Strengthen your mother-daughter relationship this Mother's Day

Special to her magazineApril 30, 2013 

Linda Wilson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and partner at Columbus Psychological Associates in Brookstone Centre. She agreed to talk to her magazine about the important mother-daughter relationship, in honor of Mother's Day on May 12. Answers have been edited for length.

When does a daughter become aware of her mother as a separate person?

Throughout a lifetime. Theoretically, at first an infant doesn't know you're not an extension of them. If they cry and you don't immediately respond, they're uncomfortable and they start to know you're separate from them. But you have to have a certain level of cognitive development to understand your mother is a separate person. When they play peek-a-boo, they know you exist in the present.

Working mothers don't need to feel so guilty about leaving their child for a time as long as they are loving when they return. Children with no primary caretaker the first year or two, institutionalized kids, often have attachment disorder. It is a critically important relationship. Both parents are important, but mothers are often more attentive to detail. It is usually the mother who kids turn to when they're scared or hurting. Separation goes on.

Do daughters compete with their mothers for the fathers' affection?

There's a developmental age where that's more likely for boys wanting their mom's attention. (Oedipal complex) At about age 3-7, girls might develop a preference for Dad's attention. It's not competition in the sense they're trying to take them away. Some women don't like their dads. Mothers are essential for our survival. You can have a sick family situation in which the parents don't get along and are using the kids as pawns to split one against the other.

How and when do you "let go" of your daughter?

Again, this is a lifelong process. When you die, that is the final letting go, although your relationship with your parents goes on after the grave. A mother is a big role model for her daughter, like it or not. They will internalize what they learn. Individuation takes place in late adolescence, early college. As adolescents, daughters even can get embarrassed by their mothers. They often focus on how different they are from their mom; for a while they might even rebel. Everyone needs to be their own person. When daughters become mothers, there is another deepening of understanding.

Even good mothers can fail their daughters because everybody makes mistakes as parents. In enmeshed families, a mother can be overly involved or too controlling. In disengaged families, a mother can be distant and cold or absent. Children don't learn about how to have warm connections, or can be really depressed and lonely.

No matter what kind of mother you've been, you can forgive yourself and grow. It's never over. You're always a role model -- they're watching. Mothers can keep trying to be their better selves.

Kids kind of push us into when it's time to let go, based on their developmental level. Often, it happens when kids get married and you have the 'empty nest.'

What's the best way to discipline your daughter to promote a lifelong bond?

I prefer to think of it as socializing, how we teach our children to feel empathy. Discipline, or socializing, is the basis of empathy. You are made to feel bad when you hurt someone. Guilt is given a bad name, but without guilt -- appropriate guilt, not destructive guilt -- you don't empathize with how others feel.

What happens to the relationship when the daughter is caring for an elderly mother?

I think it's really variable. A lot of people want to make sure their mom's OK as she gets older. The care of the aging mother often falls to the oldest female child. I've seen all kinds of matrixes. You want to be respectful and compassionate to the aging parent. Some elderly mothers want their kids to take them in. Others don't want to burden them. A certain selflessness goes with being a good mother.

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