How to Navigate Tricky Mother-Daughter Relationships

Common Problems and Common-Sense Solutions

mother and adult daughter conflict
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"Grown don't mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What's that suppose to mean? In my heart it don't mean a thing." --From Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Mother-in-law relationships may get all the press, and the jokes, but mother-daughter conflict is all too common. Many times the root of the conflict is the mother whose heart does not recognize that a daughter is "grown." When a mother fails to acknowledge her daughter's adulthood, a family rift can occur.

Family rifts that are not repaired can lead to grandparents being estranged from their grandchildren, once children are born. Avoiding conflict is almost always better than repairing it. Understanding some of the common causes of conflict is the first step.

Moving in Different Directions

The Problem: An adult daughter is moving toward independence; thus the primary movement is away from the mother. The mother sometimes experiences this as a loss and makes efforts to draw her daughter back. In attempting to keep the mother-daughter connection alive, the mother may ask questions that the daughter sees as intrusive, or give advice, which the daughter interprets as interfering. Deborah Tannen, author of numerous books on family dynamics, writes, "Given mothers' overactive improvement glands and daughters' overactive disapproval sensors, mother-daughter is a high-risk relationship." 

The Solution: Whenever possible, mothers should express confidence in their daughter's choices.

This is a hard step for mothers for several reasons. First, it's hard to let go of the conviction that mother knows best. In fact, mothers who are honest with themselves will admit that they have been wrong on many occasions. Second, most mothers are champion worriers, and it's hard for them to resist the impulse to sound the alarm about some of the dire things that they envision happening.

In fact, there is no way for mothers or anyone else to insulate family members from the possibility of calamity. Life is a risk-taking endeavor. Although one should never endorse careless risks, mothers who are constantly warning of impending disaster are misguided. They also are not much fun to be around.

Overcommunication

The Problem: Female relationships tend to be heavily based on talk, contrasted with male relationships, which often include lots of non-verbal communication and are often predicated on shared activities. Relationships that are based primarily on talk run into difficulties sooner or later, it being human nature to occasionally say something that one shouldn't. "Women tend to talk more, and talk about more personal topics, so this gives us more chance to say the wrong thing," Tannen said.. 

The Solution: Some suggest that mothers and daughters should take a page from the men's book and concentrate on doing things together. Psychotherapist and author Dorothy Firman concurs that sharing activities can "diffuse some tense situations." On the other hand, Firman points out that activities don't always deepen a relationship the way good conversation can.

"But conversation needs to be respectful, careful, based on love and care, and the two people need to discover whether they can take a conversation to a healing place," Firman said. "Too often we get attached to only expressing our side of the story." If conversations end up in hurt or anger, she advises going back to shared activities or dialing down the dialogue.

Overcoming Distance

The Problem: When mothers and daughters are separated by distance, a different set of problems arises. Women communicate best face-to-face, as they tend to be skilled at picking up on tone, body language and other cues. When they have to communicate by phone, email, text and other means, they may experience more misunderstandings as well as a general loss of closeness.

The Solution: There may be no perfect way for mothers and daughters separated by distance to communicate, but some choices are better than others. Facetime and Skype allow users to observe facial expression, body language and voice quality. Whether they are using the phone or a video chat function, wise mothers do a mental run-through before they get started. What are some safe topics of conversation, and what topics should be avoided?

Written communication has some advantages over talk, as one's message can be more carefully framed. Tannen advises caution with email: "You can't know how it's going down, and you may be rubbing someone the wrong way, then rubbing it in deeper and deeper." In addition, emails can be saved and brooded over. Texting is the main form of communication for many young women, but it doesn't work well for longer messages. You end up "trading frequency for volubility," according to Tannen, who advises sending lots of photos as a quick way of connecting. Social media like Facebook can also be a good way of staying connected, although Facebook has its own set of dangers.

The Mother as the Chief of Communications

The Problem: In most families, the mother is the primary conduit for disseminating information to family members. Tannen calls the mother the Chief of Communications. That's a mixed blessing, as it means that the mother is likely to be blamed for any misinformation or misunderstandings. In addition, she has to make many crucial decisions about who gets told what, again an area that is ripe for family conflict.

The Solution: If possible, mothers should get other family members to communicate directly without going through her. Mothers can say something like, "Why don't you call your sister yourself? I think she's home right now." Family members who dislike phone conversations may employ texting, email, letters, or Facebook messages.

Some mothers resist giving up the role of Chief Communicator because they enjoy, consciously or unconsciously, the sense of importance that it conveys. "Many women feel that closeness is the Holy Grail of relationships and knowing personal information is a sign of closeness," Tannen said. "Giving up that monopoly can feel distancing, like being left out (the biggest rejection possible for women)." It's important for such individuals to realize that a functional family finds ways to keep all family members involved. If the mother is the only force connecting a family, what happens when she dies? Will the family unit fall apart?

The Threat of Other Relationships

The Problem: Jealousy is an all-too-common human emotion. A mother may not be jealous of her daughter's peers, but may resent a daughter's relationships with her mother-in-law, stepmother, aunt or other older women. Such relationships may be subconsciously perceived as being a threat to the mother-daughter relationship.

The Solution: Awareness of the problem is the first step, but unfortunately one can't dispel jealousy by a simple act of will. On the other hand, it does help to analyze the situation, acknowledge feelings of jealousy and apply logic to the situation. For example, a mother who has learned that a stepmother has received a gift can remind herself of all the gifts she has received in the past and acknowledge that other people deserve to be on the receiving end occasionally.

Learn what happens to the mother-daughter relationship when the daughter becomes a mother, or learn more about the roles women play in extended family conflict.