How To Get Along With Your Adult Daughter Or Daughter-In-Law

In therapy, I frequently see older female clients who are struggling with getting along with their daughters or daughters in law.  Here are some of the more common issues, from the mother’s perspective:

– She doesn’t want to be close (this can even get to this extreme)

– I don’t know anything about her life.

– She never wants to get together.

– She wants financial help but not my advice.

– She is nice to everyone else, but cold to me.

– She controls my son.

– She doesn’t let me see my grandchildren enough.

grandmother and mother


I feel for these women, as they are obviously in distress. From their perspectives, they have given their all to their daughters (or sons/daughters-in-law) and are now met with stricter boundaries and less respect than they yearn for.  Adding insult to injury is the fact that these women often allowed their own mothers or mothers-in-law to give them endless advice, catered to their demands, and did not think it was their place to ever complain or ask to be treated differently.  Now that it is their turn to be in this matriarch/grandmother role, the rules of society have changed, and their advice is no longer heeded or even wanted.

Often, the mothers continue pushing their advice, calling all the time, and “offering to help” when help is not wanted.  They become the pursuer, and the daughter becomes the distancer, just like in any romantic relationship.  The more the mother pushes for “closeness,” the more the daughter withdraws.  In therapy, it is key to get the mother to the point where she can understand why her daughter may be acting in this “cold” way. Here are some statements that I hear from daughters in this dynamic:

– “She just won’t stop, she calls constantly.”

– “She doesn’t listen to me.”

– “She treats me/my husband like a child.”

– “She tries to control me/my husband.”

– “She doesn’t respect my wishes/boundaries/perspective.”

When helping these mothers understand their daughters better, it is essential that they realize that their children have usually been raised to be independent thinkers, by the mothers themselves.  Now that the daughters are adults, and particularly if they are parents, they are very unlikely to just accept their mother’s advice or opinion as “the one right way.”  Daughters-in-law will often be even less willing to do this, as they may have been raised completely differently than the way that their mother-in-law raised her kids.

Additionally, listening to Grandma’s advice for all matters related to a baby is increasingly a thing of the past. Parenting nowadays is high-intensity, and women base a great deal of their identity on the specific parenting choices that they make, e.g., attachment parenting, extended breastfeeding, cry it out, or anything else.  Women often read extensively about these issues, and when their mothers tell them they are “wrong,” or dismiss or criticize their parenting choices, it can be the most hurtful possible criticism.

When trying to get along better with an adult daughter or daughter-in-law, ask yourself the following questions:

– “Am I keeping the relationship as a priority, or am I just trying to get her to take one specific piece of advice?”  For example, you may get your daughter to wait another month before sleep training her baby (or, more likely, to tell you that she will… but do what she was going to do anyway), but are you winning the battle and losing the war?  You may have caused such resentment and sadness that the relationship is damaged and your daughter pulls away even more.

– “Am I leading with positive or kind remarks?”  Often, a conversation with a mother is critical or filled with passive aggressive comments.    Lead with kind words and the entire tone of the interaction may change.  Compliments about parenting or her personality traits would be ideal.

– “Do I really need this information?”  Being asked 15 different details about a child’s preschool can be exhausting.  If you notice that your daughter shies away from answering all your questions, ask yourself why you’re asking.  It’s likely that to you, asking questions indicates that you care.  But to many younger women, it can feel intrusive and overwhelming.  Remember, this is the generation that barely talks on the phone, preferring to text or email.  A constant stream of questions can also feel like an interrogation, and makes your daughter associate talking to you with feeling pressured and stressed.

– “Why am I offering to pay?”  Many daughters feel that their mothers’ financial help comes with strings attached.  They often want to refuse the financial help but have seen that this is taken as a slap in the face to their parent.  If you’re offering to pay for something in order to genuinely help out, then that’s great.  But if, after introspection, you believe that you should be able to influence the outcome more if you pay, then don’t offer, or at the very least, make your expectation clear for what you want to happen if you pay.

