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Q. When I was a child, I had a tough time with my mom, so when I had daughter, 3 years ago, I was determined to build something better between us. But I'm not really sure what kind of mother-daughter relationship to build. I don't want to be a critical authority like my mother, but I don't think I want to be my daughter's "pal" either. What kind of Mom should I be? Help!" --A Mom who cares
Dear Caring Mom: You've already started off on the right foot because you've begun thinking about your own childhood (Always a good place for a parent to begin!) One of the ways we all learn how to be moms is through identifying with our own moms. This works well when you admire and respect your own mom, but much less well (as in your case) when you feel you want to be a different kind of mom to your daughter than your mom was to you.
Luckily, you can also learn how to be the mom you want to be through other life experiences, -- female relatives, friends and teachers can be better models and books, films and right here on the Internet can give you better ideas! Becoming a parent gives you a new opportunity to grow as a person, alongside your little daughter.
There are four key ingredients to a good mother-daughter mix at any age, so let's begin with those:
1. Understand and respect your daughter's temperament and personality. A lot of mother-daughter problems emerge as differences between you and end up as conflicts. For example, if you're a high-energy, bold extrovert and your daughter's a shy, creative introvert, you're headed for trouble if you can't accept that you and your daughter have different ways of being in the world. Remember, if you can't accept the daughter you have, you'll never have the daughter you want!
2. Talk to your daughter every day. In today's times, working moms (whether in the house or out of the house) are both hurried and harried. But no matter how busy you are, be sure to take time each and every day to listen to your daughter's thoughts and feelings. (Bedtime is a good time for this exploration). Ongoing conversation is one of the best ways to create and maintain your mother-daughter bond.
3. Don't over-praise or over-criticize your daughter. Many moms think that self-esteem is built through constant praise, but too much extravagant praise that focuses on the product instead of the process, -- "That's the most gorgeous drawing I've ever seen; I'm so proud of you," (instead of "I can see how hard you worked on the colors in that sunset; you must feel good about yourself.") will give your child an unrealistic sense of her skills, and make her anxious about her next achievement. On the other hand, too much harsh criticism, "How could you leave your new bike in the park. Are you stupid?" (instead of "You must feel so sad and disappointed; I know you really loved your bike.") will undermine your daughter's confidence in her own abilities, and create anger and bitterness between you. To raise a confident and competent daughter, who's at ease with herself and her world try to strike a realistic balance.
4. Express your love for your daughter as often as you can. A daughter who is hugged, held, cuddled and kissed develops good feelings about herself as well as her mom. True self-esteem is built through parental affection and support that's appropriate to her development. Never take for granted that your daughter knows you love her -- show it!
Now, let's take a look at what shapes the mother-daughter bond age by age:
The Preschool Years (3-6) These are the years when your daughter is learning what it means to be a girl, and noticing the differences between the sexes. At this stage, it's important for you to feel good about being female, and to find a way to convey these good feelings to your daughter. When you enjoy your 3-6 year old's wish to dress up in your high heels, or pretend to carry your attache case to her make-believe office, you're helping her to develop a healthy female identity. Imaginative play enables your pre-schooler rehearse for real-life roles that she may assume later in life. You can increase your bond with your daughter now by exploring and encouraging her inner world.
The Schoolage Years (6-9) In these years, your daughter will be asked to use her mind to think, create, produce and perform. Too many expectations, too soon, can stifle her growth, and make her anxious and insecure while age-appropriate expectations based on a realistic appraisal of her strengths and weaknesses can make her feel that her mom is her greatest booster! But don't forget that it's important at this phase to let your daughter know that you love her for who she is, not for what she achieves.
The Pre-Teen Years (9-12) In these years, friendships are forged and broken week-to-week, and your daughter's wishes for acceptance can leave her feeling anxious and vulnerable. (There may be some really mean girls out there!) Talking about your own childhood experiences with friends and foes, as well as your triumphs and disappointments when you were her age, can help your daughter gain perspective on the ups and downs of life with her peers. By offering her understanding and empathy, you intensify her bond with you.
The Teenage Years (13+) The teen years are a time of both physical and emotional upheaval for your daughter. Between the changes of puberty, peer pressures, the perils of emerging sexuality, and exposure to drugs and alcohol, your daughter needs all the support she can get from you! Even though she may cry on your shoulder one day and only to put you down or push you away the next, hang in! But remember she needs a mom, not a pal. The whole point of adolescence is to separate the generations, not join them together. Moms who try to be teenagers just don't get it! Teens need their parents to caution and protect them and set limits for them. This is the time to use what I call the "4 C's" - compassion, communication, comprehension and competence, to shape your relationship to your teenage daughter. Don't forget that she's still that same little girl trying on your shoes, and she is worried about whether she can fill them!
Good Luck and Happy Mother's Day!
Dr. Siegler is the director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in New York City, and the author of two award-winning books for parents, "What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World," and "The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence: How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Teenager." She is married and the mother of two children.