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A Psychologist Explains How to Improve Your Mother-Daughter Relationship

a psychologist explains how to improve your mother daughter relationship

We all have this dream of what an adult mother-daughter relationship should look like. When we think of it, we picture an older woman and a younger woman talking openly, laughing, being friends, or maybe an adult woman and a teen child sharing openly about life with no concerns of judgment.

I heard so many times as a young woman, “We raise our daughters to one day be our best friend.” I don’t know about you, but I always felt uncomfortable with that phrase! What happens when we don’t have that relationship with our mother or our daughter? What if that relationship is toxic?

Anytime we force a relationship that is not healthy, it just increases our own anxiety, negative feelings, and overall unhappiness.

I recall a patient coming into my office around Mother’s Day tearful, almost panicky. She said that she invited her mother to go to the spa with her for the holiday, and her mother commented, “Can you please just give me the gift card for the spa, so we don’t have to torture each other and spend time together?” My patient, rightfully, was so hurt. We had done a lot of processing to get her to the point that she felt confident about spending time with her mother, and then it was as though her mom had mentally slapped her.

I also recall a friend of mine begging her teen daughter to have a relationship with her. She tried so desperately to talk to her daughter, only to get shut down every chance. The girl was so aligned with her father since her parents’ divorce that the mother could not even text with her daughter without the father interjecting. She tried so hard to be loving and kind, only to be ghosted or worse yet, told she was worthless and only an egg donor. Ouch!

Steps to Take to Improve Your Mother/Daughter Relationship

The first step when your relationship with your mother or daughter is toxic is to let go of that impossible dream. It is OK if your relationship with your mother is not like your friend’s relationship. Not every family looks the same and having a lofty dream of what yours should be is only torturing you.

Remind yourself of all the good relationships you do have. Maybe you are close with your aunt, your mother-in-law, your best friend’s mother, or another older woman. Or maybe you are close with your daughter-in-law, a younger colleague, or your granddaughter. Be grateful for the other relationships that lift you up and sustain you.

The first step when your relationship with your mother or daughter is toxic is to let go of that impossible dream.

The next step is to realize the only person you can control is yourself. You have no control over your mother’s or daughter’s behaviors. So many people want to change an unhealthy relationship by trying to control the other person. Let me give you the spoiler to this novel idea: it does not work, never ever. Sorry. No matter how amazing, smart, loving, kind, or giving you are, you cannot change anyone other than yourself. The other person has to want to change, and if she does not want to change, guess what? She won’t.

4 surprising things that make a virtuous woman boardYou can give your mom a million and five reasons why her excessive drinking around you and/or your kids is toxic. But if she wants to have those glasses of wine, she will. Maybe your daughter is in an abusive relationship. You reminding her during every phone call of how awful her partner is won’t make her leave him. She knows how much he has hurt her—she feels it every day. Be kind, supportive of, and loving toward her, and pray that when she gets the courage, she will come to you for help with her exit plan because she will not feel judged but will feel safe with you.

Once you realize you can only control yourself, then you need to set boundaries with the toxicity. Just because she is your daughter does not mean that you have to ride the crazy roller coaster. If you feel like you are walking on eggshells, then you probably are.

You need to decide what you are comfortable with in the relationship. Are you OK with texting, but talking is too hard? Then text only. Explain how you feel and tell your daughter how you would like to interact. Maybe you can only handle seeing your mother at major holidays. Explain that because of the behaviors, at this time, you can only see each other for holidays. The important thing is to be kind—but direct and firm.

After These Steps, You Must Maintain Boundaries

The true key in all of this is maintaining those boundaries. You must not pick a boundary you cannot live with. If you need your mom to watch your children for a couple of hours every Wednesday afternoon and no one else can do it, then it is not realistic to set the boundary to see each other on holidays only. You will be breaking that boundary by next Wednesday, and your mom has learned to not take you seriously.

If your daughter only calls when she needs money, you need to decide if and when you are comfortable giving her money, and stick to those rules. I had a mother come to me because she felt sorry for her daughter, who was a single mother of four children. She moved into a mobile home and gave her home to her daughter, so her “grandchildren had a roof over their heads.” She paid the taxes and insurance on the house, all while living on her social security and worrying about having enough money for food for herself.

When her daughter came to her asking for more money, she came to me and asked if she should do a reverse mortgage on the home. We discussed the pros/cons of this, and she realized that between child support and alimony, her daughter had five times the monthly income she did. That was eye-opening for her to recognize the importance of setting and maintaining boundaries.

Once you realize you can only control yourself, then you need to set boundaries with the toxicity of this relationship.

What If It’s Too Late?

I also have many patients who lost their mother or daughter and lived with regrets over how that relationship was when the person passed away. One mother stands out to me. She worked so diligently over many years to get her daughter into treatment for her addiction to pain pills. She paid for and took her to many therapists, treatment programs, and the list goes on.

One day she got “the call,” and, sadly, it was two days after her daughter called her and said she was worthless, judgmental, and the most selfish mother in the world for not sharing her Vicodin after her tooth extraction. She was so devastated and continually played the “what if” tape in her head—wondering if she had just shared the medication, would her daughter still be here?

It took her a while to move through the grief and realize that she had no control over her daughter’s choices and that her choice was right because otherwise, she was just perpetuating the addiction and then would have had the more difficult “what if” tape of maybe being the one who caused her daughter’s overdose.

Forgiveness boardWhy You Need to Focus on the Good

Lastly and most importantly, focus on the good that is in that relationship with your mother and/or daughter. Is it helpful that your mom taught you how to be independent because she has never been reliable? Or that your daughter gave you an amazing grandchild, with whom you have a wonderful relationship? Even in the most difficult of relationships, there is a life lesson that we can glean to help us grow and better ourselves. It may not be easily apparent, but with time and intentional thinking, you can find something good, albeit, at times, it feels small compared to the pain of the toxic relationship.

While it is difficult to come to the realization that the relationship you had hoped for with your daughter or mother is not possible, there are steps you can take to heal yourself and move forward with life. Give yourself grace as you work through letting go of that dream, and use your grit to maintain the boundaries with that toxic relationship so that it can no longer control you and your happiness.

There are many resources out there to help you work through the heartache of a relationship that is not what you hoped for with your parent and/or child:

Toxic Parents: Overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life by Dr. Susan Forward
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson, Ph.D.
When You and Your Mother Can’t be Friends by Victoria Secunda
Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Dr. Karyl McBride
Done with Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Other Resources:

  • There are many great retreats for mothers and daughters to go on to build their relationships, just a quick Google search away to find one near you.
  • The Mother-Daughter Project is a wonderful way to help build your relationship with your adolescent daughter.
  • I also recommend that mothers and their daughters of elementary through high school age start a journal together. There are a few rules: The journal stays only between the mother and daughter unless a safety issue comes up. It is a place to “talk” about things that are too hard to talk about face to face, and whatever is discussed in the journal is not talked about outside of the journal. Amazon has many examples of these journals, including one where you can draw art back and forth.
  • Lastly, sometimes it is helpful to talk to a therapist to help you learn how to navigate your relationship with your mother or daughter. It does not mean you are weak if you need to talk to an expert to help you figure out how you to manage this difficult relationship.

Even in the most difficult of relationships, there is a life lesson that we can glean to help us grow and better ourselves.

You’ll love this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace Life: This Is How to Handle a Hard Relationship With Your Mom – 089!



Dr. Christina is a licensed psychologist in a private practice who mostly specializes in children's issues as well as family law. She’s a Midwestern native, wife, and mom of two living in Florida who travels north often to enjoy the beauty of the seasons.

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