It is important to empower your daughter to express her feelings after your divorce, because girls tend to derive their self-worth from relationships and they may take things personally. As a result, they may blame themselves and be more vulnerable to the losses associated with a divorce in their family.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that how you talk to your daughter about her feelings and how connected she feels to both of her parents after your breakup can greatly influence her feelings of self-worth.
For instance, Karen, 48, sat down with Mia, 13, and told her that her life would change some after her divorce but that her love would never falter and she would always do her best to keep her informed about what would change and encourage her to express her thoughts and feelings.
The Father and Daughter Bond
Since nearly one third of all daughters have parents who are divorced in America, and most girls spend more time with their mothers than their fathers after divorce, it makes sense that the mother-daughter relationship would intensify. Based on more than two decades of research on daughters of divorce, I have discovered that many single mothers lean too heavily on their daughters for advice and caretaking after and this can create a burden for a daughter and possibly turn her against her father.
In contrast, Mia spent about three nights a week with her father and encouraged her to have a positive relationship with him. Also, Karen did her best not to burden Mia with caring for her seven-year-old sister Alyssa. If she did ask her to babysit, it was infrequent and she gave her advance notice so it didn’t interfere with her school work or social plans.
In fact, in Between Fathers and Daughters, Linda Nielsen writes “Sadly, only 10-15 percent of fathers and daughters get to enjoy the benefits of shared parenting.” Nielsen recommends that mothers and fathers encourage their daughter to spend close to equal time with both parents and give her messages such as “Both your dad and I made mistakes in our marriage, but we are good parents.”
Can Mothers and Daughters Be Too Close?
Why exactly is the mother-daughter relationship so complicated? In Our Fathers, Ourselves, Dr. Peggy Drexler notes that many mothers like to feel connected to their daughters and, in many cases, their daughters’ friends and they seek validation from them. She writes, “At a time when there is so much societal pressure to stay young, this helps keep us feeling youthful. It also helps us feel appreciated long after our children stop “needing” us to survive.
In my opinion, a mother’s need for closeness with her daughter might intensify after divorce when the mother’s coping skills are strained. In fact, the mother-daughter best friend idea could even lead to a competitive edge and tension between them.
Here are 10 things I’ve learned about the mother-daughter relationship after divorce:
- Love means letting go. Try not to lean on your daughter too much. Give her space to grow and to develop her own identity.
- Your daughter is not your friend. Don’t confide in her when it comes to personal information that doesn’t involve her. You can enjoy each other’s company and be connected, yet be autonomous individuals. She’ll need to question you at times in order to find her own way.
- Create a safe atmosphere for her to discuss her feelings – be sure to listen and validate them.
- Don’t bad mouth your ex-spouse as this will only promote loyalty conflicts and made it more difficult for her to feel good about herself.
- Don’t ask too much of her. Keep your expectations realistic and realize she can’t make up for what you didn’t get from your mother or other relationships.
- Encourage her to be assertive – to speak her mind even when it might unpopular to do so. Don’t raise her to be a “pleaser.” Create opportunities for her to express her opinions without censoring them. Protect her from cultural influences which focus on her role as a caretaker. She can be nurturing but still be assertive, strong, and independent.
- Direct your praise away from her body and appearance and comment on her talents and strengths. Say things like “You look so healthy.” Or, “I can see how happy you are – you’re radiant.”
- Be mindful of modeling healthy communication with family members and intimate partners. My research showed that parental conflict – before and after divorce – was associated with low self-esteem in daughters of divorce compared to sons in my study.
- Encourage your daughter to have a close bond with her father. After all, a daughter’s relationship with her father is the first one that teaches her how a man should treat her. If this isn’t possible, be sure expose her to male family members such as her grandfather or uncle.
- Have faith in your daughter. While it may be hard to let go, you can delight in watching your daughter grow into a self-confident person.
Having faith in your daughter’s abilities to bounce back after your divorce is important to her well-being. There are many ways that mothers can help their daughters establish a separate identity and healthy self-esteem after divorce. Make sure not to burden her with your problems or to bad mouth her father. Accepting that your daughter is different from you and has her own personality, interests, and choices will help you to stay back while she learns from her mistakes.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020.