An adult daughter needs her mother’s emotional support and approval for all decisions. She needs input on where to live and work and whom to date and marry.
  • Emotional immaturity: A woman with mommy issues cannot meet her own needs, relying on both her mother and significant others. As a result, she lacks self-confidence and struggles to have a fulfilling life on her own.
  • Using others for reassurance and comfort: When mommy is out of the picture, she becomes dependent on others, seeking constant approval, help, and rescue from difficulties.
  • Modeling mother in caregiving: By treating friends and partners like her mother did, she can be “smothering” to the extent they pull away. It can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy when she, being a mother, smothers her children so they cannot grow into independent adults.
  • People-pleasing: Just as she has worked to please her mother, she now works to please others in her adult relationships and craves approval. She can be taken advantage of and lose her sense of self, which was minimal to begin with.

Related reading: How to Stop Being Codependent and Reclaim Your Life

2. She Grew Up with an Absent/Neglectful Mom

Mothers can be absent physically and/or emotionally. If there is no other primary caregiver to assume that nurturing role, girls from orphanages will develop mommy issues. Mothers who are not ready to be parents, resent the restrictions that parenthood brings, or are more preoccupied with their social and career lives are also guilty of mommy issues in women.

How Adult Women with Mommy Issues Can Seek Emotional and Psychical Support

Women who were not physically and emotionally nurtured throughout their very early years will seek it in adulthood, including:

  • Being clingy out of the fear of being abandoned or dumped
  • Having trust issues and being jealous for no reason
  • Monitoring partner’s chats, calls or even putting GPS devices on their cars
  • Fear of giving independence and autonomy to their significant others
  • Being on constant high alert for any threats to their relationships
Cold mothers cause daughters inability to set healthy boundaries in their relationships - so they avoid them

How Adult Women with Mommy Issues Ignore Closeness and Intimacy

At times, women with mommy issues avoid close adult relationships because they don’t know how to operate within them. Here are the signs of this opposite behavior:

  • Having many acquaintances but few-to-no close friends
  • Preferring short-term hookups and one-night stands, avoiding long-term romantic relationships
  • Difficulty expressing affection
  • Problems with identifying and regulating emotions in themselves and others
  • Narcissistic behaviors, meaning looking out only for their own needs and inability to provide essential emotional support to a partner.

In short, childhood trauma results in one of the toughest mommy issues to overcome and may even develop into borderline personality disorder that requires therapy.

Related reading: Why You Are Feeling Trapped in a Relationship And What to Do About It

3. She Is in a Hostile Relationship with Her Mother

Physical abuse is a childhood trauma that can have severe effects, like when a daughter leaves her mother’s home and hate toward that mother still stays with her.

A mother may be emotionally or physically abusive to her daughter from a very young age, like belittling and overly criticizing what the child does. She doesn’t make her bed right, doesn’t perform well enough in school or outside activities, isn’t pretty enough, etc. This overly critical behavior results in a negative self-image at best. But at worst, this can morph into difficulty with healthy relationships and mental health problems as an adult.

If communication is not cut off and the relationship continues, the mother may continue to exert her dominance by showing up at her daughter’s home uninvited, criticizing her housekeeping, how she raises her children, her partner, her adult friends, and her career choice. And if the daughter attempts to set boundaries, they are routinely violated. The hostile and complicated relationship continues until mommy is cut off.

Such mommy issues result in a complicated relationship with other adults and partners and sensitivity to criticism:

  • Setting unrealistic “high bar” boundaries and becoming extremely angry if they are not honored
  • Preferring the company of men (but no healthy relationships)
  • Trust issues with women, especially older ones
  • Being argumentative and even insubordinate with female supervisors at work
  • Dismissing any advice or suggestions from other females
  • Rejecting the lifestyle of their mothers

If mom was feminine, they become more boyish or athletic; if mom was stay-at-home, they pursue academic and career goals; if mom was a perfectionist, they strive to be just the opposite.

Adult children with mommy issues are still in competition with all the other women

4. She Is Still in Competition with Mommy

There is this thing called the “Electra Complex” that goes back to Greek mythology and was later incorporated by Freud and Carl Jung in their psychoanalysis work. In short, the mother-daughter bonding in infancy is critical to a daughter’s healthy development.

As a daughter grows through the toddler phase, she enters a phase of competition with her mother for her father’s attention and affection. Fathers often exacerbate the situation because “Daddy’s little girl” deserves to be a little princess – thus, they may counter wives’ discipline and shower their daughter with love, attention, and gifts. The result? Mom is becoming resentful and angry.

Now, the competition is “on.” Mommy tries to re-establish her position as first in her husband’s life. She may engage in some pretty “under-handed” behaviors, such as trying to make her daughter fat or undermining her daughter’s efforts to achieve in school. And if the daughter is too young to leave home, she is subjected to this subversion until she is old enough.

It may not always be the father who contributes to the problem. As a mother ages and sees a more attractive younger self in her daughter, she may become competitive all on her own. This may lead to negative behaviors towards her daughter, which the father has nothing to do with.

In adulthood, competing with her mom results in lots of unhealthy behaviors:

  • Fixation on her physical appearance and the need to stay “young and beautiful,” with lots of expenditures on cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, clothes, etc.
  • Obsession with diet and exercise – till developing eating disorders in extreme
  • Becoming very demanding in relationships with men so they act like her father
  • Competing with all other women in her personal, physical, and career life
  • Going after guys who are already in serious relationships or married – and moving to others after “conquering” that man

From a psychological standpoint, all of these behaviors are “self-protective” and the result of that unhealthy relationship of competition with her mother. Women with these mommy issues become fiercely competitive in all areas of their lives.

Related reading: Envy Vs. Jealousy: What’s the Difference?

