Advice: How to transition strained mother-daughter relationships into adult friendships

By: Nicole Pulsinelli

Photography by © Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by ©


Advice: How to transition strained mother-daughter relationships into adult friendships

By: Nicole Pulsinelli
Conflicted mother-daughter relationships are tales as old as time. Some mother-daughter duos are better at addressing issues over the years, while others struggle to keep their claws intact. These problems persist into adulthood, making it difficult for women to have the relationships they desire with their mother or daughter

Amanda Bacchus, a family therapist based in Woodbridge, Ont., says, "Mothers and daughters should look at how working on the relationship might benefit them individually." Mothers have life experience and a perspective that is helpful, while daughters may look at something with a fresher perspective.

They also have an opportunity to learn more about themselves – mothers especially.

"Your kids can reflect much of your own personality that you may not want to face," says Lindsay de Swart, who is a life coach for mothers based in Ontario. "That's why it's so strained from the mother's perspective. You don't want to face things you've swept under the carpet for so long."

Learning to communicate

Daughters need to be present with their mothers, says Bacchus. "They don't have to agree with or like it, but [they should attempt to] see where their mothers are coming from and why they behave a certain way." 

It also helps when daughters ask their mothers questions to gain perspective, such as: "What was it like for you to raise me?" or  "What were your struggles as a mom?"

De Swart recommends daughters look through the filter of – 'Mom did the best job she could with the tools she had.' "The only 'mother school' they had was the one they experienced while growing up themselves," she says. "If they didn't have great experiences, how can you expect them to come into motherhood with a blank canvas?"

Furthermore, Bacchus adds that by the time children become adults, mothers have been in the role of caregiver for decades, and learning to let a daughter make her own mistakes, while also trying to understand her perspective can be a difficult combination. She recommends being transparent.. "I think people forget the motivation behind why they're communicating," Bacchus says.  "Using direct language when conveying feelings, such as: "This relationship is important to me. That's why I'm discussing this with you," is very important."

Use "I" statements and feeling words, such as "I felt put down" or "I felt embarrassed." This will eliminate the other person's impulse to respond defensively. Remember to also show empathy for each other, and say things such as, "I understand that might have made you feel angry/frustrated/like a child."

Forgive and let go
Both Bacchus and de Swart agree that forgiveness doesn't mean letting someone off the hook – they are two entirely different ideas. "People think forgiveness means believing they have to admit what another did was OK," says Bacchus. "It's not OK. If something terrible happened, it may not be OK."

"But when you're hanging onto hurt and resentment it's difficult to move on with your life. You have to let that go for yourself, not for anybody else."

"Forgiveness means you accept they did the best they could with the tools they had," de Swart adds, noting that forgiving yourself is also a big part of letting go. "You have to forgive yourself for any hurt you may have caused and know that you're still loved."

Spend time together
If your mother-daughter relationship is rocky, Bacchus suggests starting out small. Pick a neutral space and activity, such as getting a coffee or going for a walk in the park. She even suggests not talking and simply enjoying the other person's company and learning to be in the same space together.

Laughing together is another tactic Bacchus recommends. Try going to watch a comedy film or doing something silly. "When laughter isn't there it's harder to be happy in the relationship," she explains.

Bacchus also recommends setting a time limit on visits. "If you know Mom starts going off, or your daughter can only hold her tongue for two hours, then the visit is two hours," she says.

What to avoid
Bacchus warns mothers and daughters to not minimize the other's feelings. We often do so when trying to be reassuring or comforting, but saying something like, "You shouldn't feel that way," does more damage than good. "We need to work though our feelings and then let our mind catch up," she explains.

"There's no point in blaming or shaming," says de Swart. "If you're feeling too guilty about what you didn't do, you'll never move forward," she explains.

Sometimes we have more than our own mother to be concerned about. Here are some tips on how to handle a difficult mother-in-law. As the years go on, there's likely to be some new challenges as your mother reach her elder years. Check out our advice on how to cope as your parents get older to ease the transition.
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Advice: How to transition strained mother-daughter relationships into adult friendships