How To Heal A Difficult Mother-Daughter Relationship

Many books and movies give the impression that relationships between mothers and daughters are generally amazing.

We see supportive mums who are best friends with their adoring daughters, and kinships between them that are full of magical, intuitive understanding and appreciation.

Reality isn’t always that sweet, however.

In fact, more often than not, the relationships between mothers and daughters are somewhere on a spectrum between “difficult” and downright toxic.

What constitutes a toxic mother-daughter relationship?

Certain types of mother-daughter dynamic spring up time and time again, and they can cause anxiety, conflict, and tension between family members.

This is because mother-daughter relationships don’t just affect the two people involved, but often extend to other parents, siblings, and grandchildren.

Other members can take sides, become alienated or estranged, and everything dissolves into a giant mess, especially during holidays.

So why are so many mother-daughter dynamics so unhealthy?

When women are lamenting the fact that they don’t have the loving, accepting, supportive mum they’ve always wanted, they often forget that mothers are women too.

They’ve likely been raised with toxic ideas about how to relate to other women… and they’ll extend that behavior toward their daughters as well.

This may result in mothers seeing their daughters as competition for other people’s attention, including fathers, other older female family members, and children/grandchildren.

It can also manifest in the mother trying to live vicariously, whether that’s her appearance, her hobbies, or her career.

You’ll often see the latter in child beauty pageants, or when mothers insist on their daughters pursuing activities like figure skating or ballet because they want them to, not because the girls have any sincere interest.

So what can be done about these relationships?

Can they be healed?

Let’s take a look at some of the most common difficult mother-daughter dynamics, and what we can do to ameliorate them.

A mother who refuses to acknowledge that you’re an adult.

This dynamic is an incredibly difficult one to navigate for both parties.

Your mother might be unable to see you as a mature, capable adult, regardless of your age, career, and personal responsibilities.

In turn, you may get frustrated with her and resort to snapping at her.

By doing so, possibly behaving like you did when you were a teenager, you reinforce her beliefs about your lack of maturity.

Infuriating, isn’t it?

You might have an amazing career, several kids, and/or countless other accomplishments under your belt, and she’ll still speak to you like you’re an incompetent child.

This dynamic tends to happen when a mother feels a sense of loss that her little girl doesn’t need her anymore.

She’ll cling to her idea of who you were when the two of you got on best, and try to project that onto you whenever possible.

Deep down, she might realize that you are, in fact, a grown woman, but there’s a part of her that desperately still needs to be needed.

She doesn’t realize that what she’s projecting onto you is what’s harming the relationship.

In a situation like this, try to recognize her behavior for what it is, and work on reducing your “I’m being disrespected” triggers.

When we understand where a person’s behavior stems from, we have a better set of coping mechanisms for dealing with it.

Try not to snap at her, but do discuss how you feel about her behavior toward you.

Remember to use “I feel” language instead of accusatory “you always…” phrases.

For example: “I feel like you don’t trust my judgement when you try to tell me how to raise my kids,” rather than “you make me feel incompetent as a mother.”

By doing that, you give her the opportunity to examine her behavior toward you without feeling like she’s being attacked.

She’s likely trying to do her best to help, not even realizing that her idea of helping can be controlling and over-stepping.

The mum who wants to live vicariously through you.

You’ll see a lot of this behavior in mothers of young daughters, especially those who are still malleable and eager to make their mum happy.

Think of child beauty pageants. Sure, they’re incredibly creepy, but they’re also a perfect example of seriously unhealthy mother-daughter dynamics.

These girls – some as young as 4 or 5 – are dyed, plucked, made-up, dolled up, and sent up on a stage to perform and be judged for their physical appearance and overall cuteness.

They rarely, if ever, make these decisions for themselves. 

In cases like these, it’s usually a situation of a woman who was always valued most for her physical appearance suddenly not receiving that attention once she’s a wife and mother.

Now, she’ll project that need for recognition and adoration onto her young daughter, living vicariously through admiration about her… which in turn reflects on the mother. 

This can extend throughout that girl’s life: the mother may not acknowledge that her daughter is a separate entity with her own wants and interests, but instead is someone whose achievements are extensions of her own.

“MY daughter’s a straight-A student. MY daughter is prom queen. MY daughter is going to be a doctor.” 

These mothers will often push their daughters into extracurricular activities and career paths that the girls really aren’t interested in, but mom wants them to pursue them because SHE loves them.

And if she meets any resistance from her girls, she’ll guilt trip them about her own sacrifices and such.

The phrase “do it for me” is often used. And as a result, the daughters grow up feeling like they’re obligated to ignore their own wants and needs for the sake of keeping other people happy.

Standing up to a domineering mother who’s dead set on living through your experiences can be harrowing.

In fact, trying to do so will likely result in a whole lot of guilt tripping – especially about how much she has sacrificed for your success.

If you remain steadfast on your own path instead of giving in to what she wants, she may give you the silent treatment, or even try to sabotage your endeavors.

Stay strong in your efforts and don’t let her manipulate you. 

If she goes on about how much she has sacrificed for you, thank her for having provided so much encouragement, but now you’re strong enough to follow your own goals.

Acknowledge all that she’s done for you, but reiterate that you need to live your life on your own terms.