Overly dependent adult daughthers and their attachment styles

Mommy Issues and 5 Attachment Styles

As mentioned earlier, psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed what has come to be known as attachment theory. Based on psychological theories, its premise is that the relationship between children and their primary caregiver (usually the mother) impacts their relationships with others for the rest of their lives.

When those attachments are disrupted or are unhealthy, mental health issues arise. Here are his four attachment categories, three of which are insecure attachment styles, and one of which is secure.

1. Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style

Infants and children who are neglected, abandoned, and/or abused can develop this attachment style. Their mommy issues can lead to kind of opposite behaviors.

One result of anxious attachment can be clingy, needy, and demanding relationships with adults. This comes from a fear that they will be dumped.

Another result can be an inability to form a healthy relationship because they don’t seek emotional connections with others nor are they able to respond to others who want them. This is known as reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and is classified as a mental health disorder.

2. Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style

As adults, these people have a tough time connecting with others. They remain distant because they fear getting hurt. They may prefer short romantic hookups as opposed to a long-term healthy relationship with a partner.

This can also be an outcome of RAD – some of the same traits are present.

Related reading: Future Faking – A Lousy Dating Strategy

3. Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style

For some people, avoiding romantic relationships altogether comes from unresolved issues with their moms, possibly an openly hostile relationship, or a mom who was (and still is) overly critical.

They can suffer low self-esteem, engage in negative self-talk, and believe in their lack of worthiness for healthier relationships. They prefer superficial relationships with other women and men.

Their self-esteem issues must be addressed so they can develop greater self-awareness of their worth.

4. Secure Attachment Style

These are the lucky ones who grew up in loving, nurturing environments in which a primary care giver gave emotional support and physical affection. As adults, they are very self-aware and assured, are comfortable forming intimate connections with friends and romantic partners, and pursue personal growth with confidence.

In their relationships, they can set and maintain healthy boundaries and participate in mutual emotional support, also maintaining their independence and individuality. These are what secure attachments look like, and a mother’s affection early on is the key.

5. Insecure Attachment Style

This is a combination of the first three attachment styles that Bowlby identified. And because they often overlap relative to signs of mommy issues, they can be combined into overall psychological concepts of insecure attachments. Here’s a quick example.

Suppose an adult female suffers from low self-esteem, doesn’t feel worthy of another’s love and affection, but is still seeking that love and affection somewhere. She can get caught up in a relationship with someone with an over-inflated ego who exhibits controlling behavior. In her effort to please him, she takes on inappropriate responsibilities to a fault, catering to his every wish and demand.

Related reading: Disorganized Attachment Style & Romantic Relationships

How to overcome mommy issues in women and stop being overly dependent

4 Strategies to Overcome Mommy Issues

Healing from and overcoming mommy issues is no easy task. These are deep-seated issues that have been ingrained since a female’s very early years. But there are some steps she can take on her own along with getting help from a therapist.

1. Recognize That They Have Mommy Issues

If a woman has had any of the issues mentioned above, she can start by taking a good long look at her behaviors that are affecting your current adult relationships. They are listed above. Chances are, though, they already have a pretty good idea that the relationship with their mother is not a healthy one.

If she is in a relationship, her partner can help her, as he is affected by her mommy issues too. For example, he may tell her that her mother is too involved in her life and it needs to be fixed. Or, he may tell her that she is obsessive about her appearance, and that obsession is beginning to affect both their relationship and their finances.

Friends and co-workers can also provide insights if they are asked for honest feedback.

Related reading: What a Fear of Commitment Does to Your Relationship

2. Put Distance Between Themselves and Their Mother

Continuing to have their mother as a strong presence in their life will only exacerbate an adult woman’s mommy issues, no matter what those issues are.

The goal here is to have little-to-no contact with their mother. The point is this: they cannot heal from a dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship of any kind as long as they remain in that relationship.

Support groups with others who have mommy issues will be helpful. They can regularly support positive self-affirmations as women work to shed their mommy issues.

3. Take Assertiveness Training

Some of the mommy issues that adult women continue to have in their adult lives stem from their lack of assertiveness in standing up to their mothers and setting up and maintaining strict boundaries.

Again, learning how to become more assertive with their mothers is a healthy step forward and a good way to thwart the continuing unhealthy relationship.

However, eliminating the mother from the dynamic does not eliminate the long-term impact of that relationship on the woman’s behaviors and relationships with others – on the job, in her social life, and with any romantic partner.

In short, getting rid of mommy does not provide healing and substantive change.

Related reading: Realizing Your Relationship Was a Lie: An Action Plan

4. Seek Therapy for Identified Mommy Issues

“Connecting with the right therapist can be instrumental to learning and applying healthy relating and communication moving forward.”

Elizabeth Keohan, therapist, LCSW

Healing from dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships with a mother is difficult because they are so deep-seated and were established during those critical formative years.

And all of the measures that a woman may take on her own to get over this early “trauma” will probably be mere band-aids. To dig these issues out from the root is going to involve therapy with a professional who has experience with adults who have mommy issues.

And sometimes, there may be some false starts until a woman can find a therapist she trusts and feels comfortable opening up to. In this case, the goals of therapy for mommy issues are two-fold. It unwraps the unhealthy mommy issues and teaches how to change the behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be a successful approach here.

Does This Sound Like You or Someone You Know?

While mommy issues in women are not as commonly discussed, they are real. They may impact adult lives in many negative and unproductive ways. And if you have them, it’s time to move forward. You can have far healthier relationships without mommy issues.

Relationships Author
Geoffrey Williams
After taking a required Intro to Psychology course as an undergrad, I have never looked back. Since my doctoral program, I have specialized in adult relationship therapy. Through my studies and clinicals, I wrote several articles for professional journals and currently in the midst of writing a book.

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