When a young person struggles with addiction or any other mental health issues, the first thing people typically wonder is what the parents did wrong. And with women disproportionately responsible for caregiving, the often implicit question really is, “What did Mom do wrong?”
Many mothers say that when things go well in their child’s life, they feel like it’s because of something in their child’s nature, something they were born with. Yet when things go wrong, it’s common for moms to feel like they’re the ones who screwed up. Moms are criticized for being too overbearing or too absent. Too strict or too permissive. Too needy or too emotionally detached.
Yet we know that assigning blame, whether blaming the addict, the substance, or the caregiver, is counterproductive. If we really want people to heal, we need to stop “Mom blaming.”
1. Moms are one part of the equation—It takes a village!
Mothers play an incredibly important role in shaping their children’s identities. It’s important not to understate this. Research shows that attachments between children and caregivers correlate with the child’s behavior, temperament, and ability to form deep relationships later in life.
Yet, it’s also important to acknowledge that multiple factors influence a person’s development, including trauma, social and environmental factors, genetics, and resources. Mothers are just one of a number of caregivers and influential figures young people encounter throughout the course of their lives who can shape their risk or resilience to difficult situations.
2. Blame keeps people from getting help.
We know that approximately 23 million people in the US currently suffer from some form of substance use disorder. Yet the vast majority do not get help. Only 1 in 10 (2.6 million) receive treatment. It’s worthwhile to consider the role that blame plays in the equation.
Having a child who deals with a mental health issue or problematic behaviors can carry a great deal of stigma. Blame can compound this stigma. A mom might wonder if seeking help will unleash a Pandora’s box of issues that reflect on her poor parenting decisions. In this way blame breeds isolation. It can prevent people from using the resources in the community that they really need.
3. Blame doesn’t help anyone heal.
Attempting to identify the source of who is responsible for things going wrong in a young person’s life feels satisfying. But then what happens?
The problem is still there. Blame pits the mother and child against each other when really, the better alternative would be to gain a mutual understanding and join forces to stand up against the problem - whether it’s addiction, problematic behaviors, or other mental health issues.
Blame doesn’t address the pain that’s driving a young person’s problematic behavior. To recover, some people must work through real traumas that they have experienced. Sometimes mothers have played a role in this trauma and it’s important not to ignore this. However, holding on to negative feelings about early relationships can reinforce your self-view as a victim and impact your ability to establish satisfying intimate relationships.
Though forgiveness may or may not make sense depending on a person’s particular situation, deeper introspection about motivations can help open up doors to healing.
“In general, we can’t forgive our parents until we have some clarity that we didn’t deserve their mistreatment. It is equally important to realize that in the world of the family, traumas often beget traumas: Most parents who mistreat their children were likely also mistreated. In order to break this sad cycle, a goal might be to see one’s parents not only as neglectful or hostile, but as ill-equipped to create the kind of family environment that fosters confidence and secure attachments.”
- Coleman, Joshua, Carolyn Pape Cowan, and Philip A. Cowan. “The Cost of Blaming Parents.“
4. Society’s expectations of being a mother are larger than life.
When “mom blame” arises, it’s important to take a step back and consider the social forces that push us to blame. Brené Brown talks about the compounded shame that women feel when they are not able to keep up with multiple responsibilities of taking care of kids, work or home life, and their partner. She says, “For women, shame is, do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.”
With access to information growing by the day and mom blogs and online forums full of insistent, contradicting information, it is difficult for moms of all kinds to find their way to a happy medium. And in fact, we have seen the idea of “perfect mom” change over the years. This standard of perfection varies greatly based on the latest craze, income bracket, and cultural context.
The field of psychotherapy also contributes to the immense pressure on moms. A long history of theories place the blame on moms for multiple conditions, from Freud’s mother who needs to be castrated for the son to survive to ideas that “maternal deprivation” cause autism. Some theories have misguidedly suggested that mothers were at fault for sexual abuse perpetrated by fathers because she probably rejected the father’s advances. It’s important to question the origins of “mom blame,” and wonder how these ideas would change if the balance of power in the field of psychotherapy were different.
So what’s the alternative?
Instead of blaming mom for things that are going wrong with a young person, let’s create community of support to stand up to the problem. If we want people to heal, we have to do the deep work necessary to address into the pain that drives problematic behaviors. We need to create the mutual support necessary to strengthen a young person’s team.
Brené Brown. “Listening to Shame.” Talk at TED Conference, 2012.
Coleman, Joshua, Carolyn Pape Cowan, Philip A. Cowan. “The Cost of Blaming Parents.“ Greater Good Magazine. UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, December 23, 2014.
Drexler, Peggy. “Mother Blaming Has to Stop.” Psychology Today, Our Gender Ourselves Blog, Nov 10, 2011.
Marsten, David, David Epston, and Laurie Markham. “It’s All Mom’s Fault!” Narrative Therapy in Wonderland, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “The NHSDUH Report: Substance Use and Mental Health Estimates from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Overview of Findings,” accessed May 2, 2018.