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Dear Mama, It’s Complicated. Navigating Through Difficult Mother-Daughter Relationships

 Aneesha Perkins, PsyD and Charmain Jackman, PhD

You know mothers are special because Mother's Day is celebrated twice every year: 2nd Sunday or 4th Sunday depending on where you live in the world. While we use these days to shower moms with love and gifts and share fond memories, we know that there is another side that’s often not spoken about. For some, there is also (or only) pain, sadness, and even anger when you think about your mother. If there were a Facebook status to describe the relationship dynamics with you and your mom, maybe it’d be: It’s complicated.

If you are looking for ways to navigate your mother-daughter relationship in new ways, check out these 4 Strategies for Navigating Complicated Mother-Daughter Relationships

  1. Make Space for Your Grief – Ambiguous grief describes the feelings we have when someone close to us has not actually died, but the relationship has. Perhaps the sadness, frustration, anger, or disappointment with our mothers is centered around the role we were expecting and desiring for them to play, but they didn’t, and that can hurt immensely. You wanted them to be available emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, but they weren’t or couldn’t, and it hurts. Deeply. Make space for your grief for the loss of the mother-daughter relationship you hoped for. We grieve people who are still alive. Grieving can be healing as it allows you to let go of what could have been and to accept what is.

  2. Accept Who They Are –It can be easy to compare your mother-daughter relationship with friends, family, and even celebrities. Yet, this comparison can be detrimental and hinder accepting one’s mothers for who they are versus the fantasy of what we wish them to be. Comparison prevents acceptance. Our mothers may have parts that we appreciate and also have parts that have caused us harm, trauma, or distress. Our mothers have stories and journeys that have shaped them in ways we may know and in ways we may never know or understand, and we can empathize with that. Their experiences have directly or indirectly influenced the manner in which they have mothered us. While change is always possible, we must accept them for who they are at this moment.

  3. Communicate Your Needs When Setting Boundaries—Boundaries are not limited to friends and romantic relationships. They are essential in family dynamics as well. Boundaries extend beyond saying no, as emotional, physical, and financial boundaries exist too. If some of the challenges between you and your mother have left you feeling traumatized, mistreated, or neglected, take some time to express your feelings and needs to your mother first. Then, create boundaries that help you to feel safe, respected, and honored. Give her the opportunity (if you have not already) to hear how her behaviors have impacted you and identify what is essential for your relationship to heal. Schedule a time to meet and talk, you can write a letter, or even send a voice note…sometimes you just need to say what you have to say without being interrupted. While you are not in control of her response, if she honors your boundaries, that is a great first step to creating a healthier foundation together. If she is not able to hear what you need, then you decide how your relationship looks going forward. It does not mean that you totally cut them off, but you may change how you engage with her.

  4. Create Your Own Closure—Some of us are waiting for an acknowledgment, a conversation, the truth, or an apology to move forward. Some of our mothers may no longer be alive, leading to unresolved issues and unanswered questions that we believe would unlock many of our heart’s queries and fill the gaps of information that feels critical to moving forward. The truth is, we may not receive the answers or apologies that are due. However, once you’ve accepted and grieved your complicated relationship with your mother, you can create the healthiest way to find resolve. Working with a therapist can help you to create space and grace for you and to design what closure will look like for you. 

Sis, your relationship with your mother may be a sore spot. While there may be pain and sadness, there can also be hope, joy, and resolve despite the challenging mother-daughter obstacles you’ve endured. Tools are available to help strengthen your relationship with your mother or live a healthy life, even when it’s complicated. As you reflect on your mother-daughter dynamic, what will be your next step to healing and holding space for you?

A note for mom: 

Moms, we love you and we want you to hear our pain. When we come to you, listen to what we have to say. Hear our struggle. It might be really hard to take it all in, but we need you to receive it. We know you went through some stuff, but maybe you can find ways to stop letting that stuff impact our relationship. Forgive yourself and work to have a different relationship with me, your daughter.


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