Improving the mother-daughter relationship
For many, motherhood is one of life's greatest joys, but getting along with your children, particularly daughters, isn't always a piece of cake. In “Side by Side: The Revolutionary Mother-Daughter Program for Conflict-Free Communication,” author Dr. Charles Sophy examines this family dynamic and how moms and daughters can have an open, loving relationship. An excerpt.
With all due respect, I often compare the mother-daughter relationship to being on a roller coaster, the big, scary kind that you’re able to see from the next town over and whose passengers can be heard shrieking from miles away. Parts of that ride can certainly be thrilling and crazy fun, much like the way you may feel when you and your daughter are really getting along. There may be other stretches of that same ride that leave you feeling anxious, fearful, or nauseated — much like the way you may feel when you and your daughter are in the midst of an argument. There’s one big difference, though, between these two rides. Unlike the experience at the amusement park, the ride you are on with your daughter will never come to a halt, automatically release its safety bar, and allow you to exit. No matter how scary or intolerable the ride may get with your daughter, there’s not even a chance of getting off. This ride is forever. And there is no safety bar. The truth is, most moms don’t really want to get off this ride. They’d just prefer a slower, smoother, more predictable journey, a ride with fewer upside-down loops or steep, heart-stopping drops — one that doesn’t include, for example, your fifteen-year-old getting pregnant or your thirty-year-old becoming addicted to drugs. Nobody wants that ride. But it’s a given that every mother-daughter pair faces challenges, and it’s inevitable that at some point, there will be a challenge that will test the strength of this relationship and the ride will change.
Variables like genetics, personality, socioeconomic status, and family history will certainly inform the way moms approach these issues, how heated these potential conﬂicts become, and of course how they’re resolved. However, aside from these variables, there is one significant factor that will give you and your daughter the best chance of negotiating these inevitable issues while maintaining an overall healthy and loving relationship: communication that is respectful and honest. This will not only ensure a safer ride, but will strengthen the bond between you and your daughter. This is our goal.
All mothers and daughters want the same things: love, understanding, respect. And they want them from each other. Mom wants love, respect, and understanding from the child she brought into the world. And daughter wants the same from the woman who gave her life. Many moms seek professional guidance because their daughter is acting out in some way — such as getting a tattoo, dressing inappropriately, or dating someone the rest of the family deems undesirable. The specific behaviors may be age related, but they are simply the manifestation of the underlying desire to be understood, respected, and loved. The only real way that the mother-daughter relationship can evolve in a healthy, loving, and sustainable way is to satisfy these needs. And it boils down to communication, which is something that mothers and daughters are doing constantly, just not as effectively as they could.
It is up to you. Why? Because you not only are the designated driver of your family, you are essentially the one responsible for the existence of your daughter in the first place. Whether conceiving a child was a conscious choice, a mistake that you ultimately chose to celebrate, or a journey through fertility medicine, you made it happen! You hungered to have a child and create a family, took the steps necessary to become pregnant or to adopt a child, and committed yourself to that mission. This in itself is a huge achievement. You may very well have a significant other who was part of that accomplishment — a husband, a boyfriend, a partner, an ex — and who remains part of your family unit as you journey through motherhood. If so, that person certainly has a role in the dynamic with your daughter. However, your relationship with your daughter must now be your exclusive focus. It is your responsibility to fully embrace the next challenge and figure out a better way to communicate with your daughter.
Most moms, due to fear or lack of resources, feel as if there is nothing they can do to improve their relationship with their daughters. Yet there is a technique you can use that draws on resources you already possess. With this technique, I have been able to make a difference in the lives of thousands of mothers and daughters. I call it the Chair Strategy. This simple and effective mom-driven tactic begins with a visual image of the position of two chairs. Imagine that these chairs represent the way you and your daughter are communicating. Are they situated back-to-back, with the two of you in a deadlock, unable to see each other’s point of view? Are the chairs face-to-face, enabling each of you to share respectfully opposing viewpoints? Or are the chairs side-by-side, with the two of you working collaboratively to sustain your relationship? The answer to this question will enable you and your daughter to begin to understand how your communication efforts are succeeding or failing. The Chair Strategy will provide you with insight and tools to change the dynamic between the two of you, to more effectively resolve the conﬂicts that occur, and to emerge with an even stronger bond.
Whether your daughter is an infant or turns fifty years old tomorrow, whether the two of you talk several times a day or only sporadically, it is you, the mom, who must create an environment conducive to openness and true sharing. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether the two of you fight with harsh words or clenched fists. All that matters is that you begin the process of working toward a healthier and more loving dynamic with your daughter. It is in your hands.
I hope you appreciate the power and importance you have in the relationship with your daughter. This fact informs my basic philosophy: Parenting begins with you. Not your child. You.
