The challenge of mothering an adolescent daughter.

Mother/adolescent daughter conflict establishes individuality and independence.

Posted Dec 06, 2010

Concluding this series of five blogs about mothering and fathering adolescents, consider some thoughts about mothers and teenage daughters.

This blog is like saving the hardest of the four parenting combinations for last. Over the years in counseling, mother/adolescent daughter relationships have often been the most deeply conflicted and intense. Why? I think it is because adolescent girls have a more complicated sex role passage in the family than do sons, and moms are usually more intimately involved in this passage than dads.

Think of it this way. Two major attributes that affect parent/child connections are social attachment and sexual similarity. The more attached, the more similar, often the stronger the bond. By bearing, birthing, and (often) breastfeeding, mothers start with more attachment to children than do fathers. As for sexual similarity, it connects mothers to daughters, and fathers to sons, because each pair shares the same sexual identity.

Over the course of adolescence, issues of ‘attachment versus separation' and issues of ‘similarity versus differentiation' are contested by the young person to establish independence and individuality.

So for independence, the adolescent wants more freedom from family restraint, wants time with friends over time with family, and wants more privacy and less communication with parents. And for differentiation, the adolescent declares he or she is now different than as a child, wants to be treated differently than as a child, is different from how parents are, and is going to be different from how they want that young person to be. So there!

Now consider the complexity of what an adolescent daughter has to do to claim independence and individuality. First, she has a double connection from closeness to break with her mother, and second she has a double disconnection with her father to overcome. Her tasks are to stay connected to a dad with whom she was not by birth attached and from whom she is sexually different, and to separate from a mom to who she was born attached and with whom she is sexually similar.

By comparison the son has a relatively simpler passage, having only a single connection to break with the mother because although by birth attached, he is already sexually different. And he has a single disconnection to overcome with his father since he was not born by birth attached to the man, but does feel connected through the sexual similarity they share.

This is what I mean when I say that in the adolescence the daughter has a double connection to break with her mom and a double disconnection to overcome with her dad, and hence has a more complicated sex role passage. Since some issues with fathers and adolescent daughters have been discussed in a previous blog, I am focusing on mothers and adolescent daughters here.

Mother/daughter is the only doubly close parent/child relationship in the family - they are by birth attached and they are sexually similar. It is, I believe, for reason of this double closeness that in the daughter's adolescence it can be so extremely hard to separate for adequate independence and to differentiate for adequate individuality. It can take putting a lot of strain on the relationship to break mother and daughter free.

In counseling, a teenage daughter (already attached and sexually similar to her mom) expresses her need for separation and differentiation as an independent woman. "I'm not you, I don't want to be like you, and I never will be you!" But beneath this statement of defiance is a more telling message that staying in conflict with her mother conveys. "I need to be independent of you and different from you, but still stay closely connected to you, so don't pull away." Witnessing these encounters in counseling is like watching a young woman fighting for her psychological life against the woman who gave it to her.

Sometimes in counseling parents, a dad who is uncomfortable with conflict will criticize the mom for "always getting into it" with the teenage daughter. "Why can't you just leave each other alone?" he asks, wishing for more peace and quiet. To which the mother replies, "because the last thing she needs from me right now is to be left alone. She needs to work out the differences between us and I need to hang in there with her when she wants to challenge me or disagree."

Among other things, conflict can be an act of intimacy when opposing parties communicate significant feelings and thoughts about some difference between them, coming to know each other and be known more deeply than before. So mother and daughter spend long hours in argument over the young woman's new boyfriend - the daughter wanting the mother to understand his good points, the mother wanting the daughter to understand his harmful side.

As they learn more about the boyfriend, they learn more about each other and the different values and perspectives between them. In this way, conflict can also be a process for creating acceptance of significant differences in the relationship. The mom respects the daughter's love, the daughter hears and considers her mom's concerns.

Of course, for the young person fighting to be different from that parent, there is always this trap: conflict can create resemblance. Thus yelling at the parent to stop the hated yelling, the young person learns to become a yeller from practicing it each time they argue. In my recent book, FACES, I wrote about one such common example:
"The woman who would not repeat
How her mother offended each day,
Vowed ‘I won't criticize
Or fight to control!'
And turned out the very same way."

It's complicated. When opposition leads to imitation, in this case the daughter criticizing the critical mother back, similarity can result. Yet not all conflict-based similarity is bad. It can create commonality that strengthens feelings of affiliation and it can engender closeness. "I'm my mother's daughter. From her I learned to stand my ground and speak my mind, the way she always did with me." By example and interaction, parents (particularly of the same sex) can be indelibly instructive. This brings to mind the line by Oscar Wilde. "All women become like their mothers. That's their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

All this said, because conflict is a relational skill, women tend to be better schooled in it, and more enduring of it, than men. Of course, how the mother conducts conflict with her daughter is of the utmost importance. The woman must model the kind of constructive dialogue in disagreement that she wants her daughter to use with her and by practice carry forward in future caring relationships of her own. So no meanness allowed.

At the end of adolescence, when a mother won't let go of her daughter and allow independence or when the woman won't accept her daughter's lifestyle and respect her individuality, alienation can build, estrangement can follow, and bitterness can result. The reverse of this situation can also occur to sorrowful effect where the daughter cannot relinquish her dependent hold on her mother or refuses to accept the different definition of womanhood that her mother embodies. In both cases, the sense of rejection can be very painful, and a stubborn rift can grow. Neither can change the other, and each refuses to change for the other.

Accepting individuality and establishing independence are, after all, a two-way street. Mother and daughter both need to establish an adult relationship in which, by valuing the differences and respecting the distance between them, they can enjoy what they have in common and lovingly get along.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVIING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at

Next week's entry: Adolescence and the case of odd parent out.