The mother-daughter relationship is a complicated one. Whether you have an adult daughter or are still raising teenagers, you’ve likely experienced times when you wondered why daughters are mean to their mothers. In this post, Heather Wagner takes a deep dive into this topic and looks at all the physical, emotional, and relational things influencing our girls’ behaviors.
The relationship between parents and children, but especially between mothers and daughters, is tremendously powerful, scarcely to be comprehended in any rational way.” — Joyce Carol Oates
We all desire to cultivate healthy relationships with our daughters. Yet, whether our girls are 5 or 25, when we don’t understand their behavior, struggle to connect with them, or end up faking peace instead of making it, it’s easy to feel discouraged.
Even though what constitutes a healthy relationship with our daughter may look a little different for each of us, and though our backgrounds, expectations, personalities, and circumstances are not all the same, when it comes to how we understand and manage the conflict that’s found in a mother-daughter relationship, I think a lot of us are asking the same questions:
What is going on with my daughter?
Am I doing something wrong?
How can I be a better mother?
You may have heard the saying: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes; it’ll change.” If you’re raising an adolescent daughter, you can probably relate. One moment she has a somewhat sunny disposition, but then you look at her with the wrong facial expression and a storm erupts that leaves you feeling confused and sweeping pieces of your feelings off the floor.
While it’s common to chalk turbulent mood swings up to puberty, there may be more than one type of hormone influencing your daughter’s impulsive or irrational behavior. You’re probably already familiar with the automatic stress response that prepares us to deal with danger: fight or flight.
When our bodies sense danger, a little almond shaped structure in our brains called the amygdala determines whether or not we’re in trouble. If it perceives a threat, it activates a warning system in our hypothalamus (AKA our brain’s command center), and flips on our body’s fight or flight response.
When we react without thinking to avoid a head-on collision, or jump out of the way when a rope on the sidewalk turns out to be a snake, we appreciate our God-given ability to react in a split second. However, it’s not always a physically present danger that elicits a stress response.
- The big exam your daughter has in the morning?
- The unflattering picture her bestie tagged her in on social media?
- The cute guy who sent her a text, but then ‘left her on read‘?
- The facial expression you had while talking with your daughter at the kitchen table?
Yep, her brain could’ve interpreted all those things as a threat and activated the fight or flight response before she’s even processed what’s really happening. So while we’re trying to decide how to keep a conflict from escalating, her adrenal glands could already be busy pumping the hormone epinephrine into her system, and a series of physiological changes could be underway.
Her heart rate increases. More blood is pumped through her body. Extra oxygen is sent to her brain and lungs. Sugar is released into her bloodstream. Her senses sharpen. Her body is quite literally preparing for battle—or for escape. It’s from this place that we can find ourselves facing hurtful words, slammed doors, or unresolved conflict that leaves us scratching our heads and nursing our hearts.
A SHIFT OF PERSPECTIVE
While your daughter’s emotional and reactive responses might suggest that her amygdala is fully functional, the frontal cortex, the area of her brain that controls things like planning, problem solving, and reasoning, is still developing and will continue to mature into early adulthood.
So even though the logical part of our daughters’ brains may grab the wheel from time to time, it’s actually her big feelings sitting in the driver’s seat. What does this mean for us as mothers?
It means that we might need to examine and adjust our expectations.
We wouldn’t serve our babies a tomahawk steak, or get frustrated with our 3-year-olds for less than perfect penmanship because we understand those expectations would be inappropriate based on their level of development. Understanding what’s happening to our girls on a biological level is helpful because as Solomon tells us in Proverbs 19:11, “Wisdom yields patience” (NIV).
Knowing that our girls’ brains are still developing doesn’t mean they can’t be held responsible for their behavior, or face the natural consequences of their actions. It just helps us understand why we shouldn’t expect our daughters to work through conflict or the decision-making process in the same way we can as adults. Maybe it shifts our perspective and improves our attempts at communication because we relate to them based on their emotions instead of their circumstances.
Whether the problems our daughters face are of their own making or not, we want them to feel safe enough to come to us when they need help. We want to be a source of encouragement and affirmation and care.
Take a peek at the rest of Proverbs 19:11. “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense” (NIV). Maybe that verse will come in handy the next time your daughter rolls her eyes at you on the way to her bedroom. Parenting is hard, but so is growing up.