You can even invite her to be part of your cheerleading team for these new phases in your life.

Allowing her to take part shows her that she’s still needed, and she’ll be able to celebrate your victories as part of her own in turn.

She’ll feel less like she’s being abandoned, and more like she’s valued and appreciated.

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When she never takes you seriously.

She invalidates your emotions and makes fun of you when you’re feeling sad or hurt.

Everything’s a big joke to her, especially anything that’s important to you.

She might even go out of her way to undermine your initiatives, sabotaging your pursuits and interests “as a joke.”

This could be anything from adding some meat juice into your vegan food because she thinks that’s hilarious, to talking about your nonexistent “other boyfriend” in front of your partner, just to stir things up a little bit.

As you can imagine, calling her out on this behavior isn’t going to work, because she won’t take anything you say seriously.

And if you retaliate, she’s just going to up her game. She’ll say that you just can’t take a joke, and criticize you for being over-sensitive.

Any attempt to create boundaries with her will just escalate these situations.

If this is the kind of mother you’re dealing with, get yourself a good therapist ASAP.

You’ll undoubtedly need to work on undoing a whole lot of damage that she’s caused to your self-esteem before you can move forward with any kind of relationship, if that’s something you even want to do.

Chances are that healing this kind of a relationship will require joint counselling.

If she doesn’t take anything you say seriously, she’ll likely only start to really listen if there’s a third party involved, calling her out on her crap.

It’ll sink in because it’s coming from someone else; someone in a position of authority. Not you.

One who insists on being your best friend.

It’s great for mothers and daughters to be on good terms, but things can get really uncomfortable if your mom is the type who wants to be your best friend.

The idea might be kind of sweet in theory, but kids have friends their own age: they need their parents to be just that – parents.

When a mother insists that she and her daughter need to be the bestest friends ever, serious imbalances happen.

You can’t be an authority figure AND a close friend at the same time, because any attempt at discipline will be undermined by the friendship.

Also, who wants to confide in their mother about relationships, or get hammered on Kahlua shots at your engagement party together?

A mother who wants to be a friend rather than a parent may be trapped in arrested development land.

This behavior can signify a perpetual adolescence on your mother’s part, which can be uncomfortable for you to contend with as an adult.

It can also create unhealthy codependency, especially if she tries to make you feel that you have to include her in your friend-based outings, travel plans, etc.

In this kind of a dynamic, try to shift things subtly.

Don’t talk to her about friend-based topics, but instead ask for her insight and guidance, even if it’s just as simple as having her teach you some favorite recipes.

Keep reiterating how much you appreciate her as a mother, and redirect any friendly talk to the dynamic that you’d prefer.

If she brings up a topic that makes you squirmy, you can even tell her straight out that you’re not comfortable discussing that with her, or that you feel it’s inappropriate.

Expect some defensiveness, especially if she’s the type to lash out when she feels criticized, but keep it up. It’ll sink in eventually.

When you don’t exist.

This one is really tough to deal with, and is often seen with narcissistic or borderline (BPD) mothers, especially if you’re not an only child.

These mothers often play favorites, having a “golden child” who can do no wrong, while the others are basically ignored.

As far as she’s concerned, you don’t even exist except as an annoyance she has to contend with now and then.

Alternatively, she might be the type who gives someone the cold shoulder if they don’t behave the way she wants you to.

Neglecting and ignoring someone for not behaving a certain way is a form of control and abuse, and is sadly much more common than you might realize.

Try not to act out in an attempt to get her attention, as that will reinforce her belief that her actions are acceptable.

In a situation like this, it’s best to focus on your own pursuits and self care. Let her come to you.

Then you’ll be the one in power, and you’ll get to decide what kind of a relationship you want to have with this person.

The perpetual critic.

In this mother-daughter dynamic, nothing you ever do is good enough in her eyes.

She’ll criticize your appearance, your clothing choices, your personality, your friends… basically anything and everything she possibly can.

She might compare you to herself and make you feel like you’ll never be as good/beautiful/smart/successful as she is.

She might even pay great attention to your friends, and let you know that she would have preferred one of them as a daughter instead of you. 

You’ll likely find yourself dealing repeatedly with questions like “what’s wrong with you?” or why can’t you be more like ____?”

She may even criticize you in front of other people, whether it’s in an attempt to modify your behavior to suit what she’d prefer, or simply because it amuses her to do so.

If you’re dealing with a narcissistic mother, it’s really important that you get yourself a supportive, understanding therapist who can help you to work through the damage she has caused.

You might also want to pick up the book Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, by Dr. Karyl McBride, Ph.D.

Sometimes, healing the relationship isn’t an option.

Even though we like to hope that we can mend a difficult relationship with enough time, effort, and love, the truth is that sometimes it just doesn’t work.

A parent/child relationship is still a relationship between two people, and some people will just never get along, regardless of how much effort we put into the dynamic.

If you’ve tried pretty much everything to mend the toxic relationship you have with your mother, and nothing has worked, then the last remaining option is distance.

This is especially true if you’re dealing with a narcissist, as you’ll only end up continually being damaged by her words and behavior if you keep exposing yourself to her negativity.

Like any other abusive relationship, the most important thing you need to do is take care of yourself.

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About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.