To explain this concept, I often use the analogy of the oxygen masks on an airplane. How many times have you heard a flight attendant utter the reminder that in case of emergency, you must first secure your oxygen mask and then your child’s? In that context it makes perfect sense, right? When you’re thirty thousand feet in the air and there’s some kind of mechanical malfunction in the fight gear, you need to put your mask on first so you can keep breathing; only then can you help your child put on hers. So it is with moms and daughters here on the ground. Only after you are a balanced and secure woman can you model that kind of strength and security for your daughter. And as you embrace this philosophy, you will have an even more successful outcome with the Chair Strategy.
As medical director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the nation’s largest child welfare organization, I have treated this country’s most vulnerable population. In my private practice as a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist, I have treated the nation’s most privileged. I’ve seen, heard, diagnosed, and treated just about everything: infant malnutrition, depression, phobias, panic attacks from weight gain, addictions, and more.
My work is not limited to a traditional office setting either. I guide countless families on the spot by intervening on airplanes and playgrounds, on beaches and in parking lots — anywhere it seems appropriate. My family contends that I’m a crisis magnet, but I am drawn to this work because it is about making families stronger and, in my opinion, nothing is more important than family. My professional training — I’m triple board certified in Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Adult Psychiatry, and Family Practice — enables me to care for my patients’ physical and emotional wellbeing, including their most pressing emotionally based issues, the kinds of concerns that parents, children, and blended families face most often.
Twenty years and thousands of patients later, I can unequivocally say that of all the parent-child dynamics I’ve witnessed, none is more fascinating or frightening to me than that of mother and daughter. The breakneck speed with which the exchanges can travel from loving to toxic is even more intense than between most married couples in crisis. The collective power that fuels the intensity of the emotional extremes of mother and daughter is like no other. And the successful outcomes I have witnessed time and time again — regardless of the socioeconomic status or severity of the issue — are among the most rewarding and meaningful of my professional experiences.
Side by Side is meant to be a practical guide for every mom who wants to improve her relationship with her daughter by learning how to communicate in a more effective and loving way. Regardless of the age of your daughter, and whether or not you currently are on good terms with her, this book will equip you with the tools you need to make this happen. The book is divided into three parts:
- Part One:The Up-Front Work focuses on you, the mom. It is a thought-provoking journey designed to help you gain strength, balance, and clarity in your life overall. You will be asked to complete numerous exercises and to consider various concepts as you create a personal tool kit based on your individual needs. Your honest efforts here will prepare you for the next part of the book.
- Part Two:The Chair Strategy brings your daughter into the process and introduces the Chair Strategy. The exercises in this section will help you to implement the Chair Strategy while having some fun with your daughter.
- Part Three: Hot-Button Issues puts all of the above ideas into practice as we look at the most challenging and contentious areas of parenting: sex, money, values, and divorce. It will introduce some mothers who have successfully dealt with these issues by using the Chair Strategy with their daughters.
In many ways, this book mimics the process I use with any mother and daughter who come to me seeking guidance. So as we begin our journey together, and I share my professional ideas and techniques, I ask of you the same as I would of them. Please embrace three concepts:
- 1. Commitment to learning about yourself and your daughter
- 2. Honesty when you are asked to participate
- 3. Trust in the process to bring you a positive result
If at any point you feel confused, frustrated, or downright angry at any insights, suggestions, or exercises in the book, know that you aren’t the first person to question the process. Doubt and anger are common and sometimes necessary responses in order to move forward. But try to keep an open mind. The idea of no pain, no gain applies here. If you reach a point where you entertain the notion of stopping, don’t! Instead, take a moment and remember:
Commitment. Honesty. Trust.
Not coincidentally, these are the three crucial ingredients needed to create and sustain a healthy and loving connection with your daughter.
Finally, before we begin, there are two specifics you should know about me. First, as a psychiatrist, my approach is (and always will be) strength-based. When I begin treatment with individuals or families, my first task is to help them identify their personal strengths, areas in their lives that are strong. By making the initial focus on the positive and the strong, the negative elements naturally and quickly begin to dissipate. In strength, there is hope. And within hope, I believe, there is tremendous power to guide you forward.
Second, I am a realist. I believe the particular circumstances of your life are what they are, and something you have to deal with every day. Many factors are beyond your control. That said, measuring the reality of your life against something you saw at the movies last week or on a rerun of Gilmore Girls is unproductive and pointless. These relationships, whether portrayed on the small or large screen, have been dramatized for entertainment purposes. The relationship with your daughter, no doubt entertaining at times, is real. And no matter what your reality is now, your goal of a stronger, healthier, and more loving connection with your daughter is within reach.
As a realist, I can’t promise that you and your daughter will always be riding on that roller coaster together with entwined hands, joyfully shrieking in concert. But I can guarantee that your ride will be more pleasurable and that moments like these will become a distinct
Thank you for committing to take this journey.
Excerpted from “Side by Side: The Revolutionary Mother-Daughter Program for Conflict-Free Communication” by Dr. Charles Sophy and Brown Kogen. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from HarperOne.