In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal ( ‘I’m Not Your Little Baby!’ Calling a Truce in Mother-Daughter Conflict, 4.24.12), columnist Elizabeth Bernstein examines the lifelong friction between mothers and daughters. The following is an excerpt.
It’s common for mother-daughter relations to be stormy in the daughter’s teen years. But why do mothers and daughters continue to push one another’s buttons well into adulthood?
Some moms never stop nudging. It was their job for many years, after all. Although it is usually well-intentioned, it also is a way for them to get attention from their adult daughters. When daughters won’t listen, mothers feel powerless—and then nudge even more.
Mothers may place unrealistic and at times conflicting expectations on their daughters. They want their daughters to do things they didn’t get to do, but they also want their daughters to be like them. They want their daughters to respect them, and they want them to be a friend.
Daughters, meanwhile, tend to be very sensitive to mom’s input. They think she is being rude or doesn’t respect them as an adult. Underneath, they fear they’ve failed the one person they have been seeking approval from since before they could speak.
The conflict usually starts when the daughter hits adolescence and begins to rebel against authority. A natural break should occur between adolescence and adulthood, where the mother allows her daughter to grow up and make her own decisions. Some mothers, however, see their daughters as extension of themselves and have trouble letting go. And daughters, for their part, are often reluctant to set boundaries.
Some ideas to help mothers and daughters improve their relationship.
- Daughters, when you speak to your mother, speak as an adult. Remind yourself that you are not 10 years old and always in trouble, and remind your mother, too. (‘It’s interesting you always think I am late. I haven’t been late since 1974.’) Hear what your mother is saying at face value, not through the filter of the past.
- Tell your mom how you do things. Explain that you will ask for her advice if you need it.
- Don’t lie to your mom. It puts distance between you. And she always finds out: She has eyes in the back of her head— remember?
- Mothers, ask your daughter, ‘What do you need help with?’ Don’t assume you know. ‘Asking is the most important thing that the mom can do, because it gives credibility to the daughter as an adult,’ says Mikki Meyer, a marriage and family therapist.
- Tell your daughter what your mother was like. Share how she treated you and how it made you feel. ‘This is very interesting for the daughter to hear,’ Dr. Meyer says.
- Ask, ‘What are we are really fighting about?’ Does your daughter feel disrespected? Is Mom mad that you never call? Discuss what is really wrong.
- Examine your contribution to the problem. Are you passive-aggressive? Overreacting? Passing blame? Accept responsibility.
- Explain your anger; don’t show it. Better yet, leave it at the door. ‘You can pick it up on the way out,’ says Lisa Brateman, a licensed clinical social worker and family therapist.
- Be willing to be vulnerable. Say, ‘The tension is upsetting me. I miss you.’
- Find something fun and mutually satisfying to do together instead of succumbing to the negative pattern. Art? Hiking? Antiquing? Couples who try new activities together are happier. It can be true of moms and daughters, too.
- Imagine a satisfying relationship. ‘You can only have it if you can picture it in some way,’ Ms. Brateman says.