"Normal Mother-Daughter Relationships" and the Misconceptions About Child Abuse

Claudia Conway’s accusations against her mother have opened discussions about the many forms child abuse can take.

Parental Abuse Doesn't Always Look Like You Think It Does
Photo: Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images

It's hard to know what to make of Claudia Conway's TikToks — in which she sometimes seems frantic, accusing her parents of abuse — simply because none of her allegations have been verified and the general public is in no position to diagnose anyone with anything.

But the accusations escalated last week, when a topless photo of 16-year-old Claudia surfaced in a Fleet apparently posted from Kellyanne Conway's Twitter account. Claudia confirmed the photo was real in a since-deleted TikTok. Later in the day, Claudia made another video, which her father posted to his own Twitter account, saying that she was OK, and she and her mother were just fighting like normal mothers and daughters do. In her last post Claudia said she thought her mom's account was probably hacked. InStyle's efforts to reach the Conways for comment were unsuccessful, though Kellyanne told CNBC reporters "I have no comment" when asked about the photo.

Whatever the facts may be, this very public dust-up naturally leads one to wonder about the stereotypes we tend to associate with abuse, versus the reality of it — especially when it comes to mothers and emotional abuse. The phrase "child abuse" on its own conjures images of physical violence, and the topic of emotional abuse calls to mind buzzwords often associated with men such as narcissism and gaslighting.

These unconscious cultural associations obscure the reality of child abuse, that it is not always physical, that mothers can be manipulators and narcissists just as men can, and that it is sometimes very hard to spot.

Mothers and daughters are expected to fight, and to a certain extent mothers are even expected to make passive-aggressive or overly critical comments. But no one usually views this as abusive, it's just, you know, my mom.

Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships between adolescents and parents, says "subtle emotional abuse" is one way a mother might be inflicting distress without the child, or the outside world, realizing it. She may verbally slut-shame — "What you're wearing is really disgusting" — or make disparaging remarks about body size — "Maybe you should wait to lose 10 pounds before you wear those pants."

While there's no evidence to suggest that there's a difference in how mothers abuse daughters versus sons, gendered insults that weaponize misogyny are certainly common. The patriarchy has taught us that if there's one thing a woman can always fail at, it is being a woman, and mothers know better than anyone where a gendered insult is most sure to land. Generations upon generations of ever-shrinking women whose mothers called them fat can attest to this fact. Women also shame their daughters for any sort of misbehavior — staying out too late, getting a nose ring, smoking weed — by predicting they'll soon end up pregnant.

What is extremely uncommon, Greenberg said, is to see a mother sexually shame a daughter by posting an inappropriate photo on the internet. "I've just never encountered that," she said. "It's more characteristic of a peer-to-peer relationship." (Though she believes that her mother was hacked, Claudia said in her earlier, now-deleted video that she suspected her mom had saved the photo "to use against me one day.") InStyle has been unable to reach any of the Conway family members for comment.

Emotional abuse can, of course, also take the form of loud or aggressive beratement, culturally typified by an angry, raging father. "Every parent loses their cool and says mean things along the way and then are sorry for it," Greenberg said. "But when it's a chronic pattern is when it's clearly labeled as a problem."

In one of the more disturbing videos Claudia posted to her TikTok, she cut together several short clips that appeared to show Kellyanne berating her, calling her a "bitch," and saying "You're lucky your mom is pro-life," as well as hitting her at one point. Those scenes have not been independently verified.

It is dangerous to make assumptions of this magnitude based solely on social media, but taken at face value, the picture of abuse the video illustrates is reflective of what childhood abuse survivors report experiencing themselves.

"Claudia Conway's videos remind me exactly of the way my ex-stepfather spoke to me for 18 years. Twelve years later, I'm just beginning to unravel that trauma," one person wrote on Twitter.

Emotional and psychological abuse can take various forms, but it is commonly accompanied by specific manipulation tactics like gaslighting or isolation. While society is just beginning to better understand how these tactics work, they are rarely discussed in the context of child abuse. But emotionally abusive people will exhibit the same kinds of behaviors no matter the nature of the relationship. So while a romantic partner might use isolation to keep their partner separate from their friends or family, an abusive parent might forbid a child from discussing family matters with anyone outside the household.

One classic example of gaslighting — wherein an abuser causes a victim to doubt their own reality — often cited by professionals is of a cheating partner calling a woman "crazy" for suspecting them of infidelity. Already the word "crazy" sets up a well-rehearsed gender dynamic — men have accused women of insanity as a means of control and punishment for centuries — but manipulative boyfriends have not cornered the market on gaslighting.

A mother who uses this tactic might use phrases like, "I know you better than you know yourself," which causes a child to doubt their sense of self and feelings. An absent parent who is more interested in their own work or social life might rebuff their child's requests for attention by insisting, "I do everything for you" Greenberg said. "That sounds like a guilt trip, but it's also gaslighting if the parents are unavailable." It makes the child think their parent is ignoring them in order to care for them, delegitimizing their real feelings of neglect.

Emotional abuse is also often associated with narcissism, which is another trait most commonly attributed to men, while women are more often viewed as victims. "There's plenty of narcissistic mothers. They do a lot of damage because they have kids who then grow up feeling like they're not good," Greenberg said. "And the reason these parents put their kids down so much is because these kids are reflections of them, and that infuriates them that their kids are not the best."

Men are also more likely to be associated with the second "under the radar" type of abuse named by Greenberg: emotional neglect. For example: "A child comes home from school every day, clearly distressed and starts to have trouble sleeping. And the parent ignores it and doesn't inquire." Cue distracted dad momentarily glancing up from his newspaper. Greenberg stressed that she's not referring to the kind of neglect wherein a parent fails to feed and clothe their child, she's talking about a lack of curiosity and emotional support that every child needs from their parents.

It's not that society doesn't believe that mothers can be abusive as well as fathers can, it's that we associate the specific nature of abuse with masculine behavior. Whatever is going on in the Conway home, whatever the relationship between Claudia and her mother and her father, her posts are a clear red flag. They are also an opportunity to look more closely at the child abuse we see and the child abuse we miss.

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