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Why mothers and daughters fight

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A girl wants her mom's approval. A mom wants her girl to be safe. And as full-hearted and healthy as those two desires sound, they together may form the ground where a mother-daughter battle is waged.

That's the view of Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, as she explained it to Vox not long ago. Tannen has written a series of books about conversations and how they bring people closer or drive them apart, including one that analyzed recordings of real mother-daughter conversations, "You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation."

Writes Vox's Eleanor Barkhorn, "She discovered a central tension in the mother-daughter relationship: Mothers want to protect their daughters, so they offer advice that they think will make their daughters' lives easier. Daughters, on the other hand, want approval from their mothers, so they interpret this advice as criticism, as proof that they're imperfect."

Particular danger zones, according to Tannen, begin with hair, clothes and weight.

"Here's the person you most want to think you're perfect," Tannen told Barkhorn. "Because her opinion matters so much. So if she thinks you're doing things wrong, then you must be fatally flawed. And underneath we all worry that we're fatally flawed."

Barkhorn notes that the conflicts can play out even though "a distinctive characteristic of the millennial generation is that we're closer with our parents."

PsychCentral’s Margarita Tartakovsky says that even the closest mother-daughter pairs are apt to run into some bumps. She writes that "in her private practice, Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D, psychologist and co-author of I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You! A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict, sees three primary complaints that daughters have about their moms: Moms try to parent them and are overly critical and demanding. From moms’ perspective, daughters don’t listen to them, make poor choices and have no time for them."

Cohen-Sandler's advice for female family feuds is similar to other advice on conflict resolution: Listen, communicate, don't let it fester. She suggests focusing on the issue at hand, not using accusatory language and setting boundaries, among other things.

Tannen told WebMD that the worst thing a mother can do if she wants to avoid fighting with her daughter is "sniper attacks. Your daughter thinks you're talking about one thing, and then suddenly — zing — you switch to an entirely different issue. If you really feel you need to talk about a difficult subject, identify it. You might think, This was the time to bring it up because things were going well. But it might actually be the worst time — you're changing the tone, and your daughter's defenses are down. She's going to feel, I never know when she's going to hit me.

"Then there's the spiral, where mother and daughter drive each other to ever more annoying behavior. For example, a mother calls her adult daughter to talk about how lonely she is, which makes the daughter feel guilty. The mother thinks that talking about being lonely will encourage her daughter to call more frequently, but it does the opposite. So the mother calls more often, which makes her seem even more intrusive to her daughter, who pulls back further," she said.

In a Wall Street Journal article on keeping the peace between mothers and daughters a couple of years ago, the to-do list put the heavy lifting on mom. Daughters, it said, need to speak as adults and not revert to younger ages just because they're addressing their moms. They need to be truthful and set boundaries.

Mothers, on the other hand, need to go all in, willing to be vulnerable and honest and explanatory. It helps, wrote the Journal's Elizabeth Bernstein, if a mother is willing to explain what her own mother was like.

Both parties can help by finding activities to share and enjoy together, the article said.

As for waiting for rifts to die back over time, many experts believe that's a bad idea.

"I believe time heals almost no wounds," Troy Dunn, TV's "The Locator" and author of "Family: The Good F Word," told the Deseret News not long ago. "What heals a wound is good treatment. That doesn't come from sitting there, waiting. … People 15 years later can recite with incredible accuracy the words that wounded them. The only way is to replace them with new words."

"It takes one person willing to slip a note in a crack of the barrier between two people — and the other must be willing to consider it. Both acts are brave," he said.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco