SMOTHERING MOTHERING: How to undermine the emotional maturity of your son

By: Aaron Welch, LMHC, NCC, CSOTS

The biggest question I face as I write this article is, “how do I tactfully address such a sensitive, yet pertinent, topic?” There is no easy answer to this question and yet the ramifications of a controlling and overprotective style of parenting on the emotional growth of young men absolutely must be addressed.
There are many reasons that mothers emotionally smother their sons:
1. Fear of their sons being hurt
2. Fear that their sons might encounter failure
3. Internal guilt in the mother
4. A strong desire to protect their sons from the world’s evil
5. Overcompensation for an absent or uninvolved father
6. A controlling personality, in general.
Many of these reasons (and others that are unmentioned) are founded in good intentions and based on the love mothers have for their boys. 9 out of 10 mothers do not smother their sons because they have evil intentions or because they are abusive in nature. Most mothers are overprotective simply because….well….they want to protect their children. I get that. I applaud those motives. As a father, I have a strong urge to protect my own children from predators, a worldly and evil culture, and from other people who may harm them at school or in play. We SHOULD protect our children from those things.
The problem comes when mothers resist the process of “letting go” as their sons enter into their middle years of adolescence. Somewhere around the age of 15-16, boys need to experience more and more independence as they develop into young adulthood. Part of this process for young men is that, to enter into the world of “men”, they must begin to separate themselves emotionally from their mother. For many mothers, this is an excruciating move on the part of their sons and they do not handle it well. Some mothers do not fully understand how important this separation is in the development of a young man’s developing masculinity and sense of self. Countless mothers take this movement from their sons very personally even though it actually has far less to do with them, as mothers, and everything to do with the maturity and development of their sons. This emotional separation can manifest itself in several ways; a decline in public displays of affection, a surging interest in more physical sports or activities, the desire for more privacy, dressing in a more individual style…etc. Many times the young man will show interest in hobbies or activities that they know the mother would not like or even approve of. As long as these activities are not immoral or illegal this is actually a healthy pursuit. Young men are simply attempting to forge their own identity, apart from their mothers. It’s not that boys suddenly hate their mothers or want to discard them permanently. It’s just that, for a boy to feel strong and capable, he must start to make his own way, in gradual steps. Mothers who fear this and react harshly to it or grasp for greater control will usually make the situation far worse than it has to be.
I always compare a teenage boy to a bar of soap in this regard. The tighter you grab a bar of soap the more likely it will slip out of your hands. The same is true during this period of development for a young man. If a mother feels threatened by his sudden movement towards independence and tries to tighten her grip on controlling him, the more likely he will work to elude her grasp. It also increases the likelihood of conflict between the two. Again, I’m not talking about letting a teenage boy do whatever he likes. A mother must still set healthy boundaries around behavior that may be immoral or illegal. However, to interfere with a young man’s healthy attempts to be his “own man” will only undermine the relationship a mother has with her son.
The effects of “smothering mothering” on a boy can be very destructive:

