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Your Questions on Mother-Daughter Relationships

SuEllen Hamkins, with daughters Tiama Hamkins-Indik (left) and Franny Hamkins-Indik. Ellen Augarten hide caption

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"The only thing worse than hearing the pernicious refrain 'She loves you now, but just wait till she's a teenager,' is the day your adolescent girl screams 'I hate you!' and slams her bedroom door in your face."

This is the first line of the book, The Mother Daughter Project: How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds, and Thrive Through Adolescence by SuEllen Hamkins, M.D., and Renée Schultz, M.A. In the hope of disproving predictions of doom, Hamkins and Schultz created a Mother-Daughter group. The group included eight other women and their young daughters and met regularly over 10 years to discuss issues such as friendship, puberty, self-esteem, drugs, and sexuality.

Hamkins and Schultz say their group offers hope and provides a model for staying connected through adolescence.

Here, Dr. SuEllen Hamkins answers questions from the NPR audience about how to strengthen the bonds between parents and children:

Do you think we could have a successful group even if the moms aren't good friends and even if there may be quite different views on how to talk to girls about sex, etc.? — Jennifer Cohen, South Burlington, Vt.

Yes! When our mom-daughter group began, I barely knew the other women, most of whom I was meeting for the first time! We came from different walks of life and had different ideas about raising children, from how much to help with homework to how much freedom to give a 15-year-old. What we shared was a desire to support one another in the hard work of mothering, to help our daughters thrive, and to nurture mother-daughter bonds. If the women in your group share these core values, then your group is on its way to success. Remember, this group is for you. It should meet your needs and fit your life.

My 13-year-old daughter (an only child) is going through this full-fledged teenage syndrome. Sometimes I feel like she hates my guts. How do I connect with her when all she wants to do is be online or on the phone with her friends or at her friends' houses? – Sabrina Beck, Harwinton, Conn.

Ah, you are in the thick of the hard work of mothering. You can orient yourself in difficult times by asking three questions: What do I need? What does she need? What does our relationship need?

Begin with yourself. What would help sustain you through this rough patch? Who makes you feel good about yourself as a mother? Who is most certain of how much your daughter needs and loves you—-your partner, a friend, your therapist, your mother? Talk to them—-daily if need be. Be incredibly nice to yourself! Parenting a teen is exhausting! Fill your own well—-take a personal day from work, return to a favorite pre-mothering passion. Have fun with your own friends. Go away for the weekend. And remember, this too shall pass.

Now focus on her. Thirteen is a tender age, full of exciting opportunities, bravado and deep uncertainty. Your daughter is trying to grow up the best way she knows how. She acts hatefully to one of the people she loves most in the world (you) because at those times she is in pain and doesn't know what to do about it. Don't take it personally.

When she is rude to you, assume that something important is bothering her, even if you don't know what it is. Calmly say, "Please speak to me in a respectful way,"—-she hears this, even if she pretends not to. Then make her some iced tea or whatever she would welcome. Doing so will help her feel that you understand what she is dealing with, which sets the stage for her to trust that she can share her concerns. In the meantime, keep your eyes and ears open for hints as to what is upsetting her—-friends, her body, sex, school.

Staying connected with her through adolescence means making space in your heart and in your house for her friends. Making friends is one of your daughter's most important developmental tasks right now, and feeling even momentarily left-out can be unbearable. Get to know her friends—they will be honored by your interest. Create opportunities for her to connect with them. Invite a group of mothers and daughters to do something fun together. Share the planning with the girls, so they feel a sense of ownership and pride in taking on responsibility.

Look for opportunities for one-to-one connections. Give her a foot massage, watch a video, or just be in the same part of the house, available but not intrusive. Move the computer she uses to a room where you spend a lot of time. Your non-judgmental presence is very comforting to her. You're her mom and she loves you.

A friend of mine is talking about starting a mother-daughter group, and I love the idea. However, my 8-year-old gets extremely embarrassed if I share a story that is even remotely personal. Any suggestions on how we can participate in a manner that doesn't mortify my daughter? — Lisa Cayo, Allen Park, Mich.

The great thing about a group is that your daughter gets to hear from lots of mothers without being on the spot. If there is an important value or idea that you want to convey to your daughter, such as all girls deserve to be treated with respect at all times, ask another mother to bring it up in the group. This way you can honor your daughter's preference that you not share anything personal when she is present. (My daughter Tiama was the same way at the start of our group.) Respecting your daughter's wishes in this way communicates to her that who she is and what she wants is important, and that she can count on you to support her. Over time, as members of the group come to know and trust one another, your daughter may become more comfortable with you sharing personal stories. In the meantime, be sure that half of your meetings are "mothers only," so you can share your experiences of mothering and get the support you need.

How do you help strengthen the bonds between Chinese-, Korean- and Vietnamese-American daughters and their immigrant mothers? The cultural and intergenerational differences can be enormous. — Karl Chwe, Denver

The common experience of feeling alienated from one's daughter compounds the grief of leaving one's homeland, and feeling alienated from one's mother makes facing teen challenges that much harder. Creating experiences and sharing stories in an intergenerational group offers a way to strengthen bonds among daughters and immigrant mothers. Daughters want their mothers to get what it means to be first-generation Americans, while mothers want their daughters to respect them and their home culture. In a group, mothers and daughters have the support of peers who "get it," which makes it easier to stretch across the enormous differences in their lives toward bicultural fluency and connection.

