'Acceptance' Spells Relief For Mother/Daughter Tensions

1-7-97

University Park, Pa. --- If your 70-something mother is still telling middle-aged you -- plus your husband and kids -- how to live life, relax. You probably bug her just as much when you try to take care of her.

Penn State research, published in the winter issue of the journal, Psychology and Aging, suggests that mother/daughter tensions often result from mothers and daughters seeing things differently because they are at different points in the human life cycle.

Dr. Karen Fingerman, assistant professor of human development and author of the study, says, "If both parties recognize that they will never be at the same point in life and try to accept the other person and her needs for what they are, they will get along much better."

Fingerman asked 48 healthy pairs of elderly mothers and mid-life daughters to talk about their current difficulties with the other person. She found that daughters most often described feeling intruded upon as a problem in the relationship. The mothers, too, mentioned that issue, but not as often.

In individual interviews, daughters also mentioned laxity in their mother's self care and their mother's aging as issues that bothered them. Daughters limited their complaints to situations involving themselves and their mothers. The mothers offered fewer complaints but tended to include grandchildren, other offspring, sons-in-law, and their own husbands in their examples.

Fingerman writes, "Daughters seem to view their own spouses and offspring as constituting a family unit unto itself, distinct from their relationships with their mothers."

"Mothers may perceive themselves as an integral part of a larger family, including their daughters, daughters' spouses, siblings and children. As a result, mothers may feel free to offer advice or to direct affairs in the daughters' lives in a manner that daughters experience as intrusion."

Fingerman adds, "Daughters who were able to say, 'That's how Mom is,' or 'That's just her way' were able to accept the behavior. Those who tried to change their mothers sometimes made them feel excluded -- and that's really bad for the mothers."

In their individual interviews, mothers most often focused on their daughter's strengths and accomplishments, but some mothers did indicate that they were irritated by their daughter's efforts to take care of them when they didn't see themselves as frail. Mothers who were able to see this trait as one of their daughter's annoying faults rather than something the daughter could do better enjoyed their mother/daughter relationship more.

It's an American myth, Fingerman notes, that you should always tell someone when you're upset with them and try to get them to change. That's good advice for a married couple, for example, but not for every relationship.

Problems between parent and child are inevitable throughout life, not just at the Terrible Twos or during the teenage years, because parents and children are always at two different points in the life cycle.

Fingerman says "The ability to accept the other person for who she is seems to help mothers and daughters handle difficulties in the most productive manner for both parties."

Fingerman's paper is titled, "Sources of Tension in the Aging Mother and Adult Daughter Relationship," and is in Vol. 11, No. 4 of the journal, Psychology and Aging.

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Editors: Dr. Fingerman can be reached at (814) 863-0241 or via e-mail at KFingerman@psu.edu

Contacts:
Barbara Hale (814) 865-9481 (office) bah@psu.edu
Vicki Fong (814) 865-9481 (office) vyf1@psu.edu