I'm Not Mad, I Just Hate You!: A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict with Roni Cohen-Sandler

Last Editorial Review: 3/24/2004

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Psychologist Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler discusses his views on the unique issues that mothers and daughters face.

Event Date: 06/07/2000.

The opinions expressed by Dr. Cohen-Sandler are hers and hers alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live's World Watch and Health News Auditorium. Today we are discussing I'm Not Mad, I Just Hate You! A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict, with Roni Cohen-Sandler, PhD.

Cohen-Sandler was graduated from Cornell University in 1977, magna cum laude, with a bachelor's degree in English and psychology, and earned a doctorate in clinical psychology in 1982 from The American University in Washington, D.C. She worked as a staff psychologist and coordinator for a satellite mental health center and as a consultant conducting psychological evaluations. Dr. Cohen-Sandler did clinical research on childhood and adolescent depression and self-destructive behaviors, lectured to professional and training organizations, and published numerous articles in journals such as Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychology and Professional Psychology. After relocating to Connecticut in 1985, Dr. Cohen-Sandler began a private practice specializing in working with women and adolescent girls. She is a featured author in Girls' Life magazine who writes about topics such as self-esteem, body image, divorce, assertiveness, and friendship. Dr. Cohen-Sandler also volunteers for various programs facilitating reading and writing skills in the public school, and has had a 15-year apprenticeship raising her own teen-age daughter, Laura.

Dr. Cohen-Sandler, welcome to WebMD Live. Why did you decide to write a book about mother-daughter relationships during the teen years?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: I had been seeing adolescent girls and their moms in therapy for about 20 years at that point. One of the things that struck me is that teenage girls have a very difficult time acknowledging, much less dealing with their anger and other strong emotions. And, the mother, historically, had a difficult time dealing with the same issue. In this culture, women are socialized not to make waves, speak up, and to swallow their voices in order not to make waves. However, during adolescence, it becomes a problem because girls so often take out their anger and disappointment on their mothers. And mothers feel ill-equipped to manage their daughter's anger.

Moderator: Why do they take their anger out on their mothers?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: Because their mothers are their safest and most available targets. Because girls know that if they express anger at their teachers or especially at their peers, they will be shunned. But their mothers, who love them unconditionally, will not, for example, tell everyone else in the family, "she's a loser, don't let her sit at the dinner table!" (Laughs!) And so girls know that they can express anger towards their moms. But moms need help to figure out how they can best teach girls to channel their anger constructively. This is important as girls grow up, leave home, and form relationships. Mothers want their daughters to speak up, to protect themselves in relationships and to be able to express anger constructively so that they're also not inciting violence.

Moderator: Do girls get the message that mom will take it?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: Exactly right. Because moms so often feel that if they deal with the anger, and heaven forbid, they should have some of those same feelings toward their daughter, that they're being 'unmaternal' or not a good mother. I once had a mother, an educator, with two teenage daughters who asked me, "Do you ever get angry at your children?" I fell over and said, "Of course! By the hour!" But she was shocked because in her mind, anger was synonymous with being a bad mother. The important thing for moms to know and to teach their daughters is that anger is a perfectly normal human emotion. And that if you're in a close relationship with someone, it's probably inevitable. But you need to know how to handle the anger so that you can stay connected in the relationship and not harm the relationship or the people in it.

pgwalker_webmd: But aren't girls getting angrier earlier now? Aren't they starting to have adolescent-type crises during their pre-adolescent years?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: The truth is that girls are experiencing puberty earlier and earlier, so many of the emotional issues that used to start at 11 or 12 are now starting at nine or 10 -- the over-sensitivity, the self-consciousness, irritability, moodiness. Anger is only one of those emotions. And, yes, mothers ARE reporting that their daughters are showing signs of adolescence while many are still in elementary school.

Moderator: Does have to do with the fact that they grow up too quickly, with media, TV, et cetera?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: I think that there are many reasons why girls are growing up too quickly, and I absolutely agree with you that they're growing up too quickly! One reason for that is because of early puberty, so their bodies are maturing. They start puberty earlier now because of better nutrition, secondly speculation of chemicals and hormones in the food. Those are the two main reasons -- better public health. So, going back to why they're growing up so fast ... puberty -- that means they're often in situations before they're emotionally and cognitively ready to deal with them. Secondly, youngsters are more often on their own these days with less supervision. Many mothers are in the work force, there are many more single parent families so without as much supervision, girls are apt to grow up more quickly and have that opportunity. And the third reason that you mentioned is the very powerful influence of the media. Movies, television, magazines are portraying, even advertising girls in very sophisticated and mature relationships, settings, and activities. I agree that it's very disturbing. Very. Mothers will often say, "What can I do about this?" And, there are things that mothers can do. First of all, a major issue between many mothers and daughters is clothing. And girls often dress, and I'm being kind, like "little adults." Mini-adults in cocktail dresses, is how I'd characterize it. Mothers can say that's not appropriate for your age, and yes, the magazines are showing this, and your friend Trudy, has an outfit just like this but that's not a look that I think is appropriate for a girl your age. And, many mothers are afraid to say that because they don't want to seem old-fashioned or start a conflict with their daughter so they're afraid to say no. But that's one way that moms can get across that they don't want daughters to grow up too soon. And guiding your daughter in terms of activities that you deem appropriate. I've seen mothers allowing, even encouraging their daughters to socialize with boys much older than them because the moms want their daughters to be popular. So, the mothers have to keep reigning the girls in and, yes, they will protest. But it's so important for the mom to be really clear about her expectations.

