Dealing with a difficult mother-daughter relationship

Young African American woman gestures while discussing problems with a female mental health professional.

The role of a mother in her children’s lives is one that we hold in high regard. Why is it that we shy away from talking about how mother-daughter relationships can be fraught with many complexities?

By: Zukiswa Dlamini Pictures: XX

When 28-year-old Akhona* speaks about her mother, her tone changes to one of coldness. Unlike what is mostly portrayed of mother-daughter relationships, hers is one that has been characterised by pain and disappointment. “I’m one of the odd ones out when it comes to people having great mothers because I didn’t have one. Our relationship is not healthy, in fact I would say that because of her I have insecurities and issues that I could have done without.” A child’s relationship with their mother is special and characterised by the mom having the power to shape the relationship, especially before the child becomes an adult. “Mothers are painted as people that deserve automatic love and respect in society because it is assumed that they are natural caregivers, nurturers and the backbone of families,” says Soweto-based counsellor Nomzamo Ndlela. She elaborates that to some people this is a reality, but for some, it is not. Because of the honour that mothers are given, it is rare that we openly speak about how some of them fail their children. There is very little room, especially in the black community, for children to speak about the terrible treatment that they receive from their mothers.

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Mothers are often expected by society to be the first place of safety and love for their children. The role of mothers in media is that of nurturers who are always there for their children. This view can cause feelings of loss or a sense that something is wrong when that isn’t your experience. “It’s important for us to be clear that there is no perfect mother-daughter relationship. All relationships have their flaws,” says relationship counsellor Irene Jones. She describes a healthy mother-daughter relationship as one that allows the daughter to know that she is loved and safe with her mother. It lets her know that she can be herself and can make mistakes without that love being at risk. Due to the nature of the relationship, it is common for daughters to take on their mother’s issues because of the proximity. “I often tell my clients that they shouldn’t berate themselves or their daughters about issues such as weight. When a mother tells her child that she is fat, unattractive or not smart, that messaging not only hurts but it sticks. When we are children, we believe everything our mothers say. And, when we are older, even though we may know better, what they say still matters,” says Nomzamo. The enormity of the mother-daughter relationship not only shapes how daughters see themselves, but it is also the reason why most people do not intervene when the relationship is toxic. “We have created a society where ‘mother knows best’ is a belief that many people hold. This paired with the fact that it is assumed that most people will be good mothers, when the relationship is unhealthy, people feel it is not their place to intervene.” For Akhona*, the relationship with her mother was unstable. “My mom was emotionally and mentally abusive. And, she would go through phases of being irresponsible. My siblings and I would be left to fend for ourselves on an emotional level. When she would switch back to being an involved parent, she would overcompensate by buying lavish gifts in return for us not questioning her. When I got older, I started to confront her, and she felt disrespected. And, that’s when it got physical. My brother and sister had the same experience as I did, but my brother feels like he must protect her. He’s the only one with a decent relationship with her. I feel it’s toxic because everything is always on her terms, and she does whatever she wants, whenever she wants. To this day, she won’t acknowledge that it wasn’t okay for her to go live her with boyfriends for extended periods, leaving us alone. She feels because the bills were paid, we had food and a nanny, we should be grateful. I don’t agree, and that is why we don’t have a bond.” Akhona* says that even though she no longer speaks to her mother, she feels a lot of resentment towards her family members who did nothing to save her. “The adults, aunts and uncles, must have known because she is their sister, but they did not come to save us from her. And now that I am grown, I am considered to be cruel because I will not have her in my life. Even though I know that this is the best decision for me, there are moments when I worry that the cruelty that I am being accused of is something that I learnt from my mother. And, I wouldn’t want to pass that on to my children,” she admits.


When your relationship with your mother is not a healthy or a happy one, it is possible to remedy it. “As we become women ourselves, we have to learn to see our mothers through different eyes. We can experience them as women; as their own people. Motherhood is tough on a lot of women, and not everyone who has children actually wanted them. Add in other factors such as stress and poverty, and it can be a painful situation for both mother and children,” says Irene. Once you’re able to see your mother as a person, try to understand her and build a new relationship from that place. “Daughters have to forgive their mothers for what they did in the past. There is no way of going back to fix that. If you want a relationship with your mother, and she wants one with you, you both have to see and respect each other. And, try to work from that basis. The wounds of childhood pains and mistakes are rarely fixed quickly. Relationships will always require work to stay healthy,” she adds. Dealing with your mother-daughter relationship dynamics, both good and bad, is important. If not examined, certain habits and behaviours are passed down from generation to generation. “It’s important as a daughter, who will likely be a mother herself one day, to decide what kind of mom you will be. It’s easy in the good times to think that you will be a great mom, but your character will be tested in the tough times. So, set boundaries that you don’t want to cross that your mother crossed. Make note of the hurts that you experienced, and try not to unconsciously repeat them. Most importantly as a mother, remember that your daughter is not an extension of you; she is her own person who is entitled to her own choices in life. When nurtured, a mother-daughter relationship is one of the most beautiful relationships to witness, work towards that,” Nomzamo states.


“It’s not always easy or possible to fix a broken relationship, even if it is with your mother. You both have to want it and take responsibility for some issues, and let other things go,” says Nomzamo. Here are her tips:

  • Make your intentions clear: Let your mother know that you are interested in mending the relationship, but also make it clear what you won’t tolerate. Find out what her needs and deal breakers are, and if you are both keen, try to start from that point.
  • Try new methods: If you’ve learnt that your mother hates being confronted, try speaking to her when you are in a good space. Switching tactics and understanding where she is coming from might help.
  • Don’t get violent: Sometimes valid points get lost in the delivery. Don’t allow yourself to be triggered to a point where you are shouting or violent. Gain control of your emotions and calmly say what needs to be said. It also helps to have a witness so that you are both accountable.
  • Be Loving: It’s possible to be loving even when you have decided to no longer have a relationship with your mom. Let the family know in a calm and respectful manner the reasons behind your decision. Make it clear that you are interested in maintaining a relationship with the rest of them, and then move on with your life. Know that there is a chance that your mother may act out, especially at family gatherings. Always be cordial, but keep your boundaries in place despite any external pressures.

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