Mother-daughter relationships are complex and diverse. Some mothers and daughters are best friends. Others talk once a week. Some see each other weekly; others live in different states or countries. Some spar regularly. Some avoid conflict. Others talk through everything. And undoubtedly, there’s a hint of all these things in most relationships.
There also are ups and downs, no matter how positive (or prickly) the relationship. In her private practice, Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D, psychologist and co-author of I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You! A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict, sees three primary complaints that daughters have about their moms: Moms try to parent them and are overly critical and demanding. From moms’ perspective, daughters don’t listen to them, make poor choices and have no time for them.
Whatever your relationship with your mother or daughter, you can always make improvements. Here’s how to enhance your communication and connection and cut down on clashes.
1. Make the first move.
Don’t wait for the other person to make the first move, said Linda Mintle, Ph.D, marriage and family therapist and author of I Love My Mother, But… Practical Help to Get the Most Out of Your Relationship. Doing so inevitably leaves relationships stuck. “Think about how you feel in the relationship and what you can do to change.”
2. Change yourself.
Many think that the only way to improve a relationship is for the other person to change their ways. But you aren’t chained to their actions; you can change your own reactions and responses, Mintle said. Interestingly, this can still alter your relationship. Think of it as a dance, she said. When one person changes their steps, the dance inevitably changes.
3. Have realistic expectations.
Both moms and daughters often have idealistic expectations about their relationship. For instance, kids commonly think their mom will be nurturing and present — always. This idea can develop from an early age. When her kids were young, Mintle found herself setting up this unrealistic belief during their nightly reading time. She’d read a book about a mama bunny who rescued her son every time he ventured out and tried a risky activity, such as sailing or mountain-climbing.
Lack of communication is a common challenge with moms and daughters. “In some ways they can be so close or feel so close that they believe that each of them should know how the other one feels,” Cohen-Sandler said. “What happens as a result is they don’t communicate.” Or they communicate harshly, in ways they’d never “dare speak to everyone else,” which causes hurt feelings that “don’t go away so easily,” she said.
Because moms and daughters aren’t mind readers, be clear and calmly state how you’re feeling. Also, speak your “mind in a very heartfelt but gentle manner.” Is your mom treating you like a child? Simply say, “Mom, you’re not treating me like an adult.”
5. Be an active listener.
Active listening is “reflecting back what the other person is saying,” instead of assuming you already know, Cohen-Sandler said. When you reflect back what your mom or daughter is saying, you’re telling her that she’s being heard and that you understand.
Also, listen “to the feelings underlying the message,” which is often the real message, she said. If “mom says, ‘you’re acting like a doormat,’ the daughter hears that as being horribly critical [and that she’s not good enough], but what the mom is really saying is, ‘I feel so protective of you because you’re not protecting yourself.’”
6. Repair damage quickly.
“One of the key principles in sustaining healthy and satisfying marriages is to repair damage quickly,” Mintle said. Healthy couples don’t avoid conflict. They realize conflict is inevitable and they deal with it head on. This applies to mother and daughter relationships, too, she said.
Not resolving conflict can have surprising consequences. “If you don’t deal with your mom (and dad) by resolving conflict, you’re going to carry those same patterns into your future relationships,” whether that’s with your friends, partner or boss, Mintle said.
“Working it out with your mom,” however, is “the best gift you can give to your daughter,” she said.
But pick your battles. If it’s not that important, “Instead of being in a tug of war, just drop the rope,” Mintle said. Case in point: Years ago, Mintle’s mom told her to put a hat on her baby so she didn’t get sick. Instead of arguing about something so small, Mintle put the hat on and moved on.
7. Put yourself in her shoes.
Mintle refers to empathy as “widening the lens.” She uses the analogy of a digital camera, which just offers us a snapshot. But a panoramic lens provides a much wider view, letting us see the object in a larger context.
If you’re a daughter, think of your mom as a woman with her “own wounds and hurts,” who was born and raised in a different generation with different values and difficult family relationships and issues, Mintle said.
As such, address your mom or daughter’s feelings with empathy and offer a compromise, Cohen-Sandler suggested. If mom really wants to hang out, instead of saying “Stop asking me, you know I’m busy,” say, “I know how much you want to meet with me, and I wish I could but I can’t do it this week; can we do it next week?”
8. Learn to forgive.
Forgiveness is “an individual act,” Mintle said. It differs from reconciliation, which takes both people and isn’t always possible. Forgiving someone isn’t saying that what happened is OK. It’s not condoning, pardoning or minimizing the impact, she said.
