As a child matures into adulthood, the relationship with his or her mother should mature too. Over time, the once dependent child evolves into an independent adult ― in theory, anyway.
In some cases, however, a mother’s relationship with an adult son or daughter becomes stunted. They each get stuck in their old roles, and healthy boundaries become blurred or disintegrate.
“Most children begin very dependent on a mother, so it’s not easy for either parent or child to let go of that bond,” Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and the author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, told HuffPost. “However, it is necessary for the emotional growth of both mother and child. Mothers have to learn how to support their children in becoming independent adults, and adult children have to let go of dependent feelings and learn to make their way in the world on their own.”
We asked Tessina and other therapists to share some signs that an adult lacks healthy boundaries with his or her mom.
(Note that in these examples, the mother is primarily the demanding, overbearing person and the child is the dependent, people-pleasing person, but this dynamic can go both ways.)
1. Your mom puts unrealistic demands on your time and attention.
Do you feel the need to drop whatever you’re doing any time your mom calls, even if the two of you already spoke that day? Do you routinely cancel plans with your friends, co-workers or spouse because your mom wants to see you? If so, you may have found yourself in some unhealthy territory. Yes, it’s important to prioritize your mom at times ― but not above everyone and everything else in your life.
“A parent or adult child might call excessively or expect the other person to spend a large amount of their free time with them,” clinical psychologist Gina Delucca said. “The other person may go along with it due to feelings of guilt or a sense of obligation to their family member.”
And while you may feel you’re doing the right thing by giving in to your mom’s demands, it could end up damaging your bond.
“If your attention is most frequently on your mom, it doesn’t allow either of you to nurture other aspects of yourselves,” therapist Amanda Stemen said. “That can lead to resentment and other negative feelings in the relationship.”
2. You feel responsible for your mom’s emotional well-being.
If your mom says or does things that indicate that you are responsible for her emotional well-being, it likely means boundaries are out of whack. You cannot control the state of her emotions; only she can do that.
“Some parents have learned to hold their children responsible for their emotions,” Stemen said. “They might say things like, ‘Because you did this, I’m worried’ or ‘You make me sad when you don’t call’ or ‘If you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be angry.’ This often begins at a young age, and adults may find themselves still in a cycle of trying desperately to make their parents happy or calm.”
This toxic way of thinking can spill into your other relationships as well.
“The adult child may have difficulty managing other relationships, often finding themselves in co-dependent relationships that mimic that with their mom,” Stemen said.
3. You lie to your mom to avoid disappointing her.
In high school, you might have felt the need to lie to your mom about how you were spending your time so you didn’t get in trouble. But as a full-fledged adult, you shouldn’t feel you need to lie because you fear her disapproval. If she doesn’t like what you’re up to, so be it.
“Now that you’re an adult, you’re responsible for your own decisions and the consequences of them,” marriage and family therapist Aaron Anderson said. “You don’t need your mom to express disapproval as a way of teaching you right from wrong anymore.”
If you find yourself lying to her for this reason, it may mean you’re still stuck in your old parent-child roles. Honesty will help move the relationship forward.
“Just be upfront with her about what you’re doing, what you did and why,” Anderson said. “It’s a great way to create an adult relationship.”
4. You rely on your mom for money.
As an adult, you may encounter a period of unemployment or financial hardship that may force you to ask your mom (or dad) for money until you get back on your feet. There’s nothing wrong with that. But generally speaking, if you are capable of working, there’s no reason your mom should be bankrolling your life.
“If you’re reliant on your mom for money, that means that she is informed about your finances — including what you spend your money on, how much you spend a month, how much your rent costs and other expenses,” Anderson said. “It also means that she has investment in your decisions and can support or deny support of your decisions through money. This keeps you from being an autonomous adult.”
“It’s OK to accept gifts and maybe even ask for help when you’re in a pinch, but otherwise asking for money from mom is a big no-no,” Anderson added.
5. You allow her to handle your responsibilities.
Physically and mentally capable adults should be able to do their own laundry, clean their own home and make their own doctor appointments and travel reservations. Your mom may want to do these things for you because she’s trying to be helpful, but letting her do so may hinder your growth and development.
“While these may seem like caring gestures towards one’s child, they are also interfering with the adult child’s ability to live independently and care for themselves,” Delucca said.
6. Your mom expects you to check in with her before you make a decision.
If you feel you can’t make everyday decisions without getting your mom’s approval or permission first, something is amiss. As an adult, you should feel comfortable making your own choices and empowered to do so. You can seek her input if you’d like, but you shouldn’t feel you have to.
“It’s OK to share whatever you want to about your life choices with your mother,” Tessina said. “But when it feels mandatory ― e.g., ‘Her feelings will be hurt if I don’t’ ― there’s a problem.”
If her advice is not heeded, she may resort to guilt-tripping you.
“The mother might respond with anger, shame, criticism or withdrawal for her child doing something differently than she would or for expressing differing thoughts, beliefs or opinions,” marriage and family therapist Tara Griffith said. “This can lead to an inability to be assertive, low self-confidence and discomfort with self-expression.”
7. Your mom violates your privacy by looking at your texts, emails, bank statements, etc.
Healthy relationships are built on mutual trust. If you or your mom feels compelled to snoop or otherwise infringe on your privacy, that’s a sign something is off.
“If mom reads your personal mail, stalks you on social media and then grills you about it, shows up at your home unannounced or demands time, affection or consideration and gets hurt if you say ‘no,’ it’s a classic breach of boundaries,” Tessina said.
8. At times, you feel you’re competing with your mother.
In a healthy mother-child relationship, the parent is proud — not envious — of the child’s positive qualities, skills and accomplishments and vice versa. If feelings of competitiveness arise, it’s worth examining why.
“This may include feeling jealous or competing over physical appearance, attention from others ― including Dad ― and accomplishments, etc.,” marriage and family therapist Lynsie Seely said. “This communicates to the adult child to dampen him or herself in order to let mom shine and may instill an overly critical or judgmental internal voice or a feeling of not being good enough.”
9. Your mom enables your bad or irresponsible behavior.
Your mom may try to clean up your messes in order to shield you from the negative consequences of your reckless or unhealthy behavior. But these rescuing efforts can do more harm than good, allowing your bad habits to continue without repercussions.
“It may also be related to guilt associated with her parenting or in order to maintain their child’s dependence on them as they begin to become autonomous,” Griffith said. “For example, calling in sick for a child when he or she doesn’t go to work due to partying too much the night before.”
10. Your mom overshares personal details about her life.
Do you find yourself often thinking, “TMI, Mom!” after she shares yet another account of her sexual escapades? Or maybe she presses you for every little detail about your love life. Having an open and honest rapport can be wonderful, but there are certain things you two just don’t need to know about each other.
“While having a close relationship with your mother, in which you can openly talk to her about practically anything, can be normal and healthy, you may still want to hold some limits on what you choose to disclose,” Delucca said.