– “Do I treat my daughter like I treat other women of her age that I interact with?”  Often, mothers will describe interacting very respectfully and positively with younger women at work or with their friends’ daughters.  These interactions are filled with compliments and these younger women are taken very seriously.  Then, the mother turns to her own daughter and asks if she wore a coat since it was a cold day.  This sort of diminishing behavior, that would never even occur to the mother to do with other younger women, makes her daughter feel that she will never be an adult in her mother’s eyes. If your daughter has said that you treat her like a child, try and catch yourself doing these sorts of behaviors, and replace them with compliments or respectful questions.  For example, if your daughter is a teacher, ask her what she thinks about the common core, not whether she remembered to pack herself a snack for her early day at work.

– “Do I accept that my daughter in law should be my son’s number one priority?”  Because she should be, for the marriage to succeed.  And he should be hers- but that isn’t your business!  If you’re constantly thinking about how your son is controlled by his wife, you’re missing a wonderful opportunity to think about why he would have picked a controlling woman.  According to imago theory, it’s likely because you were controlling!  By making passive aggressive or outright aggressive remarks about your son being controlled by your daughter-in-law, you’re treating him even more like a child who has no capacity to figure out how he wants to live his own life.  For many men who were raised by controlling or difficult moms, marrying a controlling or difficult woman seems like home, and leads to a spark of attraction and love that isn’t felt with a more laid back woman.  So, might as well accept that your son is in a relationship that works for him, and, even if he’s not, your comments about it will do more harm than good.

– “Am I emotionally open to feedback?”  It is likely that your daughter or daughter in law has been trying, over the years, to gently or not-so-gently tell you what her issues with you are.  But if every time she tries, you get so defensive and bent out of shape that she retreats, then you’re not trying to be close and genuine yourself.  An authentic relationship is one where each person respects the other person’s boundaries and feedback.  So, if your daughter always says you criticize her, and you’ve been dismissing this for years, it’s time to take a step back and examine if what she says may be true.  And if it is, you need to start working on it.

– “Do I exhibit interest in my daughter/daughter-in-law or just in the grandkids?”  One experiment that may teach you a great deal is very simple: try, for a week, only to ask about your daughter or daughter-in-law, and to just trust that if they have information about the kids that they want to share, they will share it.  To reiterate, every single question you pose will be about your daughter, herself, as an adult human being with her own life, interests, and passions.  Pretend, for the sake of the experiment, that she is childfree.  Whatever you would talk about to her then, talk about to her now, for this week.  This experiment often yields very interesting results.  Mostly, the mom realizes that she doesn’t ask jack about her own kid/in-law kid.  This makes the daughter feel like some kind of weird cable that connects you to the next generation, rather than a person worthy of your interest.  You can imagine that this makes her feel kind of worthless to you, and hurts the relationship.

Here are some sample questions: How’s work?  Where do you want to travel in the future?  Have you been getting out with girlfriends at all?  Is this where you pictured yourself at your age when you were a kid?  What’s the next step for you in your career?  Do you want to go back to work?  What’s the thing you’re most proud of?  Do you consider yourself an introvert or extrovert?  What’s a hobby you wish you’d get back to?  What did you think of Real Housewives this week?  ANYTHING THAT ISN’T ABOUT THE KIDS.  If your daughter looks at you weird, be honest.  Say, “I read something on the internet that said if I love you and want to bond with you, I should ask about you.  So, I love you and want to be close, so I am asking about you.  I’m sorry this seems so weird to you; I should have done it more all along.”

The most important thing to remember is that when a relationship isn’t working out, both partners have contributed to the conflict.  A mother-daughter relationship is no different.  If you’re the mother, you are used to thinking of your daughter as the issue, since you’ve been raising her, giving her feedback, and commenting on her behavior for so long.  She was, after all, your child.  But now that she is an adult, it is often very beneficial to do some introspection about your role in any conflict that you two have had.  You may end up with a much stronger relationship because of it, and your daughter will be very grateful. You can also read the book You’re Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen to understand more about this dynamic.

If these article resonated with you, share it with your mother, mother-in-law, daughter, or daughter-in-law. And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist That Thinks Mothers and Daughters Are a Partnership Like Any Other!

Order Dr. Rodman Whiten’s books, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family, and listen to The Dr. Psych Mom Show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. If you need therapy, check out her online group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person.

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  1. Sarah
    February 5, 2016 at 5:14 pm — Reply

    Any advice for what adult daughters can do to improve the relationship with their own mothers once grandchildren are involved?

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