1. POOR SELF-ESTEEM: When a young man is not allowed to branch out and test his strength against the world he will begin to doubt that strength and this negatively affects his sense of masculinity and view of self.
2. REBELLIOUS/AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR: If mom resists his desire to establish himself, a son will often resort to extremes in proving to himself and everyone else (including mom) that he WILL be his own person and he is NOT under her thumb anymore. This is when boys often get involved in drugs, promiscuous sex, or aggression; cultural caricatures of masculinity and also behaviors that will shock mom and show her that they are their own person.
3. EXCESSIVE PASSIVITY: This is the other end of the spectrum. Some guys will become overly compliant and become the “perfect” child. Yet, internally they are a mess; not believing in themselves, becoming overly dependent, and will struggle to become motivated and independent in the future. This might appease mom but these guys are often seething with internal anger that comes out as passive-aggression.
4. RESENTMENT TOWARDS MOTHER/HARM TO RELATIONSHIP: If the dynamics between mother and son are not addressed it can lead to severe problems between the two of them that might not be repaired for years. As long as the mother stands between her son and his perception of becoming a man, she becomes his antagonist instead of his inspiration.
5. DELAYED DEVELOPMENT/MATURITY: Boys that are not encouraged to sprout their “wings” are often delayed in their emotional maturity as well as their ability to make good life decisions. If a mother is overprotective and smothering then the young man is delayed in developing the skills he needs for life. Many times the mother enables a young man’s immaturity only to then use this fact against him when she is angry. Young men in this situation often become the classic “underachievers.” Ironically, these mothers often chastise their sons for not being more driven and motivated when they have created an environment for dependence.
6. NARCISSISM: My mentor once told me that if you showed him a boy who was growing up in a home where he was never empowered to do much and, at the same time, was told he deserved everything, that boy would be a budding narcissist. On the outside a narcissist seems arrogant, cocky, and that he believes he can do anything. Internally, however, most narcissists feel very insecure and have a poor self-esteem. They DO feel entitled, however, and this is a bad combination. If a mother never empowers a young man to develop and use his skills; if she tramples his sense of strength and masculinity by smothering him, yet pampers him and dotes on him all the time, she may be setting the stage for narcissistic attitudes to develop.
So moms, be careful. Your son MUST be allowed to take healthy steps towards independence as he hits the 15-20 year range. In fact, as difficult as it will be for you, you must encourage him to reach out and test himself. If he fails then, by all means, be there for him but don’t wound his masculine pride by babying him too much. This stage is perhaps the trickiest for mothers to navigate and yet it is an ultra-important part of a young man’s development.
But because I know this time is excruciating for many moms, here are some words of advice for you:

• Be proactive in developing your own identity: This stage is hard for many moms because much of their own identity has been wrapped up in their sons. When their boys begin pulling away, it feels as if they are losing themselves in the process. Moms…..take this opportunity to allow your own separate identity to evolve. Its okay……really!
• Be the wind beneath his wings: Instead of resisting your son’s move towards independence, embrace it and support him in it. You will have to let go of control but you can remain connected with him by being his biggest cheerleader. Don’t try to control him…but stay a part of his life.
• Respect his need for separation: Kiss him all you want at home but don’t be too hurt if he high-fives you in front of his friends. Remember….IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.
• Don’t be the scapegoat: If you hinder every decisions your son makes because you know it’s a bad one….WHEN HE FAILS (and he will) he will blame it on you for interfering. Don’t play that role. Instead, even when you know he’s making a mistake, give him plenty of rope to hang himself so that, when he does, he is forced to look in the mirror for blame. This is the quickest way for him to mature and to learn how to make better decisions. By shielding him from the pain and sting of mistakes, you actually severely hinder his maturity.
• REMEMBER, IT’S NOT FOREVER: If you handle this right and don’t create a huge chasm in your relationship, your son will draw near to you again in no time. After a few years of proving himself, he won’t feel such a drive to separate from you and will come back around. If you encouraged his move towards independence and supported him even through failures and mistakes, he will come back to you far more quickly than if you fought against him.
Moms, you have the toughest job in the world. You raise your sons, loving them, nurturing them and they love you for it…until this season of their lives, when they begin to push away. Don’t panic. This is normal and healthy for them. It is also normal and healthy for you. If your sons are little, enjoy them, pamper them, nurture them…but be prepared for the years ahead. If your son is a teen, I hope this article helps you to navigate through such dangerous waters.
Remember, smothering mothering backfires on you. Let them breathe…and watch them grow.


Aaron Welch is a licensed mental health counselor, nationally certified counselor and certified sex offender treatment specialist. He strives to fight for the hearts of his clients and empower them to build a legacy that impacts the world. He is part of a team of experts at “The Lifeworks Group, Inc”. For more information about Aaron or Lifeworks, please visit www.lifeworksgroup.org or www.legacycounselingservices.org

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