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Improving mother-daughter relationships

  • Story Highlights
  • Expert: Mothers and daughters who clash a lot overestimate the others' power
  • Sisterly bond between mom and daughter could lead to rivalries
  • Expert: Daughters make mothers feel more valued as they become less dominant
  • Moms and daughters whose lives are enmeshed need to set boundaries
By Sara Reistad-Long and Katrina Kenison
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Real Simple

(REAL SIMPLE) -- Whether you and you mother act like sisters or sparring partners, you can improve your connection.

Improving mother-daughter relationships

Relationship: Best Friends

You have the kind of "favorite dinner date," "first on speed dial" relationship that others envy.

Why it's good: Operating on a level playing field reflects self-confidence on the part of both mother and daughter. "In terms of healthy communication, having this kind of relationship is a big positive," says Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., and the author of "You're Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation."

Why it's challenging: Sometimes a daughter needs a parent, not a partner in crime. Studies have confirmed what a lot of women know: When daughters face big life changes, such as becoming parents themselves, they rely on their moms to be experienced advisers, not buddies.

This dynamic can be tough for moms, too. They can feel hurt, for instance, when daughters rail at them because they're slow to master new technology.

"Moms who see their daughters as friends expect them to think as though they came out of the same generation," says Gail Saltz, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, in New York City. Real Simple: Small, helpful gestures with big impact

Improving relations: Both parties need to respect their true roles. "It's important to acknowledge the generation gap," says Saltz. In other words, act your age. Dads depend on that, too. For example, it's normal for a daughter to tell her mom her relationship problems, but when a mother divulges hers, it compromises the daughter's relationship with her father. Real Simple: How to make positive changes in your life

Relationship: Sisterly

You don't rent DVDs together every night, but you have a deep connection. Still, unlike the "best friends" relationship, an element of competition, similar to sibling rivalry, can exist.

Why it's good: You clearly like each other because you want to be like the other, and despite your age difference, you understand one another well.

Why it's challenging: That sense of competition. "There's always some competitive feeling in families, but we repress that," says Saltz. "It happens here, when roles are blurred and sisterly, because there's real ammunition. Doors are opening for daughters as they're closing for mothers." That can cause resentment and fights, says Saltz. "Also, daughters often compare themselves unfavorably to moms," she adds. They may think, My mom's smarter and more successful than I am.

Improving relations: To mitigate any competitive feelings, Tannen suggests trying to understand what the other might feel rivalrous about and being supportive in those areas. Don't be competitive in return. If things deteriorate, time apart can help you both identify what you need or don't need from the other going forward, says Saltz. Talk about it, and start again on new terms.

Relationship: Clashing personalities

She's bullheaded, opinionated, contrary. (And you're not, of course.) You may share the same genes, but that's where the similarities end.

Why it's good: Your frequent head-butting may not be pretty, but there's a purpose to all your bickering.

"The model of the sensitive, nurturing mother is our cultural expectation, but it's not the historically dominant one," says Lee Sharkey, assistant professor of English and women's studies at the University of Maine at Farmington. "That's not what put food on the table."

Rather, a mother did whatever she could think of to help her children survive.

Why it's challenging: It's confusing for a grown woman to fight with her mother about things like boyfriends, hair length, or even her mother's own health care. Each party feels powerless, says Tannen. Moms typically feel ignored and react by badgering. Daughters feel, well, badgered and become defensive.

Improving relations: "Mothers underestimate their own power and overestimate their daughters', and vice versa," says Tannen. Daughters can help by "giving their mothers a sense of their importance during conversation," says Saltz. Repeating comments in the context of "So you're saying..." lets Mom know that you're listening, even if her advice isn't always heeded. Real Simple: Greatest gift your mother ever gave you?

Relationship: Reverse nurture

Your roles are switching, whether it's due to age, health, finances, or culture, and daughters are better equipped to take care of moms.

Why it's good: "As mothers age, even as they develop health problems, we're seeing the mother-daughter relationship improve," says Karen Fingerman, an associate professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana, and the author of "Mothers and Their Adult Daughters: Mixed Emotions, Enduring Bonds." Daughters feel needed, mothers feel loved.

"Both sides come to accept the other for who she is," says Fingerman.

Why it's challenging: Passing the baton of authority is hard work.

"There's tension, as daughters are faced with demands and uncertainties, and mothers may feel they're getting help they don't need," Fingerman says.

These dynamics can be marked in first-generation immigrant families, or if mother and daughter grew up in dissimilar eras or circumstances. The daughter encourages the mother to navigate the culture or times, which can cause friction, says Sharkey.

Improving relations: Sharkey suggests that daughters make mothers feel more valued as they become less dominant. Spend time thinking and talking about the traditions and the values that you share. This encourages daughters to see their identities as critically and positively linked with their mothers and can help preserve the mothers' sense of importance.

Relationship: Enmeshed

No decision gets made without the other's approval, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

Why it's good: "For girls, sameness is equal to closeness. In mothers and daughters, that translates into regarding each other like yardsticks by which they measure themselves, examining where they overlap and differ," Tannen explains. When things are harmonious, it's like the ultimate love affair there's one person you can always count on.

Why it's challenging: With the pressure to be the same, it's tough to create boundaries. When opinions differ, the stress of trying to gain the other's approval (or feeling bad because she disapproves) can be overwhelming. "A daughter has to understand that Mom isn't responsible for her anymore," says Saltz. "A mother needs to realize that all her daughter's wins aren't her own wins; all her losses aren't her own losses."

Improving relations: These relationships are so intense because they're often driven by a fear of abandonment, says Saltz. She suggests building boundaries slowly. Daughters should emphasize how deeply they value their mothers' opinions, then make it clear that certain forthcoming decisions will be solo ones. "So many women try to make their mothers agree," she says. "That's not necessary -- mostly they love you anyway."

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