What a Daughter Needs From Her Mom
5 important insights.
Posted Feb 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- A positive early relationship with her mother, research suggests, may be a strong predictor of higher self-esteem and healthier body image in adulthood.
- Mothers who follow what's known as an authoritative parenting style, research suggests, may help girls grow up with less shame and social isolation, among other benefits.
- Other research argues for mothers establishing high, but realistic, expectations for daughters. Such expectations appear to predict academic achievement and self-control.
This is the third entry of a four-part series of blogs focused on empirical evidence related to parent-child relationships as stratified by gender. Let me begin by clearly stating that I recognize not all children are raised in traditional, heterosexual, two-parent homes, and it is not my intention to imply that these children are at a disadvantage. However, interesting research has been done on parent-child relationships by gender, and I would like to outline some of those findings in this series of articles. With that in mind, let's explore the evidence related to what a daughter needs from her mom while growing up. (Also see What a Son Needs From His Mom, What a Son Needs From His Dad, and What a Daughter Needs From Her Dad)
A sense of warmth, support, and closeness
It's not surprising that daughters who feel that their relationship with their mother is characterized by these traits tend to report that the relationship as a whole is positive. However, daughters' reports of their relationship quality actually correlates with their self-esteem and healthy body image. In other words, daughters who experienced conflictual, painful relationships are more likely to report low self-esteem and more physical appearance insecurities. I hope this goes without saying, but let me be clear: neither I nor this study are implying that mother-daughter relationship quality is the only component of self-esteem or body image development – a construct that is impacted by numerous socio-cultural factors.
Furthermore, authors caution not to draw causative conclusion from these correlations, but a logical mechanistic connection exists – especially given the mean age of daughters surveyed in this study: 10 years old [6, 1]. One interesting question moving forward is the extent to which daughters' low self-esteem and poor body image inhibits their ability to form close, nurturing relationships such as with their mother compared to the extent to which maternal factors inhibiting relational functioning predisposes daughters to have those traits.
Self-confidence and body acceptance
Similarly, research on adult mother-daughter dyads suggests that a mother's sense of shame and rejection of her own body was closely connected to her daughter's lack of confidence in her own body. And, mothers who performed frequent surveillance of their own body (checking in the mirror, examining flaws, etc.) were likely to have daughters who did the same – although these behaviors only linked to feelings of shame for mothers (not daughters), which may relate to the developmentally normative decline in socially-deemed attractive features across the lifespan. The author makes meaning of these findings by encouraging mothers to demonstrate to their daughter that "an adult woman's body is acceptable" and that body-image related behaviors may be mirrored particularly closely compared to other types of modeled behaviors due to the genetically-influenced similarity in physical appearance shared between mothers and daughters . For example, if mother and daughter share a distinct trait about which mom is insecure, it's all the more likely that her daughter will pick up that insecurity.
For more information on helping kids build a healthy relationship with eating, read this article.
Emotional burden-sharing and physical comfort
In an interesting study that measured stress levels using galvanic skin response, teenage girls were instructed to make a 3-minute impromptu educational speech (to simulate social stress and elicit anxiety). Meanwhile, the girls' mothers were either instructed to hold their daughter's hand while she spoke or to sit silently next to her. Evidence from galvanic skin response data suggested that when a mother held her daughter's hand, the daughter did not experience as much anxiety during her speech as daughters whose mothers sat silently next to them. However, in mother-daughter pairs with high relationship quality, similar emotional burden-sharing was felt even when physical contact was not present. Authors conclude that a solid mother-daughter relationship may protect against emotional threats to a similar extent that actual physical touch does . Practically speaking, this means that anxious teens (and adults presumably) may be comforted by confidence in their mother-daughter relationship in the same way as the felt comfort from a loved one's physical touch.
As you may have read before, parenting strategies are frequently organized into Baumrind's four categories: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. For more information on the four types of parenting, see this article. In a study of adult daughters, reports of authoritative parenting during childhood were linked with the development of positive cognitive schemas, a term which refers to someone's way of thinking about themselves and the world. For example, daughters who reported being raised by authoritative mothers were significantly less likely to possess cognitive schemas related to shame/defectiveness, social isolation, dependence on others, and external locus of control (the idea that one has minimal control over one's experience in the world) . Given the known links between problematic thinking strategies and the future development of mental and behavioral health problems, moms should be motivated to pursue authoritative parenting with their daughters (and sons!) to help protect them from down-the-line complications.
High (but not impossible) expectations
Using longitudinal data (information collected from the same group of people across time) is a great way to help draw conclusions about causal direction when experimental manipulation cannot be ethically employed. In other words, instructing a randomly selected group of mothers to not support their daughters wouldn't pass any ethics review board.
Using a dataset that followed a group of daughters for over 20 years, researchers found that mothers' simple belief in their (at the time) 10-year-old daughter's ability to finish schooling on time predicted that daughter's self-reported sense of control over her own life when she was 30 years old. This effect remained significant even after the researchers statistically controlled for ethnicity, career choice, intellectual ability, mental health problems, socio-economic status, and parental family structure, among other variables . In the social sciences, findings from well-constructed longitudinal data that measures and controls for numerous relevant intrinsic and extrinsic variables with a large sample size (over 3,000) is about as close as we can get to complete confidence.
What's great about this finding is how simple it is for current and future moms to incorporate into their parenting. Believe in your daughters! Hold them to high standards! They'll thank you when they're 30, apparently.
For those of you who've taken the time to read these posts, hope you've learned as much as I have. If you'd like to read the rest of the series, please see below:
Facebook image: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock
Bracken, B. A., & Newman, V. L. (1995). Child and adolescent interpersonal relations with parents, peers, and teachers: A factor analytic investigation. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 10(2), 108-122. https://doi.org/10.1177/082957359501000203
Flouri, E., & Hawkes, D. (2008). Ambitious mothers – successful daughters: Mothers' early expectations for children's education and children's earnings and sense of control in adult life. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(3), 411-433. https://doi.org/10.1348/000709907X251280
Gibson, M., & Francis, A. J. P. (2019). Intergenerational transfer of early maladaptive schemas in Mother–Daughter dyads, and the role of parenting. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 43(4), 737-747. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-018-09994-3
Lougheed, J. P., Koval, P., & Hollenstein, T. (2016). Sharing the burden: The interpersonal regulation of emotional arousal in Mother−Daughter dyads. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 16(1), 83-93. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000105
McKinley, N. M. (1999). Women and objectified body consciousness: Mothers' and daughters' body experience in cultural, developmental, and familial context. Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 760-769. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.110
Smith, J. E., Erickson, S. J., Austin, J. L., Winn, J. L., Lash, D. N., & Amrhein, P. C. (2016). Mother–Daughter relationship quality and body image in preadolescent girls. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(9), 2683-2694. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-016-0452-3