Mintle views forgiveness as key for well-being. “I’m constantly telling daughters you have to forgive your mom in order to be healthy.” “The power of forgiveness is really for the person who forgives.”
(On a related note, “the better you can forgive, the better you can repair damage quickly,” Mintle said.)
9. Balance individuality and closeness.
It can be challenging for daughters to build their own identities. Sometimes daughters think that in order to become their own person, they must cut off from their moms, Mintle said. Or, quite the opposite, they’re so fused that they’re unable to make decisions without her input, she said. Both are clearly problematic.
But daughters can find their voices and identities within the relationship. We learn how to deal with conflict and negative emotions through our families, Mintle said. “You don’t grow and develop and become your own person void of relationships.”
So how can you strike a balance between staying connected and still being true to yourself? “You can take any position on any powerful issue and hold your own and not become defensive and angry. It’s this balance of connection and separateness,” Mintle said.
Mintle and her mom had a positive relationship but sometimes struggled with this balance. When Mintle was a well-established professional in her 30s, her mom would still tell her what to do. Every time she’d visit, she’d say, “Linda, it’s getting late, it’s time for you to go to bed.” Mintle recalled being furious with her mom and unloading her frustrations on her husband. Then, she realized that she had to talk to her mom in a different way. The next night her mom said the same thing, Mintle used humor: “Mom, if you hadn’t been there, I probably would’ve stayed up all night.” “I need to back off, don’t I?” her mom responded.
10. Agree to disagree.
Moms and daughters disagree on many topics, such as marriage, parenting and career, and they usually try to convince the other to change those opinions, Cohen-Sandler said. Moms feel threatened and rejected that their daughters are making different decisions. Daughters think their moms disapprove of them and get defensive.
Realize that there are some topics that you’ll never agree on. And that’s OK, she said. In fact, “it’s really healthy for moms and daughters to have major disagreements.” Also, don’t take “something personally that isn’t personal.”
“The bottom line is that moms and daughters can be really close but they’re not the same people. [They’re] allowed to have different interests, goals and ways of handling things.” A daughter doesn’t have to change her choices to please her mom; and mom doesn’t have to change her opinions, either.
11. Stick to the present.
Moms and daughters tend to have “an old argument that runs like a broken record in the background,” Cohen-Sandler said. It becomes their default disagreement. Instead, avoid “bring[ing] up old gripes from the past,” and try to focus on the present.
12. “Use ‘I’ statements, rather than being accusatory,” Cohen-Sandler said.
You might say “I feel this way [or] this is how that makes me feel.” Similarly, avoid “sarcasm and facetiousness.” It’s easily misinterpreted, causes hurt feelings and takes you further away from resolution.
13. Talk about how you want to communicate.
Younger women typically don’t want to talk on the phone, said Cohen-Sandler, who often hears daughters complain that their “moms will call at the worst part of the day for them.”
Instead of harshly dismissing your mom (or ignoring her calls), communicate what works best, such as: “If you want to talk on the phone, the best time is in the morning. But if you want to reach me during the day [with something] more urgent, just text me.”
14. Set boundaries.
Mintle commonly sees clients who regret not trying to repair their relationships with their moms after they’re gone. Even when the relationship is negative or unhealthy, there’s still a powerful bond, she said. One way to ease into reconnecting with your mom (or daughter) is by setting clear-cut boundaries. (Boundaries are key for any healthy relationship.)
For instance, when visiting your mom or daughter for the holidays, stay at a hotel. Let her know your boundaries and the minute she starts crossing them, say that you’re going to leave. If you’re talking over the phone, Mintle gave this example of asserting yourself: “I want to talk to you and keep our relationship going but if you start to call me names or criticize me, I have to hang up the phone because that’s not healthy for me.”
Asserting yourself with your mother or daughter can spill over into other relationships. If you can create and maintain boundaries with her, then you can do this with anyone else, such as your boss or partner, Mintle said.
15. Don’t bring in third parties.
It’s common for mothers and daughters to bring someone else into their conflict. A daughter might involve dad because mom is driving her crazy. Mom might involve another child because she feels like she can’t talk to her daughter. Either way, talk directly to the person.
Finally, ask yourself if you’re OK with your relationship and your actions. During Mintle’s mom’s final days, she recalled sitting on her hospice bed and exchanging looks that conveyed they were both at peace. This was “worth every difficult conversation,” she said.