pgwalker_webmd: Does it help at all to try to explain beforehand that they will be having these 'crises' once they hit adolescence (or before)? Can it help them prepare, at least cognitively, for this...or is it too much of an intellectualization of the process for them?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: I would agree that it's very difficult for a younger girl to appreciate the future in that way. However, I think that the mother CAN prepare the daughter in many ways by establishing or setting up a kind of basis for discussion and compromise for talking to the daughter in a collaborative kind of way, seeking her input, listening very closely to her, and teaching her that when there are disagreements, that neither of them have to withdraw from the relationship but they can stay engaged, discuss the issues, negotiate, and sometimes compromise. And the mom's willingness to do this and demonstrate that she's available to do this when the daughter is younger, will go a long way when the daughter reaches adolescence.

Moderator: What practical strategies can you suggest to help mothers and daughters to resolve conflicts more effectively?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: "Check your emotional temperature" means that the mother should evaluate how prepared she is to deal with the confrontation. In other words, is her emotional arousal at the right level? Because if she can't think clearly and stay in control, which is something she wants to model for her daughter, then she should do something to relax herself and postpone the discussion until she can stay in control. Many mothers will do yoga, or meditation, or listen to music. The old "count to ten" strategy actually works very well! The only mistake that moms often make is that they will call a friend or spouse to talk about how they're very upset and when you recount a situation to someone, you're essentially rehearsing your anger, so the arousal level goes up instead of down so it's best to distract yourself. And one of the most effective strategies is also empathizing with your daughter. If you can really put yourself in her place, it sometimes takes the sting out of whatever is upsetting you. 

It's very important to 'Think through your goal" because a confrontation or conflict can have many purposes. Sometimes you'll want to get an apology. Sometimes you'll want your daughter to change her attitude. Sometimes you'll want her to change her behavior. Sometimes, you'll just want her to listen to your point of view or value. When you know in advance what you're trying to accomplish, you're usually more effective.

"Choose A Good Time." Yes, this is challenging, because as mothers know, teenage girls are not too awake or receptive in the a.m. hours. So first thing in the morning is generally not a good time to bring up an important topic. Mothers will know, for example, whether their daughters are most receptive right before bedtime, or right after dinner, or when they're riding in the car (which is always a good time, I call that "auto-communication"). So, mom should choose a good time when she knows her daughter will be most able to listen.

"Talk to her directly." You want to model for your daughter communicating directly and straightforwardly. So you lose your effectiveness when you send in a messenger, like a sibling, you know, "Mom says ...." or when you call in the big guns like, "Wait till your dad gets home!"

"Boost your chance of being heard." This is like fighting fair, basically. You want to give your daughter the same courtesy that you'd give to another adult, a friend or spouse. Speak in a positive tone of voice, keep to the present matter rather than rehash the old things, don't exaggerate or accuse. And, be respectful of her feelings.

"Be aware of your body language." You know, it's interesting that the literature suggests that about 95% of communication is non-verbal, especially for girls. Girls and women pay a lot of attention to non-verbal behavior. So, if, for example, you remember to speak in a positive tone of voice and you're saying sweet and supportive things, or  if your arms are crossed in front of your chest, you're very tense, you're glaring at your daughter, she's going to pick up on those non-verbal cues and pay attention to them more than what you're actually saying.

"Modify according to your daughter's needs." Be attuned to how your daughter is processing your discussion. Sometimes, for reasons that you may not know, she just can't tolerate it. Maybe she feels overwhelmed by schoolwork, discouraged about an activity that she's involved with, or she's feeling slighted by a friend, et cetera. You approach her with all good intention, but it's important to realize when it's just not working, when you need to say, "You know what? We'll talk another time."

"Keep an argument from becoming a fight." The mom, as the adult, should be responsible for keeping an argument, which is constructive, from escalating into a fight, which is destructive. Teenage girls are masters at sidetracking moms. They'll nitpick, bait you, push your buttons, try to distract you, all to get what they want. And, if you follow that, it's very likely that you're going to get frustrated or upset, and say things that are hurtful in exasperation or frustration. So, instead, moms should monitor the discussion and if they feel things are getting out of hand, they can say, "Both of us need to take a break here. Let's calm down and agree to talk when we're more in control."

"Reward Your Efforts." So many times mothers and daughters also focus on the negative. We remember words that we had with each other in the morning and they stick with us all day. We don't remember the pleasant interactions or discussing things, reaching a resolution, both of us feeling better and then moving on. Moms should remember to recognize and reward themselves and their daughters for having the courage to talk about issues directly and making an effort to work things out.

Moderator: What can mothers do if they see their daughters struggling to get along with their peers?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: Ah, well, this actually is going to be in my next book, which is going to be about girl's social life -- friendships, dating, drugs, alcohol, parties, sex, you name it! And, I'm writing this chapter right now, the peer relationship chapter. But I think that when mothers can help daughters to identify what they need in relationships, and they use the mother-daughter relationship as kind of their model, they're helping their daughters to think about whether friends are meeting their needs, treating them correctly, mistreating them. And when mothers support daughters in finding friends that help them feel good about themselves and help girls to troubleshoot when relationships are disappointing to them or hurtful, then girls become better able to take care of themselves in relationships. It's very hard for moms not to get involved or try to solve all of the problems that girls have. It's hard not to become angry at the girls who are hurting your daughter and give daughters a lot of advice. But, in general, girls need the space and the opportunity to work things out on their own to make some mistakes and to learn from them. And when moms can be 'coaches' in this process, girls get much needed support.

Moderator: What do teen girls feel is the biggest problem in relating to their mothers?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: Well, many times they'll say, "My mother doesn't listen to me, or really understand me." And, those statements usually mean one of two things or maybe both. First, they mean, "If my mother really listened to or understood me, she'd let me do what I want to do!" (Laughs!) In other words, it's mom's empathic failure. But, on the other hand, to be fair to girls, many times, their moms might listen to them, but not really hear, and the reason for that is that so many times, moms bring to the relationship their own histories, sensitivities, biases, and worries, based on their own experiences as a teenage girl. When their daughters are struggling with something, whether it's a social issue, or an academic or athletic situation, mothers sometimes have trouble recognizing their daughter's unique perceptions and feelings about the situation because they project their OWN take based on when they were girls. And this is one of the hardest challenges, I think, for moms of teenage girls. Is it your issue? Or, is it your daughter's issue? I'll give you an example. A 13-year-old girl told her mother that the night before a school dance, when she was supposed to sleep at a friend's house, the friend called and cancelled. And this mom who grew up feeling that she wasn't taken seriously and that her friends often let her down, reacted to this situation in a very strong way. She got very upset, said, "How could you be friends with this girl? She's so unreliable! She's not very nice to you!" And was very critical of both this girl and her own daughter for allowing herself to be in this relationship, when for the daughter, it really wasn't a big deal. The daughter took it at face value because the girl hadn't talked to her mother about it, and her mother thought it wasn't a great idea because they had to leave very early the next morning. So, for the daughter, it was a non-issue. And it can go in the other direction as well, that, when the daughter is very concerned about something, and tries to convey that to her mother, her mother may not always recognize the importance that it has for the daughter, because in her own experience, it's relatively trivial.

Moderator: What are the issues mothers and daughters fight about most?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: Well, the number one issue is clothing. That's by far the number one issue. A close second is the state of the bedroom. Those are the two classic battle starters between mothers and daughters, which, I should say, I think are mostly avoidable. Many times it's very difficult for moms to relinquish control. Especially when daughters are making that transition from late childhood to early adolescence, mothers have a hard time letting go. But I think it's so important to choose your battles carefully. With clothing, it may not be the mother's taste or preference, she may not think the outfit looks particularly good on her daughter but as long as it's not inappropriate, she may choose to let her daughter test out her wings. The daughter will go through many stages, and a few years from now may be laughing at herself, but then it doesn't become an issue between her mother and her. And the same thing with the bedroom. Mothers often complain that daughter's rooms are messy, disorganized, they look like a cyclone hit them, but if their daughter is happy living like that, then maybe they need to back off, unless it's an issue of hygiene or safety. You don't want to let your child light a candle if the room is cluttered with papers, food, live animals -- you draw the line at things you just can't tolerate. But the other things you don't like, you can probably let go of. If your daughter decorates her room in a hideous fashion, if she can't find her clothes and puts up unattractive posters, as long as they don't violate the family's values, this could well be something you could ignore. If all else fails, close the door! And, when you eliminate those unnecessary battles, you have that much more emotional energy to deal with the really important things.