WEIGHT OF THE WORLD
I was entering grades into the computer when a student walked in and quietly placed her backpack on the ground. “Can you look over my conclusion again?” she asked. She’d already come to see me after school twice that week. Something was wrong.
I took the paper she extended, put it face down on my desk, and asked her if she was okay. She stood there for a moment and stared at the floor, but then she whispered, “I just…I just can’t today. I’m so tired.” She took a deep breath and the dam broke.
This sweet girl had been waking up at 5 a.m. to workout before school, spending the entire day feeling overwhelmed by a schedule full of advanced classes, and then staying after school to practice whichever sport happened to be in season. But that’s not all.
Her evenings were booked solid with music lessons, youth group, athletic games, and community volunteering. Her weekends? They were reserved for the travel team she played with, hoping to grab the attention of a college scout and land a big scholarship for college.
She was running on fumes, and telling her coach she needed to get help after school for an assignment was the only acceptable way she could think of to give herself a break without dealing with criticism or disapproval from the people in her circle.
This young lady wasn’t old enough to drive, yet she was struggling to shoulder the real and perceived expectations she felt from her peers, parents, teachers, and the rest of the world. As I listened, I wondered if her mom was aware of how overwhelmed her daughter was feeling, so I asked. Mom didn’t know, but I knew she’d want to.
REDUCING THE PRESSURE
This wasn’t an isolated incident, friends. We’ve almost gotten used to the value our culture places on productivity and achievement. Being busy to the point of exhaustion is glorified, but God doesn’t call us to be busy, He calls us to be fruitful. And schedules like the one this student was trying to manage on her own is part of the reason a growing number of our daughters are suffering from chronic stress that leaves them feeling afraid, overwhelmed, and completely out of control.
Some of our girls manage by taking on everything at once, some struggle to find a balance, and for some of our sweet daughters, the pressure they’re facing makes it feel impossible to find the strength or motivation to try anything at all. However they’re coping, all this stress isn’t just making them irritable and tired, it’s making them sick. So much so that small, everyday stresses can feel heavy and unmanageable. They need our help.
Why are daughters mean to their mothers? Sometimes it has less to do with what we’re doing, and more to do with what they’re trying to accomplish.
Since we know that our girls may still be a little wobbly in the planning, reasoning, and problem-solving department, we may need to initiate a conversation about how to move forward when they’ve overestimated their capabilities.
It can be hard for them to cut things from their schedules for their health and well being, but that’s one area that we truly need to stand in the gap for them. But if we’re not modeling the necessity and goodness of rest, we may need to have a chat with ourselves first.
As mommas, some of us really struggle in this area because we don’t want to be the cause of our daughter’s disappointment. Even though the things our daughters ask for may not be unreasonable, they may be unrealistic for us at that point in time. If we want our daughters to learn how to establish personal boundaries that support their health and well-being, we need to be able to own the limitations of our own time, energy, and resources. We cannot give what we do not have, and neither can our girls.
Perhaps you’ve already identified and reduced the pressure points in your daughter’s life yet conflict continues between you. Here are four things to consider to help you better understand and navigate your relationship and manage any potential difficulties that may arise.
1. Acknowledge Your Role in the Conflict
We know that the way we talk with our daughters matters and directly impacts the quality of our relationship. Yet, if I could drop a pin on a map and show you the exact location of where some of my most significant mother-daughter battles took place, you would find them sitting at the intersection of Pride and Miscommunication.
In my restlessness; in my fear and frustration; in my attempts to predict and control things that are not mine to handle, I can be blinded to the ways I’m actively contributing to the conflict with my daughter. Since I constitute 50% of that relationship, half of what goes down when an issue pops up is my responsibility, and only half of that is mine to control.
When there’s an unresolved issue between me and my daughter, I need to go to God first because sometimes I’m the problem. And then I have to begin the uncomfortable work of honestly evaluating how my words, attitude, behavior, parenting style, or even my past may need to be addressed, adjusted, or processed before we can move forward.
