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Building a Strong Mother-Daughter Friendship

  • Carolyn Mahaney Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jan 29, 2009
Building a Strong Mother-Daughter Friendship

It was Afternoon Out, our weekly time together as mother and daughters. The problem was, only two of us — Janelle and I -- wanted to be there. My other two daughters, Nicole and Kristin, sat at opposite ends of the backseat staring out their respective windows. Their slouched shoulders and blank expressions saying what words did not. Janelle and I chatted in the front seat for a while, but their non-participation was impossible to ignore.

I suppressed the impulse to turn the car around and expel them both to walk the rest of the way home. Instead, I breathed a prayer for the Holy Spirit’s help and broke the silence.

"Okay, girls," I began, "what’s going on?"

"Nothing," came the predictably weak reply.

I wasn’t about to let it go at that. After several more probing questions, they finally admitted they would rather be doing something else. Basically, they lacked any enthusiasm for being with their mom.

I wasn’t prepared for my daughters’ attitude change toward me when they reached the teen years. What happened to the little girls who would jump up and down with glee just to go to McDonalds with their mom? And it seemed only a short time ago that they were excited about my husband’s idea for Afternoon Out. He would watch Chad, our infant son, so I could take the girls out for lunch and an activity. Somewhere along the way, however, their excitement had waned.

Conventional wisdom would tell me that this is normal teenage behavior and that a smart mom should back off when her daughter reaches this stage.  She must give her space and not take it personally. If her daughter doesn’t feel like talking to her, that’s okay — so say many of the "experts."

But informed by Scripture, Paul Tripp suggests that this strategy is a mistake:

Sadly, I am afraid, many parents accept the moat that teenagers tend to build around themselves. They adjust to the lack of time and relationship with their teen who, only a few short years ago, wanted to tag along with them everywhere they went. They quit talking when their teenager quits talking. So, at the point where significant things happen, which the teenager was never meant to deal with alone, Mom and Dad are nowhere to be found.1

Building a Relationship Requires Persistence

I’ll admit it. At first I was sorely tempted to "accept the moat" separating me from my daughters. What kept me from doing that was God’s command for me to be the primary influence in their lives. As we read last month, we are to teach and instruct our daughters in the ways of the Lord (Prov. 1:8). This includes the successful hand-off of the language of biblical womanhood.

This process requires a relationship. Clearly, for me to exert any meaningful influence in my daughters’ lives, I must be close to them. I must be consistently, actively, and intimately involved in their worlds. And while this is important at any stage, it is absolutely crucial during the teenage years. As a mom, I had to press in all the more intently during this pivotal season, whether my daughters eagerly received my friendship and guidance or stubbornly resisted it.

A word to daughters: may I urge you not to resist your mom’s involvement in your life? If you have built a moat around your heart, you have not cut off an enemy but a friend. A friend, I might add, who has the essential tools you need to navigate the teen years. She isn’t perfect, I know, but I am almost certain she is lovingly committed to being your friend so that she can lead you in the ways of the Lord.

Now moms, I can imagine you responding out loud to me as you read this. "Okay, Carolyn," you say, "I’m convinced that I need to be involved in my daughter’s life. I want to be a faithful mom, but she won’t let me get close to her. What am I to do?"

The Key to Your Daughter's Heart

While I don’t pretend to hold the key to a young girl’s heart, I know the one who does. As mothers we must appeal directly to the throne of almighty God. Proverbs 21:1 discloses: "The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will." The sovereign God who directs the hearts of kings and presidents holds our daughters’ hearts in His hand.

If your daughter has constructed a moat around her heart — or if you fear she might — you must first make your request to the Heart-Keeper. No moat or barrier is too difficult for Him to overcome. Prayer is a key to accessing your daughter’s heart.

Author J. C. Ryle encouraged parents: "The Lord is far more willing to hear than we to pray; far more ready to give blessings than we to ask them — but He loves to be entreated for them. . . . I suspect the child of many prayers is seldom cast away."2  So let us, with faith and boldness, ask Him to restore or strengthen our mother-daughter relationships.

The Ingredients of a Mother-Daughter Friendship

Now this doesn’t mean we come with our fingers wagging and tell our daughters — you will be my friend whether you like it or not! As I once heard a pastor say, "Friendship is earned, not demanded." And friendship doesn’t mean that we relinquish our God-given authority. Rather, our authority is the foundation on which we are to build our friendship. The goal is to win our daughters’ hearts and affection so we can lead them in the ways of the Lord.

To earn their friendship, we must first earn their trust. We must approach our daughters with humility and ask questions. We can’t assume that we know the reasons they may keep us at arm’s length.

Maybe we have unwittingly offended them, or they are bitter over a decision we have made. Or perhaps their reaction is simply the consequence of a worldly view of mothers. In many cases their hearts may have grown proud. They may also fear what their friends would think about their hanging out with Mom. Or they might be unaware that their attitude and behavior have changed.

When I queried my daughters about their reasons for pushing me away, many of these answers came tumbling out. So we had some long and important conversations about my God-assigned role in their lives. We discussed why rejecting my influence was displeasing to God and would be to their detriment. I told them again and again how much I loved them and that I was eager to be their friend.

