It’s the first ever relationship we experience, so it’s no wonder the mother-daughter dynamic can be so intense. What starts with basic human needs and pure adoration can, over time, begin to shift.
Love, for many, is still at the centre of the bond, but it’s often matched with friction, from stinging quips to full-blown rows, as we get older.
It’s not just usual for mother-daughter relationships to feel the strain as both parties navigate from a parent /child relationship to both being independent adults, says therapist Dr Rosjke Hasseldine, who has been researching this particular dynamic for more than 20 years. It’s to be expected.
“We still live in a society, in a world, that really doesn’t listen to women,” she says in HuffPost UK’s Am I Making You Uncomfortable? podcast. “So mothers and daughters play that out in their relationship – the inequality and the sexism and the violence and other experiences that women have.”
Dr Hasseldine believes society sets up mother-daughter relationships to fail – by expecting women to silence themselves and put their own needs last.
“That’s one of the huge hidden dynamics between mothers and daughters,” she says. “I mean, if you think about it, if women are not heard in a family, how can a mother and daughter listen to each other? What happens then between mothers and daughters is there’s a power struggle between who gets to be heard, because they have no sense of a ‘normal’ is that both women deserve to be heard, all women deserve to be heard.”
Dr Hasseldine’s work has involved mapping mother-daughter histories in hundreds of families across difficult cultures. In 2021, she says she’s yet to find a family where the grandmother – or the mother – was fully heard. “So no wonder mothers and daughters crave to be heard by each other,” she says.
The same plays out in terms of emotional support. “If you grew up in a family where women are expected to support everybody else but not claim the support that they need, again, mothers and daughters have a power struggle going on there,” she says. “Who gets support in the relationship? Both the mother and daughter deserve support.”
Jealousy is another common, if hidden, dynamic between mothers and daughters, says Dr Hasseldine, one that can be “hugely misunderstood”.
“If a mother is jealous of the daughter’s career, success, opportunities, freedom, she’s shamed into keeping silent about that. And what happens between mothers and daughters, is that the daughter then becomes what I call the ‘uncomfortable mirror,’” she explains. “The mother then sees what she was not allowed to do, what she was not allowed to be. It may be about career or education, but it could also be about if the mum didn’t have a loving partner.”
Society doesn’t empower women to talk honestly about these feelings, says Dr Hasseldine. So instead, it can come out as putting the daughter down with snide comments or not fully celebrating her successes. “There’s an ocean of grief there with mothers,” she adds.
The dynamic is often co-created. Have you ever asked your mother how she feels about her life and the opportunities she’s been able to access?
“Mother-blaming” contributes towards this negative cycle, adds Dr Hasseldine. In psychology, “mother-blaming” is attributing a person’s problems to their upbringing. A common example, says Dr Hasseldine, is when a mother is blamed for her daughter’s eating disorder. This over-simplistic view means other external factors for why a woman might develop eating issues, say, are ignored – and the mother may be lumbered with even more unjustified guilt.
“Mother-blaming is hugely damaging. It’s about the devaluing of the mother role and devaluing of women,” says Dr Hasseldine. “And it’s hugely toxic. I’m afraid the therapy world needs to hold its hands up to the many ways that it has blamed mothers for their children’s problems, when there is a much bigger picture to be heard.”
On a positive note, Dr Hasseldine has witnessed an increasing number of women in their twenties, thirties and forties seeking therapy to improve their mother-daughter relationship – even bringing their mother to sessions.
“These women have woken up and started to connect the dots between, say, Mum being a bit emotionally manipulative because she hasn’t been taught to say ‘I need, I feel. I desire. I want.’ So she’s learned a different language,” Dr Hasseldine explains.
“The daughters are saying: ‘I don’t want to inherit this. I want to be able to speak openly and honestly.’ They’ve seen how the mother puts everybody last, the self-effacing, self-sacrificing behaviour. And they want mum in to the therapy in order to change that with her, which is absolutely brilliant.”
Learning to listen to each other is key to improving how you communicate, says Dr Hasseldine – even where you’re simply looking to boost a relationship that isn’t particularly fraught. When a mother-daughter dynamic is strengthened, she argues, it can be a powerful force against patriarchy.
“The mother-daughter relationship is absolutely central to generational change,” she says. “Because when a mother and daughter come together and learn how to really listen to each other and stand in each other’s shoes, it means that when the daughter has a daughter, it will be different for her. And the next one, and the next one.”
How to get the conversation started
You’ve learned why the mother/daughter relationship can become strained, but how can you address it? Counselling psychologist Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell offers these tips.
1. Think about what you would like your mother to hear
“Give yourself plenty of opportunity to identify this and practice a few times by either speaking it or writing it out for yourself. This really helps to give you clarity and avoid getting into a slinging match of ‘you said I said...’”
2. Focus on talking about you, your thoughts and feelings
”Use words like ‘I expect…I felt…I am thinking…I am hoping…‘Avoid focusing on her and using words like ‘You said, you did etc’ as this may put her in the defensive and people don’t listen when in that mode.”
3. Think about your tone
“Most of what we said is communicated through our tone and so take time time to be aware of how you are communicating. If you saying something positive but saying it in an angry voice, your positive message will be lost.”
4. Establish good boundaries
“If there are topics that you don’t want to discuss with her, let her know that you would prefer to focus on this for today and hope she can hear you.”
5. Don’t rush the conversation
“If you find yourself getting angry, upset or like you may loose your temper, take a minute to pause and focus on your breathing. Remember it is a tough thing you are navigating and you need to be loving and caring to you.
“If things go well, build on that by affirming your mothers hearing you and let her know you are very pleased you are communicating.”