Ten Tips for Improving Adult Mother-Daughter Communication

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By Sheila R. Klatzky

Millennial daughters want to grow up.  Their Baby Boomer mothers don’t want to grow old.  That sets up a dance of ambivalence and resentment that can last for years, leaving the relationship in tatters.  So, what can mothers do to promote a healthier adult mother-daughter relationship?  Better communication is one important key.

Here are ten DOs and DON’Ts that can help improve communication between mothers and their adult daughters:

DO find ways to change the way you speak.  Does your so-called “advice” to your daughter consist mostly of criticism?  Do you constantly notice ways she could improve her appearance, her home, her hair?  If so, you are pushing her away.  If she wants your advice, she’ll ask for it.  And even when she does, be careful what you say.  She is probably seeking validation, not a recommendation for change.

DO listen with empathy.  Ask probing, open-ended questions to better understand her point of view.   Try to imagine what it is like seeing the world through her eyes, the eyes of a 20- or 30-something dealing with circumstances and conditions that are different from those you faced when you were her age.

DO be the bearer of good news as well as bad.  It’s ok to share bad news, but don’t let it dominate every conversation.  Find ways to let your daughter know that your life is positive and fulfilling so that she’ll have one less thing to worry about.   If your life isn’t positive and fulfilling, find ways to make it so.

DO ask directly for what you want or need.  Indirect communication may be effective when you want a diamond bracelet from your husband for your anniversary, but it puts an unnecessary burden on the mother-adult relationship when she has to find the hidden message in everything you say. 

DO acknowledge your limits.    The gift of a down payment on a new car is one thing.  A down payment on a house is another.  That means, of course, that you have to know your own limits, stick to them, and communicate them to your daughter.   It will help to liberate you both.

DON’T let your unfulfilled expectations cloud the relationship.  We’ve all had disappointments (often based on the legacy of unfulfilled expectations we inherited from our own mothers).   But your daughter is her own person, not a vehicle for the fulfillment of your unrealized dreams.  Try to see her and accept her for who she is, not for who you want her to be.  And take the time to examine your own assumptions about the way life ought to be.

DON’T judge.    To see it is to be it.  The things you find fault with in your daughter are all too often the things you find fault with in yourself.  Try turning the lamp of reflection back on yourself and ask, “Where is that judgement coming from?  What does it say about me?”

DON’T cling.   Expecting your daughter to be your main source of emotional support or to fill the empty hole in your life that opened up when your children grew up and moved out is like dropping pebbles down a well.   You may hear a faint echo, but you won’t get much of a response, and you’ll probably just muddy the water.

DON’T generalize.  Statements such as “You always…” or “You never…” are usually the lead-in to an argument.  Nobody likes to think of themselves as a character is someone else’s drama.  Statements that begin with “I” are usually more effective than statements that begin with “You.”

DON’T give up.  Mother-adult daughter relationships are fraught with tension.  They are also the source of some of our deepest joy.  When your daughter seeks you out, be available; and appreciate the moment for what it can be—a time when you can share a moment of vulnerability with one another.

Sheila R. Klatzky is a former sociologist (Ph.D., University of Chicago) and key contributor to the Westchester Women’s Agenda’s “2016 Report on the Status of Women in Westchester.”  She has researched, written and spoken publicly about issues affecting women.  She is also the author of a blog, sMotherShame

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