Is Your Mother-Daughter Relationship Strained? Here's How To Move Forward

Navigating from a parent-child relationship to both being independent adults can come loaded with conflict and strain. So what can you do about it?
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When a relationship moves from a parent-child bond to an adult-adult bond, things can start to get a little precarious – especially as far as mothers and daughters are concerned.

“Although it rarely is the case, society has long taught us that the mother-daughter relationship should be beautiful and exceptionally close,” says Fiona Yassin, a family psychotherapist and founder of The Wave Clinic.

When relationships break down it can be a huge “shock” says the therapist, and there can be a great sense of shame and blame attached.

And while people often like to blame women’s hormones or differing personality traits for such rifts, for therapists who specialise in this field, this simply isn’t the case.

What causes mums and their adult children to rift?

A study by Ohio State University of over 1,000 mums estranged from their adult children found 52% were estranged from a daughter and 45% from a son – with more than half going more than a year without contact.

The most common reason mums cited for the estrangement (noted by 79%) was that family members turned their children against them. Most often, they blamed the child’s biological father or the child’s spouse or partner for this.

Nearly two-thirds of mums (62%) said their child’s mental health – including anxiety, depression, addiction or alcoholism – played a role. Just over a third said disagreements about values had caused their rift. So, for example, not agreeing on politics or parenting.

But on the opposite side of the coin, estranged children said their rifts mostly stemmed from emotional abuse, conflicting expectations about roles and personality clashes.

Some of these differing perspectives may have arisen because of broader societal changes and Professor Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, lead author of the study, noted there are generational differences in what parents and children view as appropriate parenting behaviour.

“Perspectives on what is considered abusive, harmful, neglectful or traumatising behaviour have shifted over the past three decades,” she said. “What was once seen as normal behaviour may be viewed as abusive or neglectful today.”

“If women are not heard in a family, how can a mother and daughter listen to each other?”

- Dr Rosjke Hasseldine, therapist

Therapist Dr Rosjke Hasseldine, who has been researching the mother-daughter dynamic for more than 20 years, previously told HuffPost UK she believes society sets up these relationships to fail by expecting women to silence themselves and put their own needs last.

“If you think about it, if women are not heard in a family, how can a mother and daughter listen to each other?” she said, suggesting there’s then a power struggle between who gets to be heard.

The same pattern can play out when it comes to 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 said.

“Who gets support in the relationship? Both the mother and daughter deserve support.”

Jealousy can also play a part – for instance, if a mother is jealous of the daughter’s career, success, opportunities or freedom.

“She’s shamed into keeping silent about that,” said Dr Hasseldine. “And what happens between mothers and daughters, is that the daughter then becomes what I call the ‘uncomfortable mirror.’

“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.”

Yassin suggests society’s unrealistic expectations of mothers and also intergenerational trauma can impact the mother-daughter relationship.

On the latter, she notes that trauma can “spread” through generations if the ordeals which inflicted this trauma have not been effectively dealt with.

Addressing mums in particular, she says the best thing to do is “work through the ordeal until it doesn’t carry charge for you anymore”.

This is important because if you don’t deal with it and end up replicating it, then there’s the potential that it will manifest in your relationships – including those with your children.

How can you start to heal when your relationship is feeling the strain?

An increasing number of women in their twenties, thirties and forties are seeking therapy to improve their mother-daughter relationship, according to Dr Hasseldine, which can only be positive.

Not every relationship can be fixed however, which can be difficult to deal with and can come with huge feelings such as grief and loss on both sides.

If you do want to try and reconcile, Yassin has shared some helpful tips on how and where to begin.

1. Communicate from a place of compassion

Ensuring communication comes from a gentle place will make it easier to move through the more challenging points, says the therapist. A good place to start is to talk about the things you appreciate about each other.

“Discuss what you are each grateful for in the relationship and what you want to hold onto. Asking questions from a nurturing place can be a great way to get to know each other on a different level,” she says.

2. Actively listen and avoid jumping in

We often tolerate interruptions within families but it’s really important that both mother and daughter feel they can share freely – and are not pitching themselves against one another.

“The aim is to see yourself as an alliance, not as enemies,” says Yassin. “One way to achieve this is to introduce a prop – like a wooden spoon – into the conversation and only speak when you’re holding it.”

That way you both get to hear what each other has to say, without feeling like you’re in battle.

3. Ditch traditions that are hampering your relationship

Traditions can be a wonderful way to foster connectivity and togetherness within families. But it’s important to recognise that they can also be really hampering.

If you feel your traditions have become too big or burdensome, it may be time to put them aside and change things up.

It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or your family, says Yassin. “In fact, re-evaluating the amount of time you invest in family relationships is a positive step forward.”

She likens it to taking time to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.

4. Consider the other as a whole person, not just a mother or daughter

One thing we can do to help repair a relationship is to consider the other as a whole person, suggests the therapist.

She advises daughters to be inquisitive about their mother’s life experiences. Ask questions such as: what was it like to be a mum and not have the career you wanted? How did it feel to be a parent on your own? What was it like to raise children without your own mother there to help?

And if you’re a mother, be inquisitive about your daughter’s experience outside the bubble in which you once existed together, she adds.

5. If you’re a mum, allow your daughter to teach you

Naturally, mums feel their role is to teach and daughters feel their role is to learn. But as we get older these roles change, which can be difficult to adapt to.

“Understanding that your daughter could be one of your best teachers can help to ease up the relationship by stopping it from always being top down,” says Yassin.

6. Understand that your daughter’s experiences are separate from your own

Sometimes, when we have very close relationships, we expect the other person to feel the same way we do – but it’s rarely the case.

“It can be really hard to hear that your daughter has negative feelings around you and your parenting,” says Yassin.

She recommends a technique called “mentalising” – where you picture what the other person might be feeling or experiencing. This can help you understand that the other person’s experience is separate from your own.

7. Put boundaries in place

It’s really important to review the mother-daughter relationship as it progresses through the years and put in boundaries if you feel they are needed.

“Boundaries are not rules, instead they are little bridges for ourselves that we can decide to reinforce when needed to avoid overwhelm,” adds the therapist.

8. Head to therapy together

If you’re struggling to reconcile and feel you need more support, it’s worth considering seeking professional help such as family therapy.