Mommy issues refer to problems forming or maintaining healthy adult relationships, due to a person’s insecure or unhealthy relationship with their mother or another female figure in their childhood.

The presence, comfort, and care a child receives from their primary caregivers during their formative years have a significant impact on their well-being and development.

Mothers play a vital role in the child’s development. Babies typically develop their first attachments with their mothers.

Any disruption or change in this crucial dynamic between the mother and child can have a lasting impact on the child’s overall well-being and how they form relationships. As such, having mommy issues can lead to a negative self-image, low levels of trust, and other issues.

This article explores “mommy issues,” what causes them, and the symptoms of a person with these issues. It also discusses its impacts on relationships and what a person can do if they have mommy issues.

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Mommy issues generally refer to a person’s problems stemming from unhealthy relationship dynamics with their mothers while growing up.

Upon birth, infants depend on their parents, primarily their mothers, for their physical needs and safety. Experts consider the mother’s role to be the most important in early childhood.

Separating young children (less than 3 years old) from their mothers may lead to delays in social-emotional development. A person’s attachment to their mother has an impact on the person’s development, particularly in their social-emotional development.

This does not mean that their mother was bad. However, the mother’s actions may have influenced and affected the person’s view of themselves.

Certain psychological concepts can help explain mommy issues.

As a child grows up, they need to have a committed relationship with at least one attachment figure who can provide safety and security. Children trust them to notice and respond to their needs.

Mommy issues also have roots in John Bowlby’s attachment theory. This theory suggests that babies have an innate need to form a close, emotional bond with their primary caregiver, typically the mother. According to the theory, the quality of the bond determines how well a person relates to and forms intimate relationships in adulthood.

If a person experiences an insecure, abusive, or chaotic relationship with their mother, they may develop an attachment disorder. This can affect their ability to form and maintain relationships with others.

There are many types of unhealthy, toxic, or abusive parent-child dynamics that can cause children to develop attachment issues as adults.

Some of these may include:

  • Covert incest (also known as enmeshment): A parent may depend on a child for the emotional needs a romantic partner would offer. The parent and child become overly involved in each other’s lives, which impacts the child’s development and relationships with others.
  • Controlling behavior: A parent may exert an unhealthy level of control over their child’s life, using emotional or physical threats or manipulation tactics to get the child to do as they wish.
  • Emotional abuse: This involves a parent acting in a way to control, isolate, or intimidate a child. A parent may shame a child for their shortcomings, feel jealous of their relationships, or humiliate them in front of others.
  • Child abuse: This involves the physical, emotional, or sexual mistreatment of children. A parent may neglect their child’s needs, force a child to engage in sexual activity, or physically abuse them. Maternal childhood neglect and abuse are associated with diminished psychological well-being in later life.
  • Parentification: A child may have had inappropriate responsibilities placed on them by a parent, in a reversal of roles. This may involve providing financial or emotional support or caring for a parent with a chronic illness.
  • Narcissistic abuse: This is a form of abuse stemming from narcissistic behaviors. A narcissistic parent may see their child as superior, leading to an over-inflated ego in the child. A child of a narcissistic parent may also face aggression or abuse.

A 2016 study found that parent-child relationships are associated with adolescent self-worth. High self-worth in turn is associated with higher life satisfaction, happiness, and well-being.

A 2018 study also found that the length of maternity leave a person takes has a direct association with the quality of mother-child interactions and indirectly affects the child’s attachment security.

The term “mommy issues” is loosely defined, and while studies do not focus on this concept specifically, there is a lot of research on how unhealthy, abusive, and neglectful mother-child relationships affect people as adults. Mommy issues may simply be a term that describes the insecure attachment styles a person develops in order to cope.

There are different types of attachment disorders, and symptoms or behaviors depend on the mother’s characteristics, the child’s experiences, and how they internalize, interpret, and recall the events of their childhood.

Anxious attachment

When a child learns that the mother does not always respond to their needs, they may develop an anxious attachment.

Individuals with this attachment style tend to have relationships characterized by excessive worry that their partners might leave.

A person may display the following behaviors:

  • heavily invested in a relationship
  • need to feel emotionally closer to their partners to feel secure
  • negative self-image
  • constantly looking for signs their partner is pulling away
  • anxious to please others at the expense of their own needs
  • act in ways that smother partners or drive them away

Learn more about abandonment issues in adults.

Avoidant attachment

Neglect or harsh treatment from a mother may cause a child to develop an avoidant attachment. Mothers may be too critical or demanding of their children and are discouraged from expressing themselves.

