Mothers and Daughters: Making Peace in Adulthood

Here are tips to help maintain or rebuild healthy mom-daughter relationships.

Posted May 16, 2019

The “extreme relationships” that are being televised this season in the new show sMothered probably are not the type of relationships that most women would want to have with their mother or their daughter. The television network clearly describes their featured families as "extreme examples of mother-daughter closeness," and most of us want to avoid that kind of extreme.

While intimacy and close connections are definitely a desired outcome of motherhood, normal, healthy boundaries still need to be honored, and over-involvement and over-identification with a daughter can quickly veer towards co-dependency and enmeshment. The result can be adult daughters who have significant difficulty living independent lives and forming healthy intimate relationships beyond their families-of-origin.

Six Truths of Healthy Mother- (Adult) Daughter Relationships

1. A daughter’s sense of self-esteem is based on how she believes she is seen through her mother’s eyes. This is something that sounds complicated, but what it means is that our daughters value themselves based on how they believe that we value them. Tell and, more importantly, show your daughter how highly you esteem her, even if she’s making choices that you’d rather she not. If you want her to feel capable of making better choices or turning her life around, you have to show her that you have confidence she can do these things.

2. “Give and take” are a part of every healthy relationship. Sometimes moms have to cut their daughters some slack, and sometimes daughters need to give their moms a break. Once a daughter becomes an adult, she shouldn’t expect her mom to rush in and rescue her if she’s thrown off balance by life, but mothers can be awesome at helping daughters pick up the pieces if a crisis occurs. And mothers shouldn’t call on their daughters for favors and support to the exclusion of other support system members. Just because you gave birth to a child doesn’t mean that you have the right to control or co-opt your adult child’s life.

3. Trust must run both ways in the relationship. Moms need to trust their daughters enough to let them make their own decisions and their own mistakes, within reason, if that’s what needs to happen, for lessons to be learned and personal development to occur. If you want your daughter to trust your insight and input, you need to trust her to lead her own life.

4. Keep communication lines open. Sometimes the anger or hurt we experience in the mom-daughter relationship can be the rawest form of pain we might ever experience. Moms and daughters, though, may need to swallow their pride to be able to maintain communication.

5. Family relationships are lifelong ties. So buckle up and be ready for the long haul. When at odds with your mother or your daughter, the sooner you are able to let go of any resentment, frustration, anger, hurt feelings, the easier your life is going to be. You can hold onto the ugly feelings, but the longer you cling to them, the harder it’s going to be to let go of them down the road. You do not want to be the woman in the room who wins bragging rights for how long it’s been since you and your mother (daughter) spoke.”

6. Friendship is a benefit, not a given.

While trying to be a daughter’s “best friend” when she’s still a child or adolescent is never advised, as it devalues your role as a mom, sometimes remarkably fulfilling friendships develop as daughters mature into adulthood. Some moms and daughters grow into best friendships as each is able to appreciate the other as an individual and a mother or daughter. This isn’t always the case, though, even when a mother or daughter longs for this relational transformation. Sometimes family members are either so much alike in less than ideal ways or so very different that they just aren’t compatible as friends. That’s okay, so long as respect and care are present between a mom and her daughter.

Tips for Mothers

  1. Don’t try to force your daughter to live out your own unrealized dreams. Let her figure out her own goals and follow her own path. Everyone should have the chance to write their own life story – don’t try to force your daughter’s story to be something it’s not meant to be.
  2. Be there to support your daughter as she reaches the milestones that she values, don’t damage the relationship by telling her what “you would have done” if you were her – because you’re not.
  3. Even if you consider your daughter your “BFF,” don’t forget that sometimes what a daughter needs more than a friend is her mother.
  4. Offer advice when asked and if you feel you “have” to say something, ask for permission before telling her what you think she needs to know. She probably already knows, anyway, so don’t make difficult times any more difficult than they need to be for her.
  5. Learning how to “daughter a mother” isn’t always easy for young women; show your appreciation when your daughter is trying to get it right and be the kind of daughter she thinks you would like her to be.

Tips for Daughters

  1. When you’re able to accept your mother’s faults and shortcomings, you can see her in a whole new light. It can free you from a lifetime of wondering about all of the “If only’s” you can imagine. No mother can be everything a daughter thinks she needed, but if you can accept your mother and her limitations, you’ll feel better about the mothering you received.
  2. Always remember that your mother did her best, even if her best wasn’t as good as you feel that it should have been.
  3. It’s normal to still feel irritation as an adult about the things your mom began when you were young, whether it’s nagging, back-handed compliments, or complaining about your choices. Now that you’re an adult, you can let go of the urge to argue back or sulk in a corner. Practice mindful disengagement from unproductive exchanges. Just let whatever your mother is saying or doing wash over you and imagine each barb or zinger is just a cloud in the sky and let it roll on past. It takes two to argue and there’s no argument if you choose not to engage.
  4. Motherhood is not as easy as it looks – be grateful that you turned out as well as you did and show appreciation to your mother for the sacrifices she made for you, even if you will never know a thing about them.
  5. Remember that people tend to get "more like themselves" the older they get; accepting this truth will prepare you to keep your cool when your mother seems to be moving backward in her thinking rather than forward.

Are you Wading into the “Narcissistic Mother Danger Zone? 

8 Truths about Narcissistic Mothers

  1. Narcissistic mothers try to turn their daughters into extensions of themselves or else neglect their daughters as they focus only on themselves. Daughters are not allowed to create lives beyond the role that a narcissistic mother molds for them.
  2. Daughters may feel that they are never “enough” just as they are and feel guilty for being unable to be the daughter their mother wanted.
  3. Narcissistic mothers cannot accept that personal boundaries exist between themselves and their daughters and allow little room for privacy of any kind; emotional, physical, or intellectual.
  4. Narcissistic mothers often compete with their daughters – for attention, for praise, for anything that the daughter might value herself.
  5. Narcissistic mothers take credit for their daughters’ successes and accomplishments, yet project any negative trait or behavior of their own onto their daughters. “You can’t win for losing” could be the motto of these unfortunate daughters.
  6. Narcissistic mothers blame their daughters if their own lives don’t turn out as they had hoped.
  7. Parentifying a daughter can do lasting harm that affects her future relationships and identity. Children are not meant to take care of their parents and when a child is placed into a position that requires her to be the “responsible one” in the relationship, she will miss out on developmental processes that should occur over time as she grows and matures. Mothers should be the emotional and instrumental caretakers of their children; it should not be the other way round.
  8. The “good enough mother” ensures her daughter’s needs are met until she is old enough to see to her needs herself.