Moderator: Do teen girls really care what their mothers have to say?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: They really, really do. And many mothers fear that their daughters really don't care what they have to say and would much rather listen to their peers. So, often, they will withdraw because they don't feel that they're valued. In fact, every survey that I've read on daughters' attitudes clearly supports the idea that they greatly value their mother's opinion, they value their mothers. In one study, girls were asked whom they most admired, and 40% of them said their mom. Most studies of adolescents have shown that teens look to their parents as their number one influence over peers, teachers, and advertising on issues that are important to their future, so this is very reassuring to moms who, on a daily basis, may be told that everything they say is annoying and everything they do is ridiculous.

Moderator: You devote an entire chapter to stressful events. How should these be handled?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: Well, it's important to realize that our lives don't occur in a vacuum, that, in the course of adolescence, girls may experience any number of life events which will influence and exacerbate the conflict with their moms. So I think it's important for moms to recognize the potential impact of such situations as an illness in the family, a divorce, of course a death, residential move, change of school, any transition will be very difficult for girls during these years, typically because they feel so in flux themselves -- their bodies, emotions, relationships. Most girls crave stability.

Moderator: How do you know when your daughter needs professional help?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: That's a good question. Many mothers think that their daughter has to be in crisis or experiencing severe problems before it's appropriate to ask for professional help, but I think many families wait too long. If you find that your daughter and you have reached an impasse in your relationship, it can help to have a third person, objective person help you through it. If you hear disconcerting information about your daughter from parties outside the home, such as from her teachers, leaders of her activities, other friends' parents, that's also a red flag. If you see drastic changes in her behavior, in her mood, in eating/sleeping patterns, friendship patterns, those are also signs of something more serious going on. And especially if your daughter herself says, "I think I'd like to talk to someone." Many mothers though, feel that a daughter's request for therapy is a rejection of the mother. They say, "Why can't my daughter talk to me? And I always say, "Because you're a mother!" They need to feel separate from mom. They don't want to feel dependent. They want to feel some issues are private. It makes them feel more of an individual and grown-up. If you suspect that your daughter may be abusing alcohol or drugs, that's also important.

Moderator: What about delinquent behavior?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: You know, many mothers worry that if their daughter has a friend who's engaging in that behavior, that the daughter will be led astray. It's been my experience that those behaviors usually don't start in adolescence. There's usually a history of earlier, sometimes chronic behavior problems prior to adolescence, and often a history of significant family problems. A girl who feels good about herself and who feels safe, supported in her family environment is not going to suddenly start engaging in illegal behaviors because a friend does.

Moderator: How can mothers show daughters they care even when there's constant conflict?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: This takes some creativity. When a mother is angry and upset, it can color her whole way of looking at the relationship. But I think remembering to show your daughter how much you cherish her is so appreciated -- thoughtful gestures, writing a little note, putting a card in her backpack, bringing her a flower, taking her out for ice cream. Allowing yourselves to be together and enjoy a moment rather than being 'mother and daughter' really goes a long way in restoring the good will in the relationship, no matter how you oppose your daughter or how much she rebels against your limits. When you're loving, kind, and thoughtful, she has trouble thinking, "Oh, my mom just hates me!" which, of course, is what they think when you say no.

Moderator: Are mother-daughter relationships different from father-daughter relationships in intensity, and why?

Dr. Cohen-Sandler: Very. I think that the mother/daughter relationship intensity is unparalleled and that makes sense because of development. The mother used to be a teenage girl, so she's bringing to the relationship the complexity of her own history. The father has none of that. When the daughter talks about how her best friend dumped her, the father sees it as a problem to be solved. The mother gets flooded with emotion, usually. She remembers how it felt for her when this happened to her. All of her old insecurities can come out  and so it becomes a very complex situation. The daughter may sense something about the mother's reaction is not what she wants, because of the mother's own emotions, whereas fathers can often be very unemotional or dispassionate about this. Girls might say, "My father doesn't get it! He's clueless!" But that's true anyway! But, they're thinking, "My mother is such a witch! Why'd she act like that?" And they chalk it up to being clueless, which is more palatable than my mother is blaming me or anything like that. 

What I'd like to say is that when moms work hard and feel good about the mother/daughter relationship, they're using one of the most powerful tools in their repertoire to counteract some of the unhealthy messages girls get from our culture. The book came out in March, 1999 and the paperback just came out in March of 2000, it's called I'm Not Mad, I Just Hate You! by Roni Cohen-Sandler, PhD, and Michelle Silver. It's available at www.barnesandnoble.com. 

Moderator: Dr. Cohen-Sandler, thank you for joining us. WebMD members, please join us every Wednesday at 1 pm EDT here in the Pregnancy and Parenting Auditorium for our live weekly event.

The opinions expressed by Dr. Cohen-Sandler are hers and hers alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

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