Study: Mother-Daughter Talks Help Ease Difficult Experiences

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Communication today is largely reduced to texts or Facebook messages, Snapchat, or whatever hot new technology promises the quickest — and often shallowest — interaction. Communication between parents and children is sadly not immune to this phenomenon. Even when seemingly spending time together, parents and children are too often hunched over their smart- phones. They are co-existing, but not truly connecting.  

Meanwhile, research continues to reinforce the value of relationships built on deep, honest, and direct conversation. A recent study shared interesting observations about the value of parent-child conversations in helping children understand and process difficult life events that inevitably impact them.  

Led by Dr. Haley Kranstuber Horstman, assistant professor of interpersonal and family communication at the University of Missouri, the study focused specifically on communication within the mother-daughter relationship. Horstman was intent on investigating this one characteristically close and dynamic relationship within a family. Women are also generally socialized as girls to relate to each other through talk, unlike men and boys who tend to relate through activity. The implications of Horstman’s research may, however, apply to other relationships. 

“My goal [with this research] was to try to understand how daughters make sense of difficulty in the context of talking to their mothers,” Horstman said. “I was interested to see how communication changed the way that daughters made sense of their experiences — or how interpersonal communication affected intrapersonal meaning making.”

The laboratory-based study involved 62 mother-daughter pairs recruited from within and around the University of Nebraska, where Horstman was then engaged in doctoral work. The three-part study kicked off with a laboratory visit by the daughters, during which they had to write about a difficult experience in their lives, answer questions about their mental health and well-being, and rate their experience on a few different scales. Two days later, mothers joined their daughters at the same laboratory to participate in a 15-minute, tape-recorded conversation with their daughters about those difficult experiences. Across all mother-daughter pairs, experiences ranged from the everyday (struggling with a class in school) to the more intense (the death of a loved one, infidelity, etc.). Mothers’ previous knowledge of the events varied, but most had some awareness of the events their daughters chose to highlight. On the third and final visit to the laboratory two days later, daughters were again asked to write about their difficult experiences and complete the same survey offered during their initial appointment. 

The study generally found that daughters’ stories about negative experiences do change based on the quality of their mother-daughter conversations about the events. The conversations and interactions had the power to help daughters “re-author” — and increase the positivity of — their individual stories of adversity over time. 

A few specific behaviors predicted the most significant positive change in the tone of a daughter’s narrative over time, and are valuable for Moms to model when helping daughters work through hardship. 

Taking turns.The Horstman-led study showed that when mothers and daughters took many (equal) turns talking about a challenging event, the positivity of a daughter’s personal story about the event increased. Having a mother’s voice as part of a daughters’ sense-making process provided far greater benefit than a daughter simply spewing forth a monologue about an event. While the latter approach may be tempting for young adults who are often seeking a sounding board or someone to “just hear them out” when something goes wrong, the most significant positive impact comes from a 50/50, give-and-take conversation that jointly makes sense of difficulty. Even if a daughter appears resistant to engaging in this way about a difficult experience, there is great value in Moms continuing to lobby — perhaps gently — for this ever-important mother-daughter interaction. 

Horstman suggests that Moms start early in establishing relationships with daughters where there is quite a bit of talk. Doing so lays an important foundation for the future — one in which daughters are accustomed to talking with Mom about challenges they face and seeking her perspective and guidance. If there isn’t a lot of communication at the beginning of a mother-daughter relationship, a mother cannot expect a daughter to suddenly begin sharing in young adulthood. The status quo will likely continue. 

Considering Mom’s perspective.The extent to which a daughter listens and actively considers her mother’s perspective when discussing a difficult event also predicted how much more positive a daughter’s story of adversity would become over time. And a daughter doesn’t necessarily have to agree with Mom’s perspective to derive some benefit from this behavior. Stepping outside of oneself and simply welcoming someone else’s point of view helps daughters externalize their problems and gain more objective opinions about them.  

Horstman sees perspective-taking as a teachable quality, and research is currently underway to determine the most effective way to teach people how to take the perspective of a loved one. Making a comment, such as, “I never thought of it like that,” and asking questions about the thoughts and opinions that are being shared signal that someone is practicing perspective-taking behaviors. Horstman reminds that daughters learn a lot of their behaviors from their mothers, and these become a foundation for their communication tendencies in adulthood. 

Fleshing out the story of adversity. An increase in positivity about a difficult event also occurs when mothers and daughters are able to tell a more coherent story together about a negative event. A mother who is engaged in the storytelling and helps her daughter tease out and talk through elements of her story will help build a more complete account of what occurred. The story of adversity ultimately makes better sense and can help improve the daughter’s mental health related to it. 

Communication really is a foundation for relationships throughout our lives — it creates and sustains our relationships,” Horstman remarked. “One of the most important takeaways that the study is showing is how important it is to build good communication with your daughters, weaving conversations into everyday life, asking them questions, getting interested in what they’re interested in, and knowing that even these everyday conversations that we take for granted or that seem mundane do have the power to change the way we understand our life experiences.”