Mental health

Anatomy of an Estranged Family

Estranged Family

This psychologically thrilling article empowers the disenchanted to better grasp the emotional dysfunction.

Root Cause of Familial Dysfunction

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Is your living mother dead to you? Most children adore their mothers. To such ones, this question is despicable or off-putting. The majority may say, ‘Shame on you if you don’t love the person who brought you into this world.’

But there is a subset of the population that characterizes its family relationships as dysfunctional—71 percent of 343 polled. Much of the frustration lies in not knowing why occasions to bond are so difficult.

People often know when they have a dysfunctional family but they are less likely to understand why. Having relatives that manifest dead mother complex (DMC) can ruin family dinners, reunions, and elderly caregiving. How can you tell if DMC is sabotaging your interactions?

Inviting everyone for a “family portrait” at a therapist’s office as an intervention won’t go over well. The subterfuge will become immediately apparent. Multiple private sessions are necessary to detangle everyone’s issues. Despite an array of symptomatic outcomes, there are a couple of clues (also present in other disorders) that estrangement is just the tip of the iceberg:

  1. A lack of love or inability to properly express it.
  2. Familial interactions are an impetus for passive-aggressive behavior.

This is a poignant topic about a rare counter-nurture disorder that wreaks havoc on families who for decades remain in the dark regarding what’s causing their alexithymic dysfunction.

The purpose of this discussion is not to diagnose or treat DMC. Rather, the goal is to express understanding and shed light on this dark secret so families can be motivated to seek appropriate understanding and support.

This psychologically thrilling article empowers the disenchanted to better grasp the emotional dysfunction affecting families perhaps not too different from their own.

Generational Issue

As concise as the term "dead mother” complex (or syndrome) is, it is packed with powerful symbolism. The adjective “dead” is figurative since the mother can be alive. If she had not been, certain behaviors under discussion would have manifested before she passed away. The words “dead” and “mother” convey diametrically opposed emotions. The inanimate corpse cannot interact with an animated nurturing maternal figure.

People have used hurtful words for centuries. Three thousand years ago, a King used contrasting thought poetry to compare a wise man’s healing tongue with someone speaking thoughtlessly or rashly like the piercings of a sword.

Having the goal of eliciting emotional pain or placating personal retribution, some children have told their mothers, “I didn't ask to be born” (as if anyone has) or “I wish you were dead.”

After mentioning a popular singer of the 1990s, a millennial responded, “He’s dead.” Following an expression of shock, the youth clarified, “Not really, dead, but dead, dead.” (Did that clear things up for you?) “You’re dead to me” has become a signature response on a popular reality show when a business deal is rejected.

You’re dead to me” can sometimes be triggered by a relatively minor event that could be overcome with an apology and forgiveness; it has become a colloquial expression signifying an individual is unfriended, ignored or unpopular.

DMC goes deeper. From the perspective of the patient, the mother may be perceived as someone with “a permanent characterological deficit”—who does not deserve love or consideration. In other patients, it may be possible to recover memories of a period when the mother was emotionally unavailable.

The Dead Mother book

Dead mother complex is a clinical condition introduced in 1980 by the late prolific author and French psychoanalyst André Green (1927–2012). This article is a synopsis of multiple psychoanalysts’ comments about Green’s work compiled within the book by Gregorio Kohon entitled, The Dead Mother: The Work of Andre Green.

DMC involves an early and destructive identification with the figure of a ‘dead’—or rather depressed and emotionally unavailable—mother. A traumatic event leads a mother—and subsequently with transference, offspring—to suppress or distort natural feelings of fondness and nurturing. This can lead to anything from loneliness and depression to precociousness or hurtful aspersions. Unchecked aberrant behavior can cycle through generations. (Figure 1)

By André Green’s definition, dead mother “syndrome” is the cause, “a malignant clinical presentation, where there is a primary identification with the emotionally dead mother’—the result of an ‘absence of a prolonged affective interaction.’” Dead mother “complex” is the effect—“the result of an ‘absence of a prolonged affective interaction’” (Gregorio Kohon, p. 7) or “entire range of an individual’s response to a chronically depressed, emotionally absent mother.” (Arnold H.Modell, p. 77) This article will be primarily referring to “complex” or DMC—the effect.

Green judiciously used the term imago to refer to the patient’s construction or internal representation of the mother, which is not necessarily equivalent to the memory of the historical mother. We are talking about serious mommy issues.

