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Should Mothers and Daughters Be Friends?

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Dr. Wendy Walsh: Recently, my 12-year-old brought me her first real problem. I'll spare you the details, because the important point is that I felt honored that she would disclose such private adolescent material to her dear old ma. In my day, I wouldn't have dared breathe a word about my inner emotional world to my admonishing Catholic mother. My relationship with her revolved around household chores and academic success. Personal problems landed in my diary or with my peers.

mom and daughter
But times have changed. Children's inner voices and emotional lives are being respected and even nurtured. Mothers are in some ways becoming friends with their children. And the friendship is often a two-way street, with mothers disclosing more and more to their kids -- especially their daughters -- about their own internal worlds. All of this begs a few questions, like: Where should the boundaries be between mothers and daughters? When is close ... too close? Are kids -- even adult kids -- ever ready to hear about parents' personal problems?

First of all, when children are young, they really need a parent more than another friend. Parents provide boundaries and protection. Disclosing adult problems to small children can give them anxiety. On the other hand, children are tiny sponges who soak up their parents' emotional moods, so trying to hide your feelings is like trying to hide a steak from a canine. Being emotionally open and disclosing the source of your sadness or anxiety in limited, simple terms is the healthy way to go. Assuring children that your emotional state is not their fault and that you are solely responsible for finding a solution is the way to stay a protective parent even when you are distressed.

But mothers and older daughters are an interesting combo. Unlike fathers and sons (who are slightly less likely to become emotionally fused), mothers and daughters sometimes thrive on emotional closeness. All very well and good -- if the family system is one wherein personal boundaries are taught and respected. In my opinion, there are two kinds of intimate relationships that are not growth-enhancing: One in which people live like polite roommates and tread gently around any topic that might risk intimacy, and one in which people are so close they can't remember whose problem is whose. As daughters get older, one of these two scenarios often describes their relationships with their mothers.

The harder task is to practice interdependence, wherein a mother and daughter may lean on each other from time to time, but also know when to step back and let the other solve her own problems. Being close to your mother is a wonderful gift. Being dominated by your mother is another matter. Part of the journey from childhood to adulthood is a process called "individuation," wherein one examines the values of her family and peers, chooses which to retain and which to discard, and then looks toward the world at large for other beliefs in order to eventually shape herself as an individual. This process can't happen if the only choice mothers give their daughters is to conform to family values.

Bottom line: Can mothers and daughters be friends? Certainly, if they are allowed to disagree and suffer no emotional blackmail as a result.

next: Why Is Academia So Hard on Working Mothers?
24 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous September 10, 2010, 5:13 AM

I think it’s sad and pathetic when parents are so overconcerned with being their kids’ “friends”. When they are children they need a parent -they have plenty of friends. As they grow older you may develop a friendship in addition but that is such a weak and secondary bond compared to that of a parent/child.

And seriously, as an adult don’t you want friends on your own level? Moms are way too concerned now with being cool and hip and being in with their daughters. It’s sad. My mother tried to raise us as her “daughters and friend” but typically the parenting suffers and the mom acts like achildish girlfriend.

Rebecca September 10, 2010, 8:11 AM

Growing up, my mother was very much my mom not my friend. That doesn’t mean I didn’t confide in her, indeed, even when I was a teenager and knew everything I still knew she gave good advice.

Now that we are older, our relationship definitely leans towards the friendship side, but she will always be my mom. That doesn’t mean I value or enjoy her friendship any less than my other close friends, just that I hold it differently.

my 2 cents September 10, 2010, 8:22 AM

I agree that children need their parents to be parents. As an adult w/a tween, I am always her mother first but she knows that she can always talk to me about anything and she does. Just last night she came to me and said she needed to talk to me and proceeded to ask me many questions about her period…which hasn’t happen yet but I talked to her about it not long ago and she wanted to know more. We talk about any and everything all the time. The important part of being parents is to be open for your children but also giving them the guidance and boundaries they need to grow up feeling safe and secure and ready to face the real world.
As a adult now, my mom and I have a great relationship and I know that I will also share that with my daughter.

Edwina September 10, 2010, 2:15 PM

Growing up, my mother was my mother and she took no prisoners, never hesitating to give me some serious grief when I got out of line. But I always confided in her, seeking her counsel on just about everything. When I became an adult, the relationship never changed and it wasn’t until almost a year after my sweet mother had passed away did I realize that I was brimming over with information, gossip, news, etc. and while I had two very good girlfriends, there was no one to tell all to. Some friends you tell only this to, some friends you may tell only that to but I didn’t realize until after she was gone that my mother, who I told everything to, had been my absolute best friend all along.

renee September 11, 2010, 12:38 PM

im my home i am first my childrens parent, if we can become friends along the way that would be great but my main concern is in the end that i have raised healthy happy sober well adjusted adults that are proud of themselves and that i can be proud of. if they hate me,never to be my “friend” and are still the people i have hoped they will be i have done my job as a parent.

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