IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How to navigate estranged mother-daughter relationships

Sometimes you need to cut ties for your own mental health. That doesn't mean it's easy.
/ Source: TODAY

Katie Nall is the mother of three children, and grandmother to four. But there was a time when Mother's Day was a difficult day for the Florida woman.

It's been several years since Nall's mother died, but when she was alive, Nall says they had a troubled relationship that led to her running away from home as a teenager, even landing in the foster care system for a time before living with her father during her college years.

"Growing up, I always felt like I was never good enough," Nall told TODAY Parents. "As an adult, I struggled with how to have a healthy relationship with my mother."

Nall with daughter, Elizabeth, and granddaughters, Laine, 3, and Emmeline, 1.
Nall with daughter, Elizabeth, and granddaughters, Laine, 3, and Emmeline, 1.

Nall said she spent many years reading pertinent books and seeing a counselor, and finally reached a point where she "emotionally divorced" herself from her mother.

"I decided I didn't have to participate in my mother's dramas," Nall said. "I didn't have to take sides in her predicaments. I didn't have to listen to her criticism, complaining and condemning."

According to Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a family psychologist, Nall's situation is not unique.

"The mother-daughter relationship is complicated," said Greenberg. "It is fraught with pride, celebration and love, but in some cases it can also be full of envy and competition."

Greenberg says in some cases, mothers see their daughters as competitors, which can lead to emotional, verbal or physical abuse. As adults, many of those daughters become estranged from their mothers in an effort to distance themselves from the pain of negative behavior patterns.

For these women, Mother's Day can be especially painful.

Greenberg says women who have separated themselves from their mothers still often feel a "strong mother hunger," wishing for a mother figure who wants to be involved with their lives. On Mother's Day, this hunger may be greater, as greeting-card aisles and Facebook feeds are filled with reminders of a holiday designed to celebrate moms.

But Greenberg says women who are estranged from their mothers can take steps to help them deal with feelings of sadness and loneliness on Mother's Day.

1. Borrow other people's mothers

Greenberg suggests finding a way to show appreciation for other women who have been mentors or nurturers in the absence of a mother.

"We can find a way to honor those people — maybe an aunt or an older woman who you grew up around — who gave us things that our mothers were incapable of giving us," said Greenberg, who suggests taking the time to send cards or messages of thanks to these women on Mother's Day.

2. Create your own ritual

"If Mother's Day is too aversive for you to deal with," said Greenberg, "maybe that weekend you do something else every year. Go to the beach or visit a special friend."

Greenberg cautions that Mother's Day can be a long, emotional day for those without a mother in their lives, and says making distracting plans can be beneficial.

3. Focus on gratitude

"Mother's Day can be a good time to think about what you were able to achieve without a mother in your life, and to focus on giving gratitude for all of your accomplishments," said Greenberg.

4. Celebrate your own family

"If you are a mother yourself, take pride in your own role as a mother," said Greenberg, adding that women who are not mothers should take a moment to be appreciative of the friends who feel like a family to them.

"Enjoy your friends and family celebrating you," said Greenberg.

5. Plan ahead

"Don't let the day sneak up on you," said Greenberg. "Plan to stay off social media because you are going to see a lot of things about people honoring their mothers, and that can be hard."

Greenberg stresses the importance of being proactive, planning out the day ahead of time and avoiding triggering places like the greeting-card aisle or the flower shop.

6. Be prepared for questions

When well-meaning friends ask about your plans for Mother's Day, Greenberg says there is no need to go into details about your troubled relationship with your mother.

"Answer generically," said Greenberg. "You don't have to get into your story or get specific about who is coming with you that day. Just tell them what your plans are — they probably won't ask you whether or not your mother is coming with you."

Nall says as a mother and a grandmother, she has worked to break the chain of bad mother-daughter relationships and behave differently than she was taught.

"For me, I wanted peace and to be satisfied with myself — to know that I was good enough," Nall said. "I have peace now. My next goal is to have the ability to grow into a more heartfelt, loving and kind mother."

Editor's note: This article was originally published on TODAY on May 12, 2017.