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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Life Stages in Mother-Daughter Relationships

In a prior blog post, I wrote about Ambivalence and Codependence in Mother-Daughter Relationships. That blog post presented the complex nature of mother-daughter relationships when there are problems with enmeshment. At this point, I would like to return to the topic of mother-daughter relationships to step back and look at these relationships over the course of the various life stages that mothers and daughters go through.

Life Stages in Mother-Daughter Relationships

Mother-Daughter Relationships - Early Bonding:
There is no doubt that, in general, fathers are more involved with their children than they were a generation ago, which is encouraging. But the primary parental relationship for most girls and women remains the mother-daughter relationship.

During the 1940s and earlier, people believed that babies were born as blank screens, but we now know that from early infancy we're biologically "hard wired" for attachment. That means that infants seek warmth and comfort from Day One: the warmth and scent of her mother's skin, the comfort of her mother's breast, and the sound of her mother's voice. When bonding goes well between mother and infant, the baby feels a secure attachment to her mother. This secure attachment between mother and child makes it more likely, all other things being equal, that the child will develop healthy relationships later on in life.

Under optimal conditions during infancy, the baby and mother are also bonded through the mother's loving gaze. The baby sees herself in the mother's eyes and feels the mother's love. The mother, in turn, sees how comforted the baby feels being mirrored in the mother's eyes and this is comforting to the mother as well. This interaction provides a positive feedback loop between mother and child and reinforces this bond.

Mother and Daughter Relationships - From Early Years (18 months to age 5):
At around the age of 18-24 months, babies begin to learn to separate from their mothers for short periods of time. Margaret Mahler referred to the "separation/individuation" phase when, under optimal circumstances, babies learn that their mothers continue to exist even when they are out of sight. This is also the time when babies begin to assert some of their autonomy by saying, "No!" If the mother is patient and recognizes this as a normal stage of development, babies gradually outgrow this sometimes difficult stage.

From about the age of four or five, most daughters idealize their mothers. They often find their mothers to be attractive and glamorous. At this stage, many girls want to mimic their mothers by putting on the their mothers' makeup or playing dress-up with "mommy's clothes." They often think of their mothers as beautiful and all-knowing.

Some daughters have a hard time separating from their mothers when it's time to start school (this occurs with sons as well sometimes). It's their first time away from the security they feel with their mother to be in a new and strange environment with a stranger (the teacher) who is now in charge. Most of the time, young girls are able to make this adjustment, and the mother remains their primary attachment figure.

Mother-Daughter Relationships - During the Daughter's Adolescence:
While mothers are idealized when children are four or five years old, teenagers often see their mothers as being old fashioned or "out of it." This is another stage where children are learning to separate themselves emotionally from their mothers.

This stage can be bewildering to mothers who often say, "What happened to my relationship with my daughter?" This is a time when teens bond with their peer group, and a friend's advice or opinion is often valued more than a mother's.

Tension and conflict during this period of time can be managed if both mothers and daughters accept and respect each other rather than viewing each other as the enemy. Since they're the adults, mothers have a greater onus for being understanding and fostering good relationships with their daughters. However, daughters must also learn to be open and respectful towards their mothers. Mothers need to learn to allow their daughters an age-appropriate degree of autonomy, but mothers must also provide guidance and support while setting boundaries for their daughters. Daughters will often test these boundaries, but this is also a normal part of adolescence.

Mother-Daughter Relationships - Daughters in Their 20s and 30s:
During their 20s, daughters are no longer teenagers, but some of them, depending upon their level of maturity, might not feel like adults yet. Prior to the 1990s, many daughters were able to go out on their own and live independently after college because apartments were more affordable. Now, with fewer rent stabilized and moderate income housing, many daughters continue to live at home for longer periods of time, depending upon their parents for longer as compared to prior generations.

During their 20s, many daughters often realize that their mothers are fallible and they don't always have all of the answers. During this period, many of them are being challenged by career choices and choosing a mate. Often, they're learning how to distinguish themselves from their mothers while attempting to maintain a bond with them.

During their 30s, many daughters are starting to come into their own with regard to career and their own family. Under ideal circumstances, they are less emotionally and financially dependent on their mothers. They often realize that their ideas differ from their mothers with regard to certain values. At this point, if they are in committed relationships with a significant others, under optimal circumstances, daughters are learning to put their partners first. This can create tension in the mother-daughter relationship, unless mothers understand that this is a normal part of development.

Mother-Daughter Relationships - 40s and Beyond:
Although there are many sons who help to take care of their elderly mothers, traditionally, for better or worse, it has been the daughter's responsibility to take care of elderly parents. For many women, who are "sandwiched" between their own families and their parents, this can be very challenging. During this time, daughters and mothers start to come to terms with the fact that mothers are aging and have more years behind them than ahead. How well they deal with this is often dependent upon how well their relationship has developed until this point.

This is also often a time when mothers and daughters let go of old resentments in light of the fact that mothers are elderly at this point and time might be short for reconciliation. Under most circumstances, daughters often develop a different perspective of what's important, especially if they now have their own children and they understand better what their mothers went through with them.

In future blog posts, I will continue to explore mother-daughter relationships.

About Me
I am a New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, Somatic Experiencing therapist, and EMDR therapist. I work with individuals and couples.

As a psychotherapist, I have helped many mothers and daughters, individually and together, to improve their relationships.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during regular business hours or email me.