Every mother/daughter relationship is different. Whether you and your daughter are close as can be or constantly battling, find out the key steps in building a strong relationship and raising a happy, healthy girl. (Also take a look at our mother/son relationship tips.)
Raise Her as a Person — Not a Princess
From the moment you find out you were having a baby girl, people probably showered you with adorable dresses and all things pink and princess-y. There's nothing wrong with dresses, the color pink, and princess movies, toys, and birthday parties. (Many little girls gravitate toward these things, even if their parents cringe at princesses and strive for a gender-neutral environment.) The important thing is to encourage all kinds of imaginative play, not just dressing up pretty and waiting for her prince, for instance. Foster other traits through fantasy play, such as wit, toughness, and assertiveness so that she's not always acting the demure princess role. Teach her to be a well-rounded, well-mannered person and not the ruler of an imaginary kingdom. When she's young, encourage her to step away from her princess playtime to do her chores (not just the dainty ones!), focus on learning and teamwork, and try new things, such as soccer and karate. A 6-year-old fan of princesses is one thing; a 16-year-old who thinks she's a princess is a whole other beast.
Nurture Her Self-Confidence
"She's so cute!" and "What a pretty dress!" You will probably hear these things hundreds of times during your daughter's early years. No doubt, she's adorable. But be aware of the kinds of traits we value and compliments we pay to girls. They tend to be very appearance-based, which can set up a bad model of self-worth and unhealthy expectations for girls' looks into her teen years and adulthood. Physical compliments are fine when balanced with praise for things like her funny personality, creative imagination, and strong math skills. There's no better role model than Mom when it comes to showing a young girl that beauty and self-esteem come from within — not from clothes, makeup, height, or weight.
Model a Healthy Body Image
As a mom, it's also important to model confidence in your body type and not discuss "feeling fat" or your latest diet plans with your daughter at any age. Weight insecurities are often passed on from mother to daughter. While childhood obesity is a common problem in the U.S., many girls within a healthy weight range have body image issues. A study by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute indicates that 40 percent of 9- and 10-year-old girls in the U.S. have tried to lose weight. Another study revealed that 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are "unhappy with their body," and that statistic grows to 78 percent by age 17. Body image issues can lead to low self-esteem and eating disorders. Encourage your entire family to exercise and eat well with the goal of good long-term health — not a smaller dress size or better beach body.
Expect the "Unladylike"
Our expectation for girls to keep up their "cuteness" extends past looks and into the realm of behavior. Stereotypes lead us to believe that girls should always maintain a mellow temperament, sense of propriety, and eagerness to please — but that's just not fair or feasible. Like their counterparts ('boys will be boys!'), girls are live mammals! Toddler girls have tantrums; teenage girls have outbursts. Girls may do some very un-cute, "unladylike" things, such as throw a toy or slam a door or even just refuse to help Mom carry something, because they can be just as mad, stubborn, or rebellious as boys. While they can be tough to handle discipline-wise, these "bad" behaviors are associated with gaining independence, nurturing assertiveness, and building self identity. You don't have to accept your daughter's "bad" behavior, but you do have to accept her potential to misbehave and have bad days. Otherwise, you may be in for a rude awakening.
Don't Push for Perfection
Many girls strive for perfection and aim to please their parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults. Perfectionism sounds like a fine trait on the surface and, in healthy doses, it can fuel your daughter's drive to succeed. But chronic perfectionism can lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, burnout, and other problems for girls (and for everyone!). Evaluate your expectations for your daughter's achievements in school, sports, and other areas of her life. Show her that it's okay to ease up every once in a while. Would you rather have a child who sounds great on paper or learns the skills to be happy and balanced for the rest of her life?
Let Her Pursue Her Interests
We've all heard the stereotypes: stage mom, soccer mom, dance mom, pageant mom... Mothers who get too pushy or obsessed with their daughter's interests give involved parenting a bad rap. The first step in not becoming one of those moms who lives vicariously through their child is to allow your daughter to choose her own interests, especially by her tween and teen years. The next step is to be an adult and keep a level head as you get more and more involved in the sport or activity — don't make her do hours of dance rehearsal at home and don't "boo" the opposing team at her big game out of your desire for her (and, by association, you) to win. If she tries an activity that is "your thing" for a season and then has a burning desire to quit, don't push her. There's something to be said for sticking with a sport or hobby through a season or trial period, but forcing a child to do something they don't like long-term can backfire. If your daughter is a college-bound teen, know that one or two extracurricular activities that she chooses and really loves can be more of an asset than one (or 10) that Mom and Dad pushed her to do.
Avoid Becoming Her "Fixer"
As a mom, you manage a lot in your own life and your family's, so it's easy to get confused in your "Mama Bear" role and "fix" any problems or mistakes that arise. It's great that you want to protect your child, but try not to micromanage your daughter's life. If she gets a bad grade or has a fight with a friend, talk with her about it first — don't pick up the phone to demand that her teacher change the grade or to insist that her former best friend come over to play. Pay attention to serious patterns — things like her grades slipping beyond a bad quiz or two, her group of friends changing overnight, or sad moods after a relationship ends — and talk with her about what's going on, what outcome she hopes for, and how you can support her. But remember that her relationships and grades ultimately belong to her, and she will learn a lot from owning them and tending to them herself.
Encourage Her Independence
Beyond not living vicariously and not fixing everything for your daughter lays the ultimate scary thing: letting her pull away. The years will fly by, and soon enough, your daughter will be off to college or the real world. The teenage years are when she will learn not only who she is but also how to "take care of business." During her teen years, you might need to keep track of things like her doctor's appointments and SAT registration deadlines, but you shouldn't be managing her daily homework assignments and doing every household chore for her. In addition to homework and chores, some independent meal planning, a summer job, and some smart budgeting habits will help equip your daughter for life away from Mom and Dad.
Be a Mother, Not a Friend
Even if you and your daughter are thick as thieves and comfortable sharing things, there's a line between mother and friend. Don't cross it. This young woman who lives under your roof may seem like a built-in confidante and wardrobe buddy — but she's your kid. Don't buy her beer or keep loose rules to feel like the "cool mom," don't share bathing suits or skinny jeans with her (there are plenty of trendy options for 40+ women these days!), and don't unload your marital problems on her. When your child realizes you have crossed the mom/friend line, she might come to resent you for not maintaining the boundaries most of her friends enjoy with their parents. Plus, maintaining clear roles as mother and daughter will make your empty nesting and her transition to college or the real world more bearable.
Pay Attention to Playing Favorites
Your natural closeness with your daughter(s) can easily lead to favoritism, which breeds sibling rivalry. All kids are sensitive to favoritism, regardless of their sex or the sex of their siblings. Even when they push your buttons, try to handle all your children with fairness and care. Don't compare your children's grades, weight, sports performance, or anything that can be measured: it can be bad for sibling relations, and can be even worse for mother/daughter relations.
Remember Your Own Teen Years
Because girls tend to mature earlier than boys, your teen daughter might arrive at independence, a need for privacy, and unpredictable moodiness at a younger age than you expected. During the turbulent years of early adolescence, you're bound for some uncharted territory: bouts of the silent treatment, passive aggression, and hormone-driven outbursts. This is a great time to tap into your memories of being a teen and try to be as understanding as possible. Give your daughter space to be alone in her room and connect with her friends while also communicating and connecting with you every day. Work on communication during disagreements, and also keep in mind the challenges she faces as a modern teenager who's finding her way. Good luck!