Relating to adult children — 05 February 2013
The challenging Mother-Daughter relationship

The Mother-Daughter relationship is probably the most complex of all parent-child interactions. From emulation to emancipation, from tender parenting to competition, daughters and mothers spend their lifetime recreating their intimate connection.

The attachment of girls to their mothers is unique. Baby girls idolize their mothers, imitate them and learn from them how to become adult females.

Professor Nancy Chodrow explains the psychoanalytic theory that daughters develop an unconscious internalization of their mothers’ values and behavior. Social Learning theory explains that daughters imitate their mothers’ behavior as guidelines for their own conduct.

In “Pathways of Growth in the Mother-Daughter Relationship,” Dr. Sandra Hershberg, explains that “maternal empathic attunement, promotes in the baby a secure and cohesive sense of self, and mutual recognition of separate subjectivities, which advances differentiation of mother and daughter.”

This process is often disrupted during adolescence when girls may reject their mothers’ ways and seek their own identity and when some mothers feel competitive with their more youthful replicas.

During adulthood, both mothers and daughters often gravitate toward restructuring their connection as two intimate adult females who relate amicably or even resume cherishing each other.

Dr. Hertzberg summarizes, “A daughter inevitably looks toward her mother in her mind and in her life – longingly, competitively, contentiously and compassionately.”

It is easy for both mothers and adult daughters to have accumulated a list of grievances etched in their minds dating back through the span of their relationship. Yet, harboring these painful memories that may be associated with a negative depiction of the “offender” are harmful, needless and damage the yearned for connection between mothers and daughters.

Mothers need to know that they serve as their daughters’ idealized (not ideal) role model of an adult female. That means that they are viewed positively despite some of their failings.

Daughters need to remind themselves that their mothers love them, take pride in them and raised them with the intent of giving them the best that the mothers could offer.

Since both mothers and daughters are not infallible and the generational norms keep changing, some emotional pain may have been unintentionally or regrettably intentionally inflicted. Time and perspective can help both generations reassess the past to enrich the present.

To regain emotional wholeness and a renewed sense of connection, mothers and daughters are urged to take the time to compassionately discuss past or current hurts in order to move beyond them. If needed, seek professional help. Peace of mind and soul can be restored for both mothers and daughters when they share, forgive and reclaim their intimate connection with each other.


  • Know that you are always your daughter’s role model and source of comfort.
  • Accept that repairing ill feelings between the two of you is healing and produces true intimacy.


  • Know that your mother did her best to love and raise you even when she faltered.
  • Recognize that healing your wounded emotions will give you solace now and forever.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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