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How to heal a mother-daughter relationship, according to a psychotherapist

Mother daughter relationship. (Getty Images)
Have you thought about mending your mother-daughter relationship recently? (Getty Images)

A mother-daughter relationship possesses strength, but for some, it also brings complexity. While for many 'my mum is my best friend' rings true, which is a beautiful connection, others may experience a more challenging and strained bond.

While the breakdown between a mother and a daughter isn't always reconcilable (which is okay, more on that later), for some, compassion, patience and respect can go a long way in rebuilding a healthy relationship.

That's according to leading family psychotherapist Fiona Yassin, founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, who has shared her seven tips for mums and daughters who want to start healing their relationship ahead of Mother's Day, or on any other day.

First she explains why this bond can often feel more complex than other family dynamics.

Why is the mother-daughter relationship complex?

Side view of new mother comforting her newborn while crying. Baby getting used to noises and lights in her first days of life outside the womb.
Our relationships with parents in our early years can shape us. (Getty Images)

"The mother-baby relationship is one that carries an incredible amount of weight," Yassin explains.

"A baby has a huge amount of dependency on a parent – it’s life and death in its earliest form. Many of us carry this through into adulthood, which is why what our mothers say has a much greater impact on us than the things that other people say.

"It's a relationship that can be hugely rewarding or hugely damaging."

Yassin explains we don't come into this world ready with the skills of being a mother. "Instead we learn to be a mother from other mothers, often our own. Young people will typically decide whether they want to do it the same way as their mum, or completely differently.

"Sometimes, looking to do something the opposite way can be fraught with damage because it’s driven by the unhealed part of us wanting to heal things in another relationship and this is rarely effective."

The knock-on effect of trauma

Mother-daughter-relationship. (Getty Images)
Working through problems so history doesn't repeat itself is best. (Getty Images)

Intergenerational trauma can also have a big impact.

"Trauma can 'spread' through generations if the ordeals which have inflicted said trauma have not been effectively dealt with," Yassin explains, "The best thing to do is work through the ordeal until it doesn’t carry charge for you anymore [and end up replicating in romantic relationships, friendships and relationships with your children].

“Mothers and daughters with weakened styles of attachment and their own mental health issues will, by default, have a relationship that is weaker in its construct. All evidence suggests that the mother-child relationship has a profound effect on our mental, and subsequently physical, health.

"If the mother-daughter relationship is out of sync from early on it can amount to a really stressful relationship. Stress can have a profound impact on the nervous system and the way we are able to function in day-to-day life."

Society's unrealistic expectations of mothers

three generations women
We put more pressure on mothers to be all loving and perfect. (Getty Images)

"Although it rarely is the case, society has long taught us that the mother-daughter relationship should be beautiful and exceptionally close," says Yassin, "so, when chinks or a breakdown appear it can feel like a huge shock and there may be a great sense of shame and blame."

The family psychotherapist adds, "Many mothers find it difficult to be a parent and for some it is a job they would rather not have – a contradiction to the social norm. Those who are finding the role of being mum challenging may, inadvertently, take this out on the child.

"There is an unspoken message across most cultures that the mother in the family should be deeply respected and protected. This makes it much more difficult to shine a light on that relationship, to put boundaries in place or to walk away."

For those able and willing, Yassin shares her top tips for healing the bond.

How to start repairing your mother-daughter relationship

1. Communicate from a place of compassion

Mother and daughter having a serious talk about some dilemmas
Start with the positives. (Getty Images)

"A good place to start is to talk about the things you appreciate about each other. Discuss what you are each grateful for in the relationship and what you want to hold onto. Asking questions from a nurturing place can be a great way to get to know each other on a different level. Promoting good communication in families is one of the ways we can begin to heal."

2. Actively listen and avoid jumping in

"We often tolerate interruptions within families but it’s really important that both mother and daughter feel they can share freely and are not pitching themselves against one another. The aim is to see yourself as an alliance, not as enemies. Introduce a prop – like a wooden spoon or wand – into the conversation and only speak when you’re holding it. This will help to ensure you both hear what each other needs from the relationship, without feeling like you’re in battle.

"The mother-daughter relationship will change, but we can only adapt well by understanding what the other needs at each stage of life."

3. Ditch the traditions if needed

mum and daughters watching tv
Sometimes just being in each other's company is good enough. (Getty Images)

"Traditions can be a wonderful way to foster togetherness within families. But it’s important to recognise that they can also be really hampering. If you feel your traditions have become too big or burdensome, it may be time to put them aside and change things up. Know that bucking your Mother’s Day tradition this year doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or your family. In fact, re-evaluating the amount of time you invest in family relationships is a positive step forward. Take the time to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others."

4. Consider the other as a whole person, not just mother or daughter

"If you’re a daughter, be inquisitive about your mother’s life experiences. Ask questions such as; what was it like to be a mum and not have the career you wanted? How did it feel to be a parent on your own? And if you’re a mother, be inquisitive about your daughter’s experience outside the bubble in which you once existed together."

5. Mum – allow your daughter to teach you

daughter diving advice to mum
Adapt to changing roles. (Getty Images)

"Naturally, mums feel their role is to teach and daughters feel their role is to learn. But as we get older these roles change, which can be difficult to adapt to. Understanding that your daughter could be one of your best teachers can help to ease up the relationship by stopping it from always being top down."

6. Mum – understand your daughter’s experiences are separate from your own

"It can be really hard to hear that your daughter has negative feelings around you and your parenting. The technique of mentalising – picturing what the other person might be feeling or experiencing – can help you to understand that the other person’s experience."

7. Put boundaries in place

"It’s important to review the mother-daughter relationship as it progresses through the years and put in boundaries if you feel they are needed. Boundaries are not rules, instead they are little bridges for ourselves that we can decide to reinforce when needed to avoid overwhelm."

When a mother-daughter relationship can't be reconciled

Portrait of female businesswoman reflecting in glass window
Support is out there whatever stage of the journey you're on. (Getty Images)

The road to repairing a mother-daughter relationship requires energy and time. You may not feel ready to take that first step for a while, perhaps even benefiting from some space and reflection first.

"Sometimes", Yassin explains, "mother-daughter relationships cannot be reconciled. It’s a harsh reality that can come with big feelings of grief and loss on both sides – not just the loss of what we have but also the loss of the dream. This can be incredibly difficult to come to terms with."

But while hard, it's also okay – everyone is different.

"It's important to remember that all of our family experiences are unique. Often, what we experience is not the idealistic and magical vision of a family life that society has taught us is right," Yassin adds. Lowering or re-working expectations can prove helpful for moving on or forward.

"Whatever your mother-daughter relationship looks like, know that you don't have to navigate it alone. Experts, such as family therapists, can help you to process big emotions and come to a place of acceptance, wherever you're at on the journey."