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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships

In the past, I wrote several articles about mother-daughter relationships, including:  Healing Mother-Daughter RelationshipsLife Stages in Mother-Daughter Relationships and Mother-Daughter Relationships Over the Course of a Lifetime).

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships

In this article, I'm focusing on role reversal between mothers and daughters, including the dynamics when the daughter is a young child as well as the effect on their relationship later on when the daughter is an adult.

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships: Early Childhood
When there is a role reversal dynamic in a mother-daughter relationship, the young daughter usually takes on the role of the mother in terms of mothering the mother (and other family members) by becoming the helper, confidante, and caretaker of the mother.

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships: Early Childhood

It's not unusual in this dynamic for the daughter to take on adult responsibilities at a young age such as cooking, cleaning, taking care of the other children in the household, listening to the mother's problems, and trying to solve the mother's problems.

In some highly dysfunctional families, it might also involve the daughter taking on the role of the sex partner to the father, sometimes with the mother's knowledge and sometimes without.

Why Does a Mother "Allow" Her Daughter to Take On the Mothering Role?
Mothers who are part of this dynamic often have their own unmet emotional childhood needs from when they were growing up, possibly in a similar dynamic with their own mother.

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships: Early Childhood

Growing up with unmet emotional needs makes it more likely that mothers will unconsciously seek the nurturing that they didn't receive from their own mothers from their young daughters.

Aside from having unmet emotional needs, the mother might also have other problems, including:
  • Being incapacitated by depression
  • Lacking parenting skills
  • Getting pregnant at a very young age and lacking the maturity to take care of her daughter 
  • Having unwanted pregnancies
  • Being physically sick
  • Being overwhelmed by too many other responsibilities
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs, engaging in compulsive gambling or other impulsive/compulsive behavior
  • Being in an abusive relationship with the father (or another man) 
  • Having a succession of men in and out of her life with each one becoming the focus on her attention rather than her daughter
and so on.

Often this dynamic is perpetuated from one generation to the next without the mothers or daughters even realizing it, unless they get help in therapy.

Young daughters who take on the mother role are usually emotionally overwhelmed because they are behaving in ways that are beyond their developmental capacity.

Not only are their own emotional needs not being met because they're being emotionally neglected, but they are overexerting themselves mentally, emotionally and physically, often without any emotional support.

If they're also taking on the role as the father's sex partner, this is, obviously, extremely damaging and exacerbates the emotional trauma.

Often the mother in the role reversal dynamic, without realizing it, lacks empathy for the daughter.

The mother might lack empathy because she hasn't dealt with her own history of being in a role reversal with her mother.

This is a complicated dynamic and, as illogical as it might seem, this doesn't mean necessarily that the mother in this situation doesn't love the daughter.

The lack of empathy usually means that the mother is unable or unwilling to see the damage being done, despite the love she might feel for the daughter, because she doesn't know how to be nurturing and her own unfulfilled emotional needs are so great.

The mother also might not know how to express love to her daughter because her own mother never expressed it to her.

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships:  The Adult Relationship Between the Mother and Daughter:  Possibilities for Healing
It's not unusual that later on in life, when the mother is older and the daughter becomes an adult, for there to be tension between the mother and daughter.

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships: The Adult Relationship Between Mother and Daughter

If the mother is now better able to be loving towards her adult daughter because she has matured and developed more emotionally, there is the possibility for healing their relationship, even if the mother has a lot of shame about the role reversal and the daughter is resentful.

A lot will depend upon the particular mother and daughter.

Some mothers and daughters continue to have an ambivalent, codependent relationship as adults (see my article:  Ambivalence and Codependency in Mother-Daughter Relationships).

Some adult daughters have so much anger, resentment and bitterness towards the mother that they find it difficult to forgive her, even if the mother expresses remorse for their role reversal when the daughter was a child.

Other daughters might develop a kind of intellectual insight ("I know my mother did the best that she could") but, without help in therapy, they remain stuck emotionally and ambivalent in their conflict because even though they might have an intellectual understanding, they don't understand it on an emotional level.

Unfortunately, this is a common experience for many daughters in this situation.

Many daughters are aware that they paid the emotional price for the role reversal, and they're determined that they won't perpetuate this dynamic with their own children.  Many of them go on to have healthy relationships with their children.

But many of them, despite their best efforts, end up having dysfunctional relationships with their children.   They might overindulge their children (like giving them everything that the child wants because they didn't get what they needed when they were children).

They might over function for their children, doing things for their children that their children are capable of doing for themselves. Or they have some other emotional blind spot with regard to their children, especially their daughters.

Some mothers find it difficult to acknowledge the role reversal either because they're in denial about it, they're too ashamed to discuss it or they're dismissive of the pain it caused the daughter due to their lack of empathy ("That was a long time ago.  You should just let it go").

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships: The Adult Relationship Between Mother and Daughter
Other mothers want to make a sincere effort to heal the relationship with their daughter, but they don't know how.  Or, their daughter, as an adult, might be unwilling.

There are many variations on this theme.

In a future article, I'll continue this discussion and give a fictional vignette to illustrate the points that I've discussed in this article.

Getting Help in Therapy
Overcoming the emotional consequences of role reversal in mother-daughter relationships can be challenging and, for some people impossible, to do on your own.

Many mothers and adult daughters have been helped by coming to mother-daughter therapy to overcome the problems between them.

With an objective mental health professional, who understands the dynamics involved with this type of role reversal, mothers and daughters often find that they are able to heal their relationship with each other.

Even in situations where one person, either the mother or the daughter, is unable or unwilling to come to therapy to work on this problem, many individuals have healed in individual therapy from the trauma of this dynamic.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples, including mothers and adult daughters and fathers and adult sons.

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 business hours or email me.