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EXPLAINER: What are mommy issues—and what can you do if you have them?

By John Patrick Magno Ranara Published May 08, 2024 5:12 pm

Some kids develop a strained bond with their mothers due to problems arising while growing up, and these could eventually lead to a psychological challenge dubbed as “mommy issues.”

Simply put, this is a phenomenon that is brought about by too much or too little parenting by your mother figure back when you were a child, and has begun to affect you as an adult. While it doesn’t sound severe on the surface, it can lead to a mental problem if you continue to ignore it.

Defining mommy issues

In an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe, clinical psychologist Marcella Sintos Pamatian said that mommy issues refer to “unresolved emotional wounds” stemming from an “unhealthy childhood bond with one's primary caregiver.”

While the term centers on mothers, it can be applied to any significant caregiver in your childhood, such as fathers, grandparents, or other relatives.

“Attachment theory suggests that your early relationships with caregivers shape how you connect with others in adulthood. When these relationships are unhealthy, it can lead to difficulties with forming trusting and secure bonds,” Pamatian explained.

Fellow psychologist Alexandria Blake Real pointed out that these problems differ when it comes to their severity, highlighting that the “effect could vary for men and women, but the outcome is usually the same.”

“Say, if a mother close to her son has established a super servile relationship with him, it could result in high expectations of his romantic partners in the future, and he could expect that they behave exactly as their mother,” Real told L!fe.

“A mother who may be straightforward to their daughter to the extent of throwing hurtful words that affect their self-confidence could, in the future, lead to having self-esteem issues, and even trust issues,” she continued.

If left unresolved, mommy issues can affect your thoughts, behaviors, and social interactions in your adulthood since the caregiver plays a significant role in shaping your beliefs about nurturing and dealing with others.

Pamatian detailed that there are several cycles that these attachment problems can create. One is intergenerational cycle, where individuals who experience unhealthy caregiving may unconsciously repeat those patterns with their own children.

“For example, someone who received little emotional support as a child might struggle to provide the same level of nurturing to their own offspring,” Pamatian said.

Another is called cognitive distortions, which are thoughts that create negative patterns in the way a person thinks, such as the belief that “My mom did this so it's okay to do it to my child, too.” 

“These distorted beliefs can then translate into controlling behaviors in relationships, leading to social difficulties. Additionally, individuals might develop the belief ‘I am not loved and worthy of respect,’ leading to insecure attachment and low self-esteem,” Pamatian explained.

Do you have mommy issues?

Given that mommy issues are rooted from all the way back to your childhood, you may not immediately realize that you are experiencing such problems.

But psychologist Alleana Fuentes said that serious psychological symptoms may manifest in cases where there is physical, verbal, and emotional abuse from the mother figure.

“How these show up may be in actual clinical diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder—although not always,” Fuentes said.

“A child may grow up to be an adult that develops poor self-concept or self-esteem, difficulty trusting people, and this could also show up in issues in attachment with their own partners, friends, or children if they become parents,” she added.

Being abusive, however, isn’t the sole cause of this phenomenon. It can also be brought about by the caregiver being absent during most of the child’s growth and development.

“I see clients where they struggle with their concept of love from a mother, because they feel that their emotional needs aren't always being met—physical affection, time, and presence seem lacking, but since they see the sacrifice their mother makes to provide for them financially, they feel guilt from feeling a lack of love,” Fuentes told L!fe.

“Some end up looking at love conditionally, needing to prove their worth through success to feel ‘good enough’ for someone’s affection, since they view themselves as ‘unworthy’ or ‘not enough,’” she added.

According to Pamatian, another sign that you are suffering from mommy issues is having problems with setting healthy boundaries and expressing emotions, leading to a “sense of enmeshment or emotional distance within relationships.”

Other symptoms include constant seeking of reassurance of their worth, being overly sensitive to threats in the relationship, and being drawn to partners who are emotionally unavailable, are replicating their childhood experiences, or are overly nurturing partners.

What can you do if you have mommy issues?

Real clarified that it is not tagged as any of the psychological disorders that need thorough diagnosis for psychological treatment.

Nevertheless, it is a real psychosocial issue that has to be dealt with. The ways of addressing it, however, varies on the relationship that you have now with your mother figure.

“One thing that has to be ensured is if the real cause of your troubled relationship with someone is rooted from your childhood experiences with your mother and of your past experiences,” Real said.

“It’s important to realize that having problems in the family dynamics are completely normal. But when it becomes unhealthy, it needs immediate response—for both the mother and the child,” she advised, adding that visiting a psychologist is a must if conflict continues to persist.

Outside of professional help, Fuentes highlighted that the importance of engaging in safe communities, enhancing spirituality, regulating emotion, and other forms of rebuilding one’s self.

“Healing mother-child relationships may not always end up in happy feelings—if possible, communication is really necessary; but there are instances where safety and distance are more ideal, so boundaries are important to be set,” she said.

She also urged that blaming mothers for the problem shouldn’t be the case as their actions are also rooted on different factors such as poverty, their own mental and physical illnesses, among others.

“Mothers are doing motherhood for the first time, too, so it’s realistic that motherhood is not done perfectly especially in their first, second, and even third try,” she said.

Another helpful exercise recommended by Pamatian is to write a compassionate letter to yourself, remarking that this “can facilitate self-awareness and forgiveness, paving the way for healing.”

“Remember, healing from attachment issues takes time and effort. By cultivating self-awareness, practicing self-compassion, and seeking professional support when needed, you can overcome these challenges and build healthier, more fulfilling relationships,” she said.

If all else fails despite your efforts, however, Real shared that it’s completely fine to want to cut ties and stop the cycle for good.

“If people feel that they can’t grow because of their family set-up, there is nothing wrong about deciding to break the ‘generational curse,’” she said.