Teenage daughter and mother taking selfie

Harness the power of the mother-daughter relationship

You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that the relationship between mothers and daughters can be complicated, and no more so than during the teenage years.

As a father, I may not have enjoyed every minute of experiencing this first-hand, but as a psychologist I’m fascinated by this complexity. There has been a lot of research showing that when this relationship is strong, it confers benefits on both parties. One recent study, involving mother-daughter pairs in a somewhat stressful situation (making a speech), examined the effects on both mother and daughter of being close to each other, either emotionally or physically (holding hands), or both. What they found was that a good relationship meant less stress and better ability to regulate emotions, regardless of whether or not the pair were physically close. Or as the research supervisor put it, “being in a high quality [mother-daughter] relationship is kind of like holding someone’s hand all the time”.

It makes sense that the reverse also holds true. Going through stress every day is not good for anybody. If you can reduce that and build a good relationship, everyone will benefit. Maybe you’ll even inspire your daughter to achieve worldwide acclaim, like this Chinese mother-daughter pair who hit the news a few days ago!

It’s worth taking time to step back and think more about what kinds of factors can influence the mother-daughter relationship.

BIOLOGICAL WARFARE?

For starters, a daughter has half her mother’s genes (at least in the case of biological children) so there may be quite a number of obvious similarities. While on the surface these may work in the relationship’s favour, they may also contribute to conflict.

As children go through puberty and start to mature, they have an innate desire to become their own individual. Yet there may be an expectation – either spoken about openly, or perhaps less obvious ­– that a daughter will grow up to be “just like her mother”. (As an aside, folk wisdom suggests some people find that their own foibles and faults somehow more infuriating when observed in others, although I’m not aware of any research in this area.)

So there’s potential there for challenge and conflict as the adolescent is trying to create a separate identity. Of course these things can create problems irrespective of gender. But in the case of mothers and daughters, there are some particular biological processes going on.  As women now tend to have children later, we may have a daughter going through menstruation while the mother is either going through or about to go through menopause, which may have personal and psychological implications – not to mention the hormonal mood swings. The age at which teenage hormonal changes occur may vary dramatically, and it can be quite sudden. Children do mature at different ages, but it appears from a number of studies that girls in particular are entering puberty earlier than they used to, possibly due to better health and nutrition.

CHANGE CAN BE SCARY

Unfortunately, it’s not like teenagers become adults in a neat, slow, smooth, linear progression. One day they’re 13 going on 18 and the next, they’re 13 going on four. So you have to adapt to that, and that can be quite a big ask. It’s quite hard to recognize that your child is changing from that young cuddly one who runs up and gives you a hug to a person who wants to avoid overt displays of affection. They go from needing your help for the smallest task to, quite naturally, wanting take charge of their own life and not feel like everything is being dictated to them.

OVERPROTECTION

It’s only natural to want to protect our children, and with daughters there can be more of a focus on concerns around things like sexual assault or unwanted pregnancy. But there is also an element of overprotection that is a result of media stoking our fears, and also of having smaller families in which relationships are more intense. For many parents, the idea of letting their kids take risks is simply too frightening, and their answer is a flat no to anything remotely risky. It can be a very effective strategy in the short term, but it doesn’t teach the child anything to help them become independent. Really, it’s a strategy that can only work so well for so long. Sooner or later, something tends to give, and involve either deception or outright rebellion and conflict, neither of which are pleasant.

BEING TOO HARSH (OR TOO LENIENT)

Something to try to avoid is having too many rules. It’s only when you’re getting constant arguments and conflict about things – that’s the time to sit down and say “let’s decide how we’re going to talk to each other, or how we’re going to behave when these kinds of things happen.” On the other hand, some moms want to be friends with their daughters and that can have mixed results. It can put a lot of pressure on children, and if the parent becomes emotionally dependent on having the teenager’s friendship and admiration at all times, it makes it hard to establish and enforce necessary boundaries.

WHEN DRAMA LEADS TO MORE DRAMA

If mothers and daughters get into a cycle of disagreement, silent treatment and conflict, it’s important to break this as soon as possible. One of the things that mothers – and parents in general – need to ask themselves, when they’re experiencing a conflict or potential conflict, is “who’s the adult here?” and not to be drawn into a situation where there’s name-calling and things are becoming unpleasant. It takes two to tango, and one of the things that parents can bring to this situation is a calm, loving demeanour. It’s not always easy, but will go a long way to stop problems from escalating.

FOCUS ON WHERE YOU’RE GOING

There’s a balance to a good mother-daughter relationship. Start early on building up open and positive communication, to lay the groundwork for them coming to you when they have problems later. Remember the good times. And expect and anticipate that there are going to be difficult patches. There will be moments when you’re just not going to get on and it’s best to give each other some space. Rather than get caught up in what may look like a battle for control, parents need to focus on communication – especially listening. Sometimes people need space to develop their own identity, and then they can feel more secure about entering back into the relationship.  As long as you maintain contact, the distance that comes from moving out of home can improve things.

When you feel hurt or rejected, remind yourself to be persistent, knowing you’re going to get knockbacks and knowing you’re going to have to deal with conflicts. Stay calm and be confident that things will get better. And if you feel you need some help or support, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s never too early or too late to try some new strategies, and it can make life better for everyone.