‘Nothing’ Bothers You

DMC offspring might not be shouting: “My mother is dead” from the rooftops. The main observable consequence is a cold, hard, unfeeling kernel. A person may appear callous, insensitive, or socially detached in typically emotional situations. ‘Blankness’ is a category defined by Green as negative hallucination, blank psychosis, and blank mourning connected to ‘the problem of emptiness, or of the negative in clinical practice.’ (Gregorio Kohon, p. 3) Such individuals find it difficult to shed a tear and may not be able to filter hurtful remarks with or without intended malice.

The perception of a love void is worthlessness. Children mask the numbness in different ways. ‘It is better to have a cruel unloving mother rather than no mother at all.’ Others psychologically replace the actual mother with an imaginary one (imago) to avoid psychosis. (André Lussier, p. 157)

Depression Impression

What type of traumatic events could lead to parental detachment? Often it is the result of a mother who is physically present but emotionally or internally absent due to depression, death of someone close, or ‘by a deception which inflicts a narcissistic wound.’ (Green defines narcissism as fundamental resistance to analysis.) The mother’s depression might be caused by the recollection of repressed abuse.

A chemical dependency may develop for any number of reasons or the mother could be predisposed to psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. A massive arsenal of defensive measures that may include aggressively hostile behavior toward children might mask her depression. A child can perceive an emotional chasm as a result of a parent’s emotional detachment, divorce, absenteeism, or abandonment. (Figure 2)

The term maternal deprivation is a catchphrase summarizing the early work of British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby on the effects of separating infants and young children from their mother in an institutionalized setting. Dead mother complex is more concerned with the effects of emotional parental detachment while physically present.

Children of convicts are displaced through institutionalization, foster care, or upbringing with relatives. This forces a child to either withdraw or mature rapidly. There is debate over whether details about parental incarceration should be shared with children. Providing children with reliable, dependable information allows them to begin to make sense of their situation and start the dual processes of grieving the loss of their parent and coping with their new life circumstances.

Conversely, there may be very good reasons for censoring details; “family jobs, welfare payments, child custody, and even housing may be jeopardized when others become aware of the parent's whereabouts. However, children of prisoners are more likely to have negative reactions to the experience when they cannot talk about it." —U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Covert sexual abuse or emotional incest involves the indirect yet sexualized, emotional abuse of a child or dependent. While no physical boundaries have been crossed and no direct sexual contact has been perpetrated, the parent or parents willingly enlist the emotional support of the child in healing his/her own unmet adult needs. In turn, the child becomes the confidant or emotional spouse of a same-sex or opposite-sex parent. By contrast, overt sexual abuse speaks to the direct sexual contact and exploitation of a dependent person/victim by caregivers or authority figures.

Civil strife notwithstanding, every day more reports surface about horrific upbringing from which children must emerge. Comorbid emotional trauma from a concealed deception can further complicate DMC. Imagine possible effects on an adolescent discovering an incestuous conception, emotional incest, or a polygamous marriage.

Attempted or actual (sexual) abuse from a relative or family friend can shatter childhood trust. Many emotional problems may emerge from the abuse, including the inability to trust, perfectionism, phobias, and avoidance of both intimacy and emotional bonding. (Figure 3)

Father complex in psychology (informally: daddy issues) is a complex group of unconscious associations or strong unconscious impulses that pertains to the image or archetype of the father. These impulses, according to Mary Ann Mattoon may be either positive (admiring and seeking out older father figures) or negative (distrusting or fearful). According to Green, ‘more often than not’ a distant mother is accompanied by an absent father (who refuses or does not know how to respond to the child).

Lack of self-worth and sexually aberrant behaviors can result as a child overcompensates for the void of maternal affection. Though a range of emotions is possible, DMC causes an attachment disorder—a broad term that describes disorders of mood, behavior, and social relationships arising from a failure to form normal attachments to primary caregiving figures in early childhood.

Anatomy of an estranged family
Figure 3. Mother’s depression leads to emotional detachment reciprocated by a child.

