Untying the Mother-Daughter Knot

file8921282615452“It can be the best of relationships and the worst of relationships–often at the same time. The bond between a mother and daughter is one of the strongest, but it’s also among the most complicated.” -Deborah Tannen


A family of four comes in for counseling–a mom and dad and their two teenage daughters. Although the dad has always been very involved in the girls’ lives, coaching their soccer team, involved in carpools and homework–all the emotional tension revolves around mom. Dad can say almost anything in the session but mom has merely to glance at one of the girls and her daughter erupts in anger. Why is this such a familiar scene?

In another family seeking help for the alcohol abuse of their young adult daughter, mom gets all of the blame. The sad truth is that without mom’s intuitive sense that something was deeply wrong and her broken-record insistence on intervention, the daughter might not have gotten the help that she desperately needed before it was too late. But it’s mom she’s angry at.

I have hundreds of stories just like this. Often the underlying family dynamic when a child or teen is struggling with behavior problems, depression, substance abuse, or any of a dozen symptoms, is a fractured parenting team. When the two parents are not on the same page when it comes to discipline, mixed messages get sent. Kids learn, whether consciously or not, to play one parent off the other. Both parents are equally responsible for this pattern of behavior. Why do moms take so much of the heat?

The Role of Gender in Family Relationshipsfile0002105504188

There are separate but powerful dynamics at work when you look through the lens of gender. Although all of the relationships in a family are important, there are particular unique issues that arise between mothers and daughters. (The same is true for fathers and sons but we will save that for a future blog). What’s going on in the mother-daughter relationship?

Relationships between mothers and daughters typically heat up when the daughter enters puberty, often remaining intense until long after the daughter leaves home. That’s because the primary task of adolescence and young adulthood is to develop a core sense of personal identity. This is often done through the teen’s insistence on (and demonstrations of) the differences between herself and her mother. Another major but normal shift is the desire for more time spent away from the family, wanting to be with peers instead. Mothers can feel deeply rejected by their daughter’s normal move towards independence.

file0001607499305Increased Conflict May Not Be All Bad

In practical terms, this leads to lots of upset feelings for both moms and daughters. Bickering can be a daily occurrence during adolescence. The frustrated, hurt and confused moms that I talk to feel like they have been punched in the stomach. Their precious daughter who used to be kind and loving has turned overnight into an unpredictable sea of emotions. I can number in the thousands the mothers’ lament, “I can’t say or do anything right!” Painful indeed, but a true indicator that your daughter is well on her way to figuring out who she is, what she values, and who she wants to be.

Arguing does not mean the relationship is ruined or even that there is a serious problem. The vast majority of teens go through this turbulent passage without serious mishap. If, on the other hand, you see warning signs of serious problems, seek the help of a family therapist. A big part of why moms and daughters do so much bickering is because talking typically plays a larger role in women’s relationships. Go to any school playground and you will see most of the boys running around, playing ball and other games, and girls talking to each other in two’s and three’s. Talking–including arguing–is an indication of caring.

Too Close for Comfort

Another reason why the mother-daughter relationship gets dicey comes paradoxically from the closeness of the bond. Many teens describe how much they expect from their moms–like to know magically how they feel or what they are thinking. By the time girls reach puberty, they’ve spent countless hours in conversations with their moms, recounting details of every little part of their day and how they felt about it. When their mom is critical of them–about who their friends are, where they are going, what they are doing–they feel judged and betrayed. As they move towards developing their own independent sense of self, they start to share less with mom and more with friends.

But hope should not be lost. Once the daughter feels more confident about the woman she has become, mothers and daughters get close again. Typically adult mothers and daughters talk far more often than mothers and sons or fathers and daughters. The relationship can still be fraught with danger, however.

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Research done by Deborah Tannen on the conversations between adult mothers and daughters found that the complaint she heard most often from adult women about their mothers was that their mom was always criticizing them. On the flip side, mothers complained about how daughters take everything as criticism. What a mother sees as helpful or caring advice, the daughter reads as an attempt to control or change her. Tannen nicknamed the topics about which daughters complained that mothers gave the most unappreciated advice “The Big Three,” namely hair, clothing and weight.

Giving any input, let alone criticism or judgment on these topics is likely to set off arguments or trigger hurt feelings–even between adult daughters and moms. So if you have a daughter, it might be helpful to stop giving unsolicited advice on these topics. Even if she does looks better in the red dress than the green one, or with her hair pulled back rather than in her eyes, first ask yourself the question: Do you want to be right or do you want to be close? They are often mutually exclusive options.



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  1. rANJANA says:

    Thanks for such an insightful and useful article. What you say in this article is so true and so universal. Although you may have written it from a Western perspective, it holds true even for me–an Indian mother living in India with two daughters.

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