Individuals who have this attachment style tend to withdraw during conflict.

A 2022 study found that those with avoidant attachments describe themselves as emotionally independent and do not feel any need to share their feelings or ideas with others.

A person may display the following behaviors:

  • resistance to affection
  • low levels of trust
  • difficulty showing affection
  • difficulty maintaining relationships
  • negative self-image
  • detachment
  • anger issues
  • impulsivity

Learn more about relationship anxiety.

Fearful-avoidant or disorganized attachment

This attachment is often a result of extreme trauma or neglect in childhood.

Experts theorize that infants with this attachment may have had experiences where their caregivers were a regular source of alarm. They may display frightening or subtly frightening behaviors.

The caregivers may also have been a source of threat or harm, or were psychologically unavailable to the child. This causes the child to display disoriented, conflicted, or fearful behaviors.

Adults with this attachment style may show externalizing behaviors like anger and hostility in their adult relationships.

Learn more about attachment disorders in adults here.

People often use the term mommy issues to describe men. While all people can experience relationship issues with mothers, some psychological theories suggest there are gendered aspects to certain unhealthy mother-child dynamics.

The Oedipus Complex theory suggests that a male child develops an unconscious desire for their mother and sees the father as a competition for the mother’s love. This occurs during the phallic stage of sexual development when the child is around 3 to 5 years old.

If a child does not successfully resolve this, it may lead to an unhealthy fixation on their mother. They may also choose partners who resemble their opposite-sex parent. This fixation can also lead to problems in relationships.

Women may also have mommy issues, but they may present differently. Gender may affect how the impact of their complicated mother-daughter relationship may show up.

A 2020 study found that the need for approval in relationships is more common in women, while treating relationships as secondary is more common in males.

Mommy issues affect how a person forms personal and romantic relationships and impacts their parenting.

A 2015 study showed that a person’s attachment can affect their parenting style. Those with insecure attachments showed lower responsive caregiving and were more likely to have an authoritarian or permissive parenting style.

Similarly, a 2021 study showed that parenting may have an intergenerational impact. Parenting style may not only affect a child’s development but may also have a long-term impact on child-rearing that is passed across generations.

A 2021 study found that children with insecure attachments showed poorer emotional regulation than their peers with secure attachments.

Children of mothers who received maltreatment were also more likely to show emotional and behavioral problems. They are also at a higher risk of mental health problems.

If a person believes they may have mommy issues, it is best to seek the help of healthcare or psychiatric professionals.

They can also take steps to break the unhealthy emotional pattern caused by their complicated relationship with their mothers.

The first step is to acknowledge how their mother’s behavior and parenting style may have contributed to their relationship difficulties. They may carefully revisit their relationship and review how these may affect the person’s behaviors.

Building healthy boundaries can help people develop their sense of self and deal with trust issues. This might mean learning how to say no to their mothers and making decisions for their lives.

A person may break the unhealthy relationship pattern by building healthy emotional support. This may be from the person’s significant other, friends, or mentors.

Learn more about how to build healthy romantic relationships.

Therapy can help a person overcome mommy issues. It can help:

  • identify the abuse they experienced in the past and how it is affecting their current relationships
  • develop healthy boundaries
  • provide tools to deal with their issues
  • help form healthy relationships
  • deal with unresolved issues with the mother
  • address unhealthy coping behaviors like people-pleasing and codependency

A person can also look into support groups and the wealth of online resources to help them explore their issues on their own.

A person, regardless of their gender, can develop psychological issues from an unhealthy parent-child relationship with either parent. This means that a child can develop mommy issues, daddy issues, or a combination of both.

A 2020 Chinese study differentiated the roles between a mother-child and a father-child relationship. The father-child relationship tends to affect a person’s behavioral coping style.

Researchers explained that fathers might pass their emotional coping style, like drinking alcohol and smoking to their children, but the mother’s emotional coping style has less effect on the child.

Meanwhile, the study also showed that a person’s relationship with their mothers affects their emotional experience. The child internalizes their emotional connection with their mothers into their internal working model and uses it as the basis of how they view and explore the world.

No mother-child relationship is perfect. However, these tend to have a lasting impact on a person’s life and affect how they form relationships.

At the core, mommy issues are attachment issues stemming from childhood. A person can still unlearn healthy patterns and behavior with awareness and emotional support from significant others.

Self-help and therapy can help a person face their childhood trauma and resolve existing issues with their mother.