It is not uncommon that in the first and second year of life, mothers could be depressed and emotionally unavailable to their children, and this does not necessarily lead to a primary identification with this depressed mother. One compensatory outcome of DMC is that “the child may choose to become the opposite of the mother. In response to the mother’s absence, the child does not attempt to recapture the mother’s love, but develops a compensatory hypersensitivity, claiming instead that he or she needs nothing from the mother.” (Arnold H.Modell, p. 85)

Intellectual Assassination

Loss of love for the child produces a psychological catastrophe. With DMC, filling the emotional hole results in a symbolic act of ‘murder,’ but the primary object (mother) ‘is killed without hatred.’ The maternal affliction prohibits actual aggressive expression. To “survive a life without meaning, the child might develop a compulsion to imagine and/or a compulsion to think.” (Gregorio Kohon, p. 3)

Hence, there is transference by decathecting and compensating through the (desire or) achievement of intellectual development and/or artistic creativity—craving recognition for real or imagined superior accomplishments. According to Ferenczi, children develop wisdom beyond their years in response to adults’ inability to satisfy their needs. (Figure 4)

Young precociousness seems adorable in some settings but inappropriately awkward in others—particularly when disrespectful or sexual (differing from precocious puberty, relating to premature anatomical development). A child who either converses with adults as peers or, when still a child, takes on parental responsibilities might be praised for maturity—‘age 9 going on 30.’

As a child grows into the age where adult responsibilities are the norm, precocious hyperachievement can either catch up with DMC or continue to outpace peers and produce unanticipated reactions. Others may feel intimidated—perhaps characterizing persons with DMC as know-it-alls, haughty or narcissistic.

Superlative goals can lead to workaholism, depersonalization, alcohol abuse, and risk-taking behaviors. Despite outward appearances of intelligence or material success, internal love and the pleasure of simply being alive, are often lacking from those with DMC.

Many people do not say “I love you" because they were not taught how to express emotions. Parents and influential adults model emotions for children. When these children grow up, they may struggle with expressing love in many ways, including saying, “I love you.”

Long-term Effects on Children

Summarizing what has been covered, the dead mother is a concept that refers to an imago which has been constituted in the child’s mind, following maternal depression, brutally transforming a living object, which was a source of vitality for the child, into a distant figure that is toneless and practically inanimate.

DMC often produces a mirror-like generational cycle. However, since everyone’s mind is wired differently, aberrance following the second depression, or ‘dead child’ can have a broad range of behavioral outcomes, some of which could be deemed coping mechanisms:

  1. Inability to properly express love
  2. Loneliness and clinical depression
  3. Emotional blankness
  4. Attachment disorder
  5. Inability to nurture close relationships
  6. Intellectual or creative precociousness
  7. Depersonalization disorder
  8. Compensatory hypersexuality or thrill addiction
  9. Malevolent behavior
  10. Yielding to domination, exploitation and humiliation
  11. Compulsive behaviors

There may be a preference for isolation—seeking employment that involves telecommuting or inadvertently sabotaging job opportunities that require frequent collegial interaction. The isolation may not bring about joy but provides a barrier to the comfort lacking in social settings, which illuminates emotional deficiencies.

Transference can occur in many forms of complex relationships with a mother figure. (Harold and Maude, 1971) Extrapolating a generational iteration, imagine a ‘dead child’ grows up and marries a surrogate mother figure. Because of separate issues, the mate is unable to fill the void of affection. How might this dilemma be characterized? Dead mother-mate complex? (Figure 5)

Compassion Compunction

It has been said that DMC remains one of the most difficult therapeutic problems that an analyst can encounter. (Arnold H. Modell, p. 78) Perceptions of the parent’s transgressions are magnified as a byproduct of the attachment disorder. Memories of a mother’s expressions of affection and the child’s cathexis with her before the effects of the traumatic “death” may either be repressed or exaggerated.

The analysis proceeds from the most superficial layers to the very deep. Initial work on the characterological depressive structure, for instance, will expose a depression with many faces or meanings; the patient feels depressed but for a long time remains unaware of his unconscious identification with his depressed mother. (André Lussier, p. 152)

Weddings, funerals, major health problems, or caregiving for an aged parent can signal the need for family members to put aside differences for the sake of compassionate dialog. Such important occasions can be catalysts for passive-aggressive behaviors.

Anticipating real or imagined ‘drama’ or the feeling that the recipient is undeserving triggers avoidance among estranged family members. This results in hurt feelings over the unequal distribution of responsibilities. The avoidance or voluntary estrangement that is perceived as bitterness may be a manifestation of inert decathexis or emotional protection mechanism.

Social isolation is a growing epidemic. Lonely people are more likely to perceive ambiguous social cues negatively, and enter a self-preservation mindset—worsening the problem. About one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.

Moving Forward Through Gloom

Coping With Dysfunctional Families

With a distorted perception of love, reliving an embellished or redacted past with hopes of reconciliation is not a motivating factor for patients. By the time offspring seek treatment, remediation may be implausible due to deeply ingrained perceptions or the actual death of the parent.

