September 2010 Issue --> Family Article
Mothers and Daughters: Boundaries are a Good Thing
By: Linda Perlman Gordon


If Robert Frost is right and good fences make good neighbors, are they good for families as well?

The boundaries in the mother/daughter relationship are complicated because our daughters expect to be taken care of and also need to individuate. These boundaries evolve as our daughter grows-up, but they don't dissipate. Today, many mothers are staying invested long past the time when adult daughters should be making more decisions on their own, often confusing where their life ends and their adult daughter's life begins.

Christiana, 32 years old said, "It is hard to know where my mom ends and I begin. In fact it takes a lot of effort. I often ask myself, so why am I doing this? Why am I buying the conservative black pants instead of the edgy, fashionable ones? Am I doing it because I want to, or because my mom always said, "High fashion is stupid? Before you know it you'll be giving that away in a hefty bag."

To be successful, creating boundaries must be an ongoing, conscious and mutual process. Both mothers and adult daughters must be clear about expectations, needs and limitations. We've heard many mothers repeat this mantra over and over again, "I need to know the limits, not guess." Clear and honest communication and respect for one another are essential ingredients to successfully navigating the new relationship, as they both move from the daughter's childhood into her adulthood. This is not a cakewalk.

Setting limits with adult daughters often require that mothers first get their own emotional houses in order and take care of themselves before addressing their daughter's needs. This is for their daughter's benefit as well as for their own. For example, if you have dinner plans on a Saturday night and your daughter makes a last minute call to ask you to baby-sit, your first reaction may be to say yes to avoid disappointing her.

However, by sacrificing your plans you also may feel a bit intruded upon. If you are resentful, this feeling may emerge when you least expect it; sometimes inappropriately. Your discomfort with setting boundaries will convey to your daughter the message that you are always on call, which is not necessarily the message you want to give and certainly not the basis for an adult relationship. Unlike mothers, friends are not expected to provide a rationale for how they spend their time. Making a statement that says your time matters enables your daughter to find other sources of support so your relationship with her can be more balanced.

With self-awareness, you can distinguish more readily between your own needs and those of your daughter. If you don't take the time to understand where you leave off and your daughter begins, you are much more likely to behave inconsistently. By your demonstrating confidence, your daughter will more easily develop her own boundaries to become self-reliant. Ultimately, we don't and shouldn't have control over the decisions that our adult daughter makes. Mothers, who value their daughter's independence, will have an easier time accepting her choices. It's human for us to want our daughters to act in ways that are familiar to us.

Try to remember that healthy boundaries protect feelings and create positive mother-daughter adult relationships.

  • Permit yourself to say what you really need to feel comfortable.
  • Communicate directly in a straightforward manner.
  • Refrain from hovering.
  • Avoid quid pro quo.
  • Don't allow grown children to manipulate you, nor should you manipulate them.
  • Respect each other's feeling and accept differences of opinion.
  • Avoid words like "should," "must" and "ought.

About the Author:

Linda Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer are the authors of Too Close for Comfort: Questioning the Intimacy of Today's New Mother-Daughter Relationship. While exploring the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship, the book demonstrates that mothers and their adult daughters have formed a greater friendship than past generations. .For helpful tips and practical advice on staying connected to your children visit For more information on categories of mothers click here for our chart of Mother Archetypes.
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