Lifetime Connections

Exploring women's relationships in families and friendscapes

Mothers and Daughters: The Challenges of a Lifetime

Summer brings more freedom and often more challenges to parental boundaries.

Independence vs. Dependence? 

While I’ve met many women who confide that they work hard to be best friends with their adolescent daughters, it is much more prevalent for mothers of adolescent daughters to feel that a daughter’s sole purpose in life is to push her every button and pluck her very last nerve! And that’s a normal and a good thing, so long as the proper boundaries and open communication patterns have been set throughout the years leading up to adolescence.

It’s no secret that the bond between a mother and daughter can be stronger than either might like; and this relationship is where a daughter first feels safe enough to really test her skills at self-assertion. Children come into this world fully dependent on others to meet their basic needs; however, the drive for independence asserts itself early and most of us spend the rest of our lives learning to balance our innate drives for dependence and independence. These two polarizing needs may give rise to a new mother-daughter battle across the life span at virtually each new life stage.

As much as we all want to see ourselves as independent females, separate from our mothers, the need for connection and the need for approval never fade too far from the surface. And it is the need to separate yet remain connected that form the crux of our relational dilemmas. If we can keep the relationship open to back-and-forth, honest communication that will allow the challenges to work themselves out in the best possible manner.

Temper Tantrums as a Prelude to Future Frays

As a toddler daughters wages a battle for independence by screaming “No” at the top of her lungs as she pushes away her mother’s hand, she is also desperately hoping that her mother will not reject her and will scoop her up in her arms with affection even as the little girl is being placed in a “time out” zone.

For young girls heading off to elementary school, battles typically center around the stress of school-related responsibilities, building new friendships beyond the neighborhood and the eyes of mom, and wanting to “fit in” via clothing, house rules, freedom, and whatever else the “cool kids” are doing. In even the early elementary school years, daughters may begin to assert their independence about friendship choices and this can cause problems for mothers when the choices don’t meet with their approval.

Be aware that this might be just the beginning of a lifelong saga of disagreements over relationship choices – mothers often expect to have the final say over friends AND romantic partners! We need to learn early that we can try and provide guidance, but that once our daughters are in school, they are out of our line of sight forever. This is one place where a strong mother-daughter relationship can potentially provide some protection regarding poor relationship choices – if we’ve modeled a healthy relationship early, our daughters may be able to maintain high expectations later. But even “good girls” may choose the “cool kids” who display “bad behavior.” Healthy boundaries, unconditional positive regard, and respect between mother and daughter make enforcing clear consequences of misbehavior a lot easier here and later on through adolescence.

And then the Temptations Emerge Full-On

In middle school and early adolescence, a daughter’s hormones may start “amping up” her desire for independence and distancing behaviors from her mother. In fact, research shows that it is the related needs in adolescents to strike out on their own, try out risky behaviors, and venture from the beaten path that allow them the courage and motivation to leave the family nest. As middle school daughters drive parents crazy with their demands for all of the “right” clothes and possessions to help them fit in with their peers, as well as spend hours engrossed in texting, messaging, Skyping, and hanging out with their pals, mothers need to recognize that it is all really normal behavior.

Children are innately programmed to grow away from their families and flock to their age mates. However, it is this tension between independence and dependence that can really flare up now as most young adolescents still rely on their mothers to meet their material needs and transportation requests! And, most importantly, to supply consistent and healthy boundaries! And now, more than ever, mothers need to be aware of dangers that their daughters now face (including bullying, pressure for sexual activities from boys, online risks, etc.) and keep the communication pathway open regardless of the topic!

The Drama of the Older Adolescent

In older adolescence and the high school years, the movement towards independence and autonomy peaks in ways that will never again be experienced so intensely – thank goodness! Freedom from parents’ eyes is greater now as transportation issues can usually be solved via a driver’s license or friends with cars. Part-time jobs provide daughters with financial independence, to some degree, and mothers typically lose a great deal of “veto power” over their daughters’ spending choices. Older adolescence can be a rocky time for many mother-daughter pairs as a mother recognizes that her daughter is maturing into an adult and this can create “anticipatory grief” as she reflects on her daughter’s eventual departure from the nest. Often, mothers of adolescent daughters are also somewhere in the peri-menopausal timeline and may be coping with their own unreliable hormone balance as their daughters are trying to master their own.

It’s not about “Control,” it’s about “Influence”

In summary, challenges will appear whenever a daughter is trying to exert independence, but is still at a place where dependence is important. Give your daughter a safe places to work through the presenting issue and instill open communication in the relationship – even if you are afraid to hear what your daughter might share.

Successful mothering means a daughter is given the opportunity to safely expand her level of independence. This requires great patience for mothers and an unflagging commitment to proactive and respectful communication between herself and her daughter. This can’t be overstated – mothers increasingly will lose levels of control over their daughters as their daughters grow up, but with good communication from the start, a mother’s healthy influence does not have to diminish.

Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.
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