One way to do this might be a Mother-Daughter Club, in which daughters share something they love about American culture with their mothers, like taking them to an amusement park, alternating with mothers sharing something they value about their culture, like how to properly cook pho. As the group gets to know one another, moms and daughters can investigate similarities and differences between American culture and the mothers' native cultures in terms of family, individuality, privacy, respect and so on. Questions could include: How do parents show their love for their children in each culture? What are the responsibilities of a daughter in each culture? What are the expectations for women? Going beyond the public aspects of culture like food, language and music to understand the nuances of "deep culture" greatly enriches mother-daughter understanding.

How can a mother-daughter bond survive a serious moral conflict, such as when a gay daughter comes out to a mother religiously opposed to homosexuality? — Jessica Whatcott, Arcata, Calif.

Fearing loss of mother-daughter connection is excruciating. Every mother-daughter relationship is founded on particular values, such as unconditional love, honesty, mutual respect or compassion. In times of conflict, a mother or daughter can ask, What values are most important to us in our relationship? What does it mean to be true to these values in our relationship while also being true to other moral values? Mother-daughter bonds can survive serious conflict because unconditional love trumps every other moral value.

We can count on painful differences with our mothers and with our daughters. Nurturing connection across difference while staying true to our deepest values takes courage, maturity, patience and support. On a practical level, it means calmly stating one's truth, such as being gay, and staying present while resisting getting defensive or arguing, even if the other person is screaming at you. In fact, you can count on the other person being really upset and trying to get you upset. This is why you need support before, during and after! The calmer and clearer you are, the faster and easier it will be for the other person to hear and accept what you are saying, but it will still take time, sometimes a lot of time. In the meantime, stay connected with people who love you just as you are.

Does the same dynamic exist between single-parent fathers that have daughters? Can you recommend resources for single-parent fathers who may also experience similar issues? What do I do to strengthen my relationship as a sole parent? — Matthew Westort, Shrewsbury, Mass.

Yes and no to the first question. Your daughter isn't worried she is going to grow up and be you, so her scrutiny of you will be less fraught. You are less likely to be caught up in expectations of perfection and deference that harm girls and women. On the other hand, you may feel isolated as a single-parent father, with fewer opportunities to connect with other parents. At the same time, like all teens and parents, your daughter is getting social pressure to ditch her "clueless" dad and you're hearing you're supposed to pull away. In addition, when she's hurting from feeling left out or ugly, she's going to be angry with the person she knows will still love her even if she slams her door in his face.

Reach out to other parents who share your values and concerns and start a Parenting Teens Club that includes parents-only time to swap information and stories, and parent-teen times to have fun and talk about issues. Including women will foster great conversations with the girls, who need same-sex adults in their lives. In addition, create regular one-on-one father-daughter time for doing something she likes — going out to breakfast, looking at the stars, rollerblading. And be sure to give yourself time for what replenishes you.

There are a lot of resources for dads of daughters. See www.dadsanddaughters.org to get started.

Do you believe that the framework you established in this project is transferable to mothers and sons? Clearly there are very different dynamics in each of these groups—what would need to be adjusted in your protocol? Are you aware of anyone who has established a father-son or mother-son group? — Jessica Gladstone, Washington, D.C.

Yes, I believe the framework of creating an intergenerational community to foster parent-child connection transfers across genders! Teen boys and girls are doing the work of discovering who they are and where they belong, and they need adults to encourage them and peers to befriend them. If you create a parent-child group with other adults who share your values, then those values are confirmed for your child. You can create a place where it's cool to like your mom and dad and do really fun stuff together.

The issues that boys confront in growing into men are different from—but linked to—the issues girls confront in growing into women. Stereotypic gender expectations harm all teens. Just as our model invites girls and mothers to critically examine expectations of feminine perfection and create their own vision of what it means to thrive, boys and men can investigate cultural pressures to be he-men and create their own definitions of success and well-being. As I have been sharing the Mother-Daughter Project, mothers of sons across the country have asked me the same questions you have, and tell me they are starting groups. Gather mothers and/or fathers that inspire you and together you'll have more than enough creativity and knowledge for success.

My daughter is now 41 and our relationship is very strained. She lives in Illinois with the two grandchildren and we're in Connecticut. How do you suggest I try to begin working things out or is it too late? — Gloria Earls, Middletown, Conn.

It's never too late! Your desire for a better relationship with your daughter is where healing starts. Developing compassion for both her and you will lead you forward. Plan on moving slowly. It's likely both of you feel hurt and misunderstood. Creating a vision of what you would like your relationship to be five or even 10 years in the future helps keep your energy steady for the journey.

You can begin by bringing to mind a specific time (perhaps long ago!) when you and your daughter were relating well. Then ask yourself, What quality was present in our interaction then? (Such as mutual love, playfulness, honesty, etc.) What nurtured that quality? In what ways is that quality part of my vision of what I would like my relationship with my daughter to be like now? Even though things are strained, in what tiny ways might that quality become present in our relationship? Who in my life would be most supportive of me trying to work things out with my daughter? These questions can lead you to notice the smallest positive things that are happening or could happen now and to figure out what makes them possible, which points the way forward. For additional guidance and support, consult a family therapist to help coach you.

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