Even in loving adult daughter-mother relationships, there’s often a certain amount of tension. While it’s rarely talked about—it’s adolescence that gets all the press—the relationship has to undergo a transition when the daughter reaches adulthood.
Frankly, it’s not easy for many mothers, especially if they are used to micromanaging or feel strongly that it’s their way or the highway; feeling abandoned may also be a factor that feeds intrusiveness. Mom may be disappointed in her adult daughter’s choices or shocked by the career path (or lack of it) or partners her child chooses. From the daughter’s point of view, her mother’s advice and criticism, especially if unsolicited and constant, can feel invasive and unwelcome.
Boundaries are usually a huge issue for daughters of unloving mothers, even in adulthood. These adult daughters often still feel the need to try to wrest the mother love they want, on the one hand, while becoming more and conscious of how their mothers affect them in negative or toxic ways, on the other. Hypercritical mothers are likely to become more so as daughters demonstrate independence, as will combative ones. Daughters with dismissive or neglectful mothers may still be emotionally needy enough that they have trouble putting boundaries in place with everyone in their lives, including their mothers.
The issue of boundaries is also complicated by the daughter’s continuing ambivalence: Should she stay and keep trying to please her mother and get her love, demonstrate her filial loyalty so she can hang onto other family members she cares about, or should she give up and cut ties? The inability to set boundaries that work often leads a daughter to opt for a total cut-off.
What follows are some commonsense strategies founded in science for those daughters for whom, for whatever reason, boundaries have become an issue. Daughters with toxic mothers especially need to keep boundaries in mind so that they can escape from the patterns of childhood.
- Be clear about your goals
This should not be an off-the-cuff conversation if your space is being trampled by a mother who is essentially loving and especially not if your mother is hurtful. First, organize your thoughts, writing them down if you need to, and be articulate about your goal. Is it to stop your mother from being intrusive? Is it to change the tenor of your conversations?
Try to see this as a problem to be solved, not a battleground. Schedule a time to talk to your mother that won’t be interrupted. If this is important, you need her undivided attention. Be aware ahead of time that your tone has to be spot on or your mother will get defensive. This is not an opportunity to criticize her; it is supposed to fix things. If your mother is unloving, keep in mind that you are probably doing this more for you than for her. Really.
- Be proactive, not defensive
Studies show that framing a goal in a positive way—“I want to improve our connection” versus “To stop you from hurting my feelings”—will not only motivate you but make you feel more confident about why you are setting boundaries in the first place. For the unloved daughter who may not trust herself, this is extremely important.
- Explain cause and effect
Work at making sure that your tone isn’t accusatory and that you don’t end up delivering what expert John Gottman calls “kitchensinking” – an angry catalog of your mother’s every flaw. Using the words “You always”—which turns an example into a generalization—will only make your mother defensive and make it harder for her to hear you. Choose a few examples and explain how her words and actions make you feel. With many unloving mothers, you will really have to work hard at not being too reactive since they usually push back hard.
- Manage your emotions
Remember that your goal was to put boundaries in place, not to launch into World War III. Using “cool” processing when you think about the relationship—focusing on why you felt as you did when your mother said or did something—helps to regulate feelings so that you don’t get pulled back into the heat of the moment just thinking about it. If talking to your mother becomes impossible, end the conversation and retreat without engaging. This is one situation where “being in it to win it” will actually doom your efforts.
- Don’t negotiate
While meeting in the middle can often be a fruitful way of moving forward, understanding the need for each of us to have stable boundaries isn’t an issue that can be dealt with this way. Your mother has to realize it’s not cutting back on her behavior that matters; it’s working to change it.
Photograph by Orlando Marty. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Elliot, Andrew J. and Mary A. Church, “Client-Articulated Avoidance Goals in the Therapy Context,” Journal of Counseling Psychology (2002(, 49, no.2, 243-254.
Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Water Mischel, “When Asking ‘Why’ Doesn’t Hurt: Distinguishing Rumination from Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions, “Psychological Science (2005), vol. 16, no.9, 709-715.