Most daughters keep their painful childhood experiences tightly under wraps for years, confiding in no one. The reasons for maintaining what I’ve called The Code of Silence are many, even though it is terribly self-isolating. First and most important is the daughter’s need to belong and, most of the time, she wants to be “like everyone else.” That magic circle of “everyone else” is made up of daughters whose mothers love and support them, and the last thing a daughter wants to do is reveal her outsider status. Then, too, she worries that perhaps she’s to blame for her mother not loving her and that fear isn’t something she wants to share either.

But there does come a time in most daughters’ lives when they want more than anything to have someone understand their experiences, to end the self-imposed silence, and to be seen truly. Alas, the experience is often less than wonderful, and may actually further damage both her sense of self and her ability to trust others. What’s often at play are cultural forces that animate the larger dialogue about motherhood and impact, often unconsciously, how even caring people react to the daughter’s story.

The court of public opinion

I’ve said this many times but, in this courtroom, it’s always the daughter who’s on trial. While the culture gives parents who have no or little contact with a child or who are openly critical of her character a pass, that’s not likely to happen to a daughter. The culture reassures the parent, murmuring that parenting is so hard, that children can be difficult or impossible, and listen sympathetically. They take for granted that the mother has done her very best and tried everything. None of that is offered to the unloved daughter.

The myths of motherhood—that all mothers are loving and that mothering is instinctual—dominate how cultural thinking reacts to the daughter’s story, boosted by the authority of a Biblical Commandment that tells us to honor our mother and father. For some, simply speaking about your experience, then, is tantamount to dishonoring her.

But when the cultural stance doesn’t dominate a listener’s thinking, he or she—especially if his or her own family was close-kit and supportive—may simply not know what to say or how to respond. Alas, many people don’t understand that empathy doesn’t require you to say anything—It’s about listening, not talking—but feel the need to say something that sounds vaguely like reassurance or comfort. It’s often an unwitting disaster.

So, as a kind of Public Service Announcement, here are the top six things that might float into your head as you’re listening to a daughter’s experiences and might seem like good words to utter, along with the reasons why you should never say them. These are drawn both from my own personal experience (I have heard all of them many times) and those of many other women I’ve interviewed or been in contact with.

  1. “It couldn’t have been that bad because you turned out just fine.”

On the surface, this sounds reassuring since you’re complimenting the person but, in fact, it marginalizes every aspect of the experience she’s just confided in you; additionally, it shows that you weren’t really listening because the chances are good that she enumerated some of the important ways she isn’t “just fine.” The simple truth is that we can’t tell from the outside how okay anyone is inside by their outward achievements or coping skills. So, please, recognize that this remark, no matter how well-intentioned, is incredibly hurtful and may actually discourage the daughter from trying to open up to anyone again.

  1. “I’m sure your mother tried her best; no one’s perfect.”

Yes, this springs from a tributary of the mother myths and while it’s supposed to be reassuring that your mother didn’t act deliberately and that it wasn’t your fault, it again marginalizes the speaker, especially if she knows her mother didn’t do her best. Lots of people have imperfect mothers who are loving and provide enough support that they thrive nonetheless; what you are listening to is not that. So ixnay on this one too.

  1. “She fed, clothed, educated you and put a roof over your head. It could have been worse.”

Again, reminding you that the world can be a very dark place and that you’re actually lucky is, I guess, supposed to make you feel instantly grateful for the fact that you weren’t literally starved. Not. Children’s emotional needs are every bit as important as their physical ones—babies who are fed, watered, and sheltered but deprived of touch and emotional connection not just fail to thrive but may actually die—and discounting them is either woefully ignorant or incredibly insensitive. And besides, that list of what Mom did do is comprised of legal obligations imposed on a parent and summarizes the services provided by an orphanage. Please hit the delete button.

  1. “At least you weren’t physically abused.”

This is the one that really pushes all of my buttons because it underscores the fact that our culture still doesn’t understand or appreciate the long-term and lasting effects of verbal and emotional abuse. Begin by forgetting that “Sticks and stones may break my bones/ But words can never harm me” thing because it’s not true. Science knows that verbal abuse changes the neural pathways of the developing brain, leads to internalizing the messages uttered by the abusive parent as self-criticism, isn’t ameliorated by kind words uttered by another parent, and that physical and emotional pain share the same neural circuitry so please just stop. Many unloved daughters remark that they wish the abuse had been physical so that it would have been easier to see how they were wounded. So, please, abuse is abuse and there’s no comfort in compare and contrast.

  1. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

If this is an adage that makes you feel better, I am fine with that and you can hold that thought along with the magnet you have on your fridge, but please be so kind as not to share it with others who might not share your point of view. Again, these words are often offered as some kind of solace or comfort, a prize to be retrieved from the smoldering ruins, but they’re really not. In truth, many people emerge from childhood considerably weakened or broken by the experience, and have a long road of healing ahead of them. If, in the end, they chose to focus on the strengths they garnered along the way, that’s their privilege—and not yours to offer up.

  1. “Isn’t it time you let this go?”

Again, you may think this is well-meaning but, honestly, there’s no expiration date on pain, mourning, or distress, and childhood experiences have a long reach. It often takes decades of adulthood, even with therapy, for a daughter to process and deal with how she was affected by her childhood treatment. This remark casts the person who’s suffering as a whiner, an adult who just hasn’t managed to suck it up the way you think she ought to and it is, seen from her point of view, distinctly unhelpful. She’ll let it go when she’s good and ready, thank you very much. And don’t tell her she’ll feel so much better if she just forgives her mother either. That’s her choice.

When someone confides in you about her childhood experiences, don’t feel compelled to do anything but listen. But, most important, please don’t say any of these things or ones that might be kissing cousins because they hurt. Really



Photograph by Skitterphoto. Copyright free.