Public Release: 

Conflict? Mothers and their adult daughters can handle it

Penn State

University Park, Pa. --- Penn State research has shown that, despite conflicts and complicated emotions, the tie between mothers and daughters is so positive, so strong and so enduring that 80 to 90 percent of women at mid-life say that they have a good relationship with their mother - even though they wish that relationship were better.

"The relationship between mothers and their adult daughters is one in which the participants handle being upset with one another better than in any other," says Dr. Karen Fingerman, assistant professor of human development and family studies. "Women should recognize the strength of their relationship with their mother and appreciate it more."

Fingerman is the author of the new book, "Aging Mothers and Their Adult Daughters: A Study In Mixed Emotions," published this month by Springer. Based on Fingerman's study of 48 pairs of elderly mothers and their mid-life daughters, the book was written for researchers, mental health professionals, and other behavioral specialists. However, Fingerman's findings relate to questions and issues that concern nearly every mother and adult daughter.

"Although many aspects of the relationship change as daughters enter midlife, certain emotional qualities remain constant. In particular, mothers continue to influence the way daughters feel about themselves," she writes. "Years after daughters are grown, daughters feel guilty and ashamed when their mothers criticize them and feel happy when their mothers are proud of them. Indeed, women find it difficult to balance their desire to please their mothers while dealing with the inconveniences that arise in their relationships."

For example, adult women often feel conflicted because they can't spend as much time with their mothers as they would like. In a recent interview, Fingerman said, "You don't have to do whatever your mother wants. However, constantly telling her you don't have time isn't a good idea either. Instead, set boundaries. Tell her when you do have time to do things with her and then follow through."

Disagreement between mothers and daughters is often another point of tension. Fingerman says, "In that situation, don't try to change your mother because you're not going to be able to change her. Try to focus on the positive side of your relationship and accept your mother as a person with faults. One of her faults may be that she can't understand you as well as you wish but it doesn't change her love for you.

"No matter how old you become, your mother will tend to behave like a mother toward you. She'll keep trying to make you into the fantasy she has of you," adds the Penn State researcher.

Problems between parent and child are inevitable throughout life, not just at the Terrible Twos or during the teenage years, because parents and children are always at two different points in the life cycle.

When daughters are young, mothers spend time listening to them and assisting them with their problems. When their daughters are middle-aged, mothers feel free to treat them like mature women in whom they can confide. Some daughters find this sharing of confidences pleasurable, other daughters find it problematic and some daughters experience both emotions at the same time. Fingerman says, "It's normal to feel ambivalent about your mother."

Nevertheless, despite the ambivalence, the conflict and all of the other problems, Fingerman's research has shown that mothers and daughters simply enjoy one another's company. They maintain strong ties for a variety of reasons that stem from their shared experiences as women. And, their relationship remains central in both women's lives.


EDITORS: Dr. Fingerman is at (814) 865-2656 or at by email.

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