By reconstructing childhood experiences, an analyst runs the risk of becoming the object of negative transference—the target of depression or aggression. So attention might be directed towards building balanced self-esteem within a neutral transitional space.

Psychoanalyst Arnold H.Modell posits “there is a significant difference between those individuals who remain open to new experience and those who remain prisoners of the past.”

Constructing “alternative inner worlds of the imagination that will effectively remove them from the impingement of a traumatizing relation with the mother” with free-floating metaphors is an alternative therapy—a safe space for dialog without overt attempts to repair the dysfunctional relationship. (p. 86)

During Christopher Bollas sessions with Antonio recorded in the book The Dead Mother (pp. 96–99), fond memories of his childhood life and house until age 4 were finely detailed. Then, ‘the family moved from Sicily to England, where they lived a joyless life of poverty. This event profoundly altered the family; each member nursed a private devastation. Antonio’s parents collapsed along with him in response to the event, which then assumed its priority over them.’

“The child who has been disturbed by an event [like] that too early in life sets him to hating his parents for it, [and] casts himself into a very anguishing form of hell… People who feel they are mutationally changed rather than psychodevelopmentally evolved convey this sense of fatedness by creating a curious atmosphere around themselves, achieved through odd gestures, idiosyncratic movements, and curious verbalisations of their states of mind… It is not surprising that individuals like Antonio who have suffered from the events of a life are deeply wary of any subsequent change, even if it is theoretically for the better.” (Christopher Bollas, p. 99)

The Dead Mother: The Work of Andre Green, 1999 by Gregorio Kohon is a compilation of metaphorical theories, hyperbolic philosophies, theatrical interviews, and sessions by multiple analysts primarily benefiting other therapists. As it forms the primary basis for this DMC discussion, you may desire to obtain a copy in hardcover or paperback from If you prefer to read on a mobile device or save a few bucks, a PDF download is available from with subscription.

Brené Brown, social researcher and storyteller conveys a realization of the need for therapy.

Reinforcing The Need For Nurturing

DMC is a statistically rare theory. Though it has decades of clinical support, it should not be freely applied to every family anomaly. Erik Erikson’s (German, 1902–1994) eight stages of psychosocial development is a complementary theory that propounds the need for positive social reinforcement to affect proper character development. The commonality is found in the following partially quoted stages:

  • Psychosocial Stage 4 - Industry vs. Inferiority (age 5 to 11): Children who are encouraged and commended by parents and teachers develop a feeling of competence and belief in their skills. Those who receive little or no encouragement from parents, teachers, or peers will doubt their abilities to be successful.
  • Psychosocial Stage 5 - Identity vs. Confusion (teenage years): Those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement through personal exploration will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and a feeling of independence and control. Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will feel insecure and confused about themselves and the future.
  • Psychosocial Stage 6 - Intimacy vs. Isolation (early adulthood): Erikson believed that a strong sense of personal identity was important for developing intimate relationships. Studies have demonstrated that those with a poor sense of self tend to have less committed relationships and are more likely to suffer emotional isolation, loneliness, and depression.

One of the strengths of psychosocial theory is that it provides a broad framework from which to view development throughout the entire lifespan. Erikson’s theory is limited by the absence of specificity in the type of experiences necessary at each stage to successfully resolve the conflicts and move to the next stage.

If you have grown up with all the proper social interaction, this article should impress the need for nurturing and commending your children. As the product of a well-adjusted family, what if you encounter those who express a disconnection with their mother? The insight presented should quell the notion of an easy fix—perhaps shaming or guilting them into rekindling absent emotions.

When familial interactions resemble dead mother complex, obtaining therapy from a qualified spiritual and/or mental health professional may help family relationships to be A Bit More Healthy. Those feeling too vulnerable to go down this path may benefit from the TED Talk by Brené Brown, where she shares the defining moment of a therapist’s realization of the need for personal therapy.

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To support the writing of useful articles about mental health, ClinicalPosters sells human anatomy charts, scientific posters, and other products online. You may sponsor specific articles or remit a small donation.

ClinicalPosters sells human anatomy charts, scientific posters, and other products online to offset expense of the writing useful articles about mental health. Slide extra posters into DeuPair Frames without removing from the wall.

ClinicalPosters sells human anatomy charts, scientific posters, and other products online. You may remit a small donation.

You can support the writing of useful articles about mental health by sponsoring specific articles or remitting a small donation. Visible content is optimized for device size.

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