“Healing can only happen when people are willing to shift.” Iyanla Vanzant
There is an expectation in society that mothers and adult daughters are meant to have a close, loving relationship. In some families, this is true. Families can be a source of great joy, a place where individuals feel they belong to a larger system and a place of shared history across generations and cultures.
For other mothers and daughters, this is not always the case. In my practice, I am seeing women who are hurt, confused and angry about the relationship with their own mothers. Many of these women contact me for counselling, initially to discuss their own daughter’s ‘difficult behaviour’. As we dig deeper, they have a complex relationship with their own mother and they do not wish to repeat this intricate history with their own daughter.
As we explore the mother-daughter dynamic, the woman experiences conflict of guilt that she feels she is not a loving, caring daughter; of disloyalty towards the bonds of daughter to mother; and grief that she desperately wants a relationship with her mother, yet years of distrust, resentment and disappointment has created a chasm which is difficult to bridge.
Mapping a Family
When I see a client for the first time I draw a map, like a family tree, called a genogram. I work from a family systems approach and map out three generations of a family, looking for themes and patterns as well as interactions within the family system. In retracing family history there can be specific points in time where a greater degree of conflict occurred between mothers and daughters – when a daughter is a teen, when she moves away, she gets married or has a baby.
There are various reasons for an increase in conflict during these times of transition. For some mothers there are fears that her daughter may be abandoning her and this is frightening for the mother. Her fear may show outwardly as anger.
For other women, her mother erected barriers when she was young, to prevent her realising her hopes and dreams, such as a career or travel. A mother could be jealous of her daughter gaining the independence that the mother so desperately wanted when she was younger.
In some families and cultures, daughters are duty-bound to be carers for their parents. When a daughter decides to move away from home, these families are angered that the daughter is not walking the path they chose for her.
Her siblings, often brothers, may also be incensed because, in their mindset, it is the daughter’s obligation to be responsible for the parents. The siblings do not want to shoulder this burden. It is a tenuous position for an adult daughter to be in.
The Adult Daughter Experience
Conflict between mothers and their adult daughters are rarely discussed openly as it is not deemed acceptable for daughters to feel anger towards their mother. Society informs women that they are nurturing, kind and more social than men. Women are considered as mediators, particularly within the family; it is still generally thought that women are to keep others happy. Many women try to live up to this expectation yet feel alone in this experience.
Daughters who have experienced difficult relationships with their mother can suffer from low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
Adult daughters also experience relationship issues with partners, friends or work colleagues. If a child has not learned social cues, handling frustration and resolving conflict within the family system, they may have greater difficulty with relationships as they mature.
In saying this, it doesn’t mean that these behaviours can’t be learned as an adult. Friends and other trusted adults can guide the adult daughter. Speaking with a counsellor can significantly help to sort through difficult emotions and help you move forward in your relationships.
This is not about blaming your mother, she is a product of her own environment. We all learn and get by as best we can in the families that we are raised in. We don’t have all the information about our mother’s history. They have had to survive in their own family as best they could.
When women see me for counselling, they want to break the cycle and change the direction of their family history because these women feel it hasn’t worked well for them, and they want to improve their relationships with their daughters.
So how can this challenging relationship heal? As the adult daughter is often the person I see in therapy, I guide her with strategies to help heal this important relationship. Problematic relationships do not happen overnight. So don’t expect your relationship with your mum to heal quickly. The tips below may help towards navigating this significant relationship.
Tips on Dealing with a Challenging Mother-Daughter Relationship
- Be aware of your emotional reactions when your mother says/does something, such as a feeling of abandonment or being punished. Distinguish these feelings between your childhood and your adulthood.
- Relinquish the expectation of a loving mother. Letting go of the belief of what the ‘ideal mother’ should be and accept there will be grief and loss.
- Prepare a response. Consider what you want to say to your mother, dispassionately. Write a script which will help clarify your thoughts. Memorise the words or short sentences.
- When demands are made of you to make a decision promptly, a response of “I’ll get back to you” gives you time to consider your options.
- Become aware of her manipulations. The fear of loss of relationship with your mother will diminish with this awareness.
- Set boundaries in advance with your mother. Discuss with your mum the expectations of a relationship with her. If your mother drops by unannounced to your home, discuss that she call and set a time with you when she can visit. If your mum is angry towards you, be prepared to walk away.
- Create distance. Some relationships can never be fully healed, no matter what we say or do to improve the relationship. If this is what’s happening for you, then creating distance may be the only option available at this point. Having distance doesn’t mean staying away from your mum for years. It means having a respite from a complicated relationship.
These strategies will not change your relationship overnight. Change takes time, it requires patience, it entails understanding of yourself and of your mother. Sometimes it requires a break from the relationship and to re-enter the relationship some time later with a renewed strength.
Janice Williams is a professional Counsellor and specialises in mother-daughter relationship counselling.
Janice offers in-person counselling, as well as online and phone counselling across Australia. Online counselling is available worldwide.