We had these conversations repeatedly over a period of time, until by God’s grace my daughters’ hearts began to turn toward me. Communication — constant talking — was indispensable in building a friendship with them. (We’ll look at five characteristics of effective communication next time.)

Nicole and Kristin also admitted that they disliked Afternoon Out because it frequently included correction of some kind. They were right. What I had intended to be a time for making fun mother-daughter memories had become a discipline session. So I needed to make a change. Humbly admitting that I was wrong was an entryway into my daughters’ hearts.

Daughters with Closed Hearts

Let me address a specific group of women for a moment — those who fear that the doors of their daughters’ hearts may have closed forever. Maybe they are grown and gone, or are still at home and yet seemingly their hearts are out of reach. If only I had heard these truths when my daughters were younger, you lament. Maybe things would have turned out differently. But now you fear it is too late.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is always hope. We serve a faithful God whose steadfast love never ceases and whose mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). Our Lord’s faithfulness should give you renewed courage and resolve to approach your daughter again.

Go in humility. Invite her to share her grievances. Ask for her forgiveness. Demonstrate God’s love to her in spite of her resistance. Although this may not be easy, you can trust that God will reward your efforts as a mother. He will receive glory from your faith and obedience to Him, and you will be a shining example of biblical womanhood to your daughter.

Make Your Relationship a High Priority

Finally, in order to bridge the moat that our daughters may have built (or to keep them from building one), we must make the mother-daughter relationship one of our highest priorities. After our relationship with God and our husbands, nothing should receive more attention, focus, and time.

Moms, please be wise with your expectations. I can tell you now that developing a friendship with your daughter will take some time. When my daughters became teenagers, the changes in them caught me (and other moms I know) by surprise. I quickly realized that the serene days of childhood were over. This was a whole new ballgame. I began to see that I needed to devote significantly more time to my daughters. So I pared down my schedule to create opportunities to talk and be available when my girls wanted to talk.

Even secular moms are realizing that teenagers need more of their time. I recently read a newspaper article that profiled career women who were coming home, not to care for their toddlers but for their teenagers. Susan Dykstra, an "investment analyst, vice president," and "high-energy career woman" returned to work as a young mom soon after giving birth to her babies. But then her babies became teenage boys. "At the very stage when parents often expect to be providing less attention, Dykstra and her husband thought their family needed more." So she "packed up the files, stepped off the corporate track [and] . . . became a stay-at-home mom."3

A researcher from the Harvard School of Public Health is quoted in the article: "We’ve tended to think that it’s okay for parents to step back a little and let other adults play more of a role. The research doesn’t support that."4 The article goes on to conclude: "Savvy parents realize teenagers require as much attention as toddlers"5 (emphasis added).

As Christian mothers, of course our aspirations are higher than simply being "savvy moms." But I do believe these parents have come to a realization of this truth affirmed in Scripture: As our daughters mature, they require more and not less attention, training, instruction, correction, and encouragement.

Now for single moms, I know that intentional mothering requires exceptional sacrifice on your part. But God will give you ample strength as you look to Him (Ps. 28:7; 2 Cor. 12:9). And although you may not be able to stay home with your daughters, He will graciously multiply your efforts to teach them the language of biblical womanhood.

During my daughters’ teenage years, I often felt as tired as when my children were small and I existed on coffee and cat naps. It was a sacrifice of sleep, leisure time, and much energy, but it was worth it.

Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t trade the relationship I have with my daughters today for all the nights of sleep in the world. After my husband, they are my three closest friends. And as a testimony to God’s grace, Nicole and Kristin now thank me for pressing in even though they had tried to push me away. Today although they are married, we still continue the Afternoon Out tradition once a month. In fact, Nicole and Kristin are unhappy with me when we don’t have Afternoon Out.

1. Paul David Tripp, Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2001), 80.

 2. John Charles Ryle, The Duties of Parents (Conrad, Mont.: Triangle Press, 1888, repr. 1996), 35.

 3.Susan Levine, "Staying Home for the Teen Years," The Washington Post (January 4, 2003): Sec. B.

 4. Ibid.

 5. Ibid.

This column is part of an ongoing series on Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood. Read last month's installment Mom: The Primary Influence in a Girl's Life.

Originally published on Nov. 16, 2005

Carolyn Mahaney is a wife, mother, homemaker, and the author of Feminine Appeal: Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother, and Girl Talk: Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood. During her more than 30 years as a pastor’s wife, Carolyn has spoken to women in many churches and conferences, including those of Sovereign Grace Ministries, which her husband, C.J., leads. C.J. and Carolyn have three married daughters and one twelve-year-old son, Chad.

Nicole Mahaney Whitacre is the oldest daughter of C.J. and Carolyn Mahaney, as well as a wife, mother, and homemaker. She assisted her mother with Feminine Appeal, and is the co-author of Girl Talk. Nicole and her husband, Steve, have one son, Jack.

Carolyn and her three daughters keep a 
weblog for women in all seasons of life, also entitled "Girl Talk."

This column was adapted for Crosswalk from Girl Talk: Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood (Crossway 2005) by Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Mahaney Whitacre © 2005 (Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,