Conflict has such a negative connotation, but it isn’t always a bad thing. God can use it as an opportunity to help us grow. I’ve found that there’s some truth to the saying “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care,” and I’m grateful for the helpful resources that are available today to help us know ourselves and our daughters better. Even if we think we handle communication and conflict pretty well, there’s always room for improvement.
2. Identify Her Love Language
What makes your daughter feel seen, heard, and loved may be completely different from the way in which you’re trying to communicate your love and affection. That’s why I appreciate the insight I found in the books Dr. Gary Chapman has written about the five love languages: quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch, and gifts.
Studying his work, and applying it to the way I try to show love to my husband and kids, was a game changer for our family.
My daughter feels most loved by words of affirmation and acts of service. I learned that trying to express my love or support for her with big hugs or little gifts doesn’t bring her much comfort.
When she’s struggling, she needs to hear me speaking encouragement over her. Sometimes that looks like a conversation, but sometimes it’s a mother-daughter quote that I screenshot and text to her during the day.
She also needs me to take things off her plate. Driving up and cleaning her room before finals or picking up her contacts if the doctor’s office closes before she gets off work means a lot to her.
It doesn’t just go one way, either. She knows my love language, and uses it to help me feel loved by her, too.
3. Consider Your Personality Types
At first, my feelings about the Enneagram were a little on the cool side. I’d taken personality tests in the past, and really didn’t see the need to take another one. An extrovert is an extrovert, right? Then my daughter came home from college talking about it, so I took the test, did some reading, and found myself weeping at my desk.
I’m a Type One on the Enneagram, and I cannot express to you the relief I felt when I learned that there were other people in this world who know what it’s like to live with a relentless inner critic that makes it almost impossible to rest.
Behind the relaxed and confident exterior, there was a woman driven by a duty-based, tireless pursuit of perfection. After years of assuming that those vague, unnamed traits were just some kind of anxiety I struggled with as an individual, I no longer felt alone. I could now name it, place it, and ask God to help me deal with it.
It’s discouraging when we’re aware that there’s an issue, but don’t have the language we need to effectively communicate what we’re feeling or thinking. It gives the enemy a foothold. It leaves our minds free to wander all over the place and come up with some pretty believable thought distortions that don’t align with the Word of God.
Exploring the Enneagram from a Biblical perspective, and using it as a tool to facilitate a greater understanding of the way God shaped me and my daughter, helped us learn to communicate with our unique personalities and temperaments in mind.
4. Know Your Triggers
When our daughters say or do something that hurts us, it can trigger an older, deeper pain that we’ve carried with us from our past. This unresolved pain can lead us to respond to our girls’ circumstances in a way that isn’t kind or constructive. That’s why acknowledging and working through it is one of the best things we can do to improve the relationships we have with our daughters.
Maybe that hurt is something we can work through with the help of a close friend, small group, or pastor, or maybe it will require the help of a licensed therapist. Either way, we all want to parent from a whole and healthy place and prevent dysfunctional parenting issues from taking root and causing stress and conflict within our relationship.
For me, the healing process started with a prayer that went something like, “Alright, God. I know I probably should’ve come to see You sooner, but I’m here now. Search my heart. Clean out all the yuck. I know it’s going to take a while. I know it’s going to be uncomfortable, but I’m ready. You’re with me. Let’s do this.”
Whatever taking control of your emotional and mental health looks like for you, I want to encourage you to take a first step towards healing. Sometimes we need a little help. And that’s okay.
READY, SET, GO
Why are daughters mean to their mothers? There are probably a few right answers for each of us.
The relationship between mothers and daughters is complex because we’re uniquely made, and we grow, learn, and change as we move through different seasons of our lives. We’re made for connection and community, and although conflict exists in the relationships we have with our girls, it doesn’t have to destroy them.
When we learn to understand and appreciate the ways in which they are different, communicate openly and honestly with our girls, and try to navigate conflict in a way that keeps in step with the Spirit, it can actually lead to development of a safe and trusting relationship. One that will never be perfect, but one where we can create a joyful life in which we get to watch each other grow and pursue the things we’re intentionally shaped for and called to accomplish.
Girl moms, how do you manage the conflict that arises between you and your daughter? How might the tips discussed in this article lead you to make some changes as you work toward cultivating a positive and healthy mother-daughter relationship?
Photos by Molly Cable | @molly.kathleen.documentary
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