Emma Shreefter of Cambridgeport, who is 13, has a habit of starting sentences and letting them trail off. When her mother, Wendy Luttrell, is in the room, Emma looks at her expectantly and then nods with satisfaction when Luttrell finishes the sentence as if she were inside her daughter's head.
With such symbiosis, it's hard to imagine the scene Emma described moments before, when Luttrell wasn't in the room.
"We don't fight a lot, maybe two or three times a week. When we do, it's mean. Sometimes I yell but mostly I swear under my breath. Sometimes I mumble, `I hate you!' I mean it, too. I want her to hear it."
Emma may not know it, but the fights she has with her mother are about as perfect as any teenage daughter could hope for. She's able to express deep feelings, she doesn't feel censored or demeaned, she knows there are limits, and when they aren't fighting, she feels cared for and connected to her mother.
Despite stereotypes to the contrary, researchers are increasingly convinced that mother-daughter fighting, which they say is more intense and frequent than any other parent-child two-some, is less about teenage girls pushing mothers away than about daughters trying to forge new connections based on their emotional and cognitive growth. What's more, the quality of the fights can affect the quality of the time in-between them.
"A daughter does not want to separate. She wants to update the relationship," says social psychologist Terri Apter, author of a new book, "you don't really know me, Why Mothers and Daughters Fight and How Both Can Win" (Norton).
Apter is an advocate of what she calls "good fighting," where a daughter feels safe enough to pick fights as a way to know her mother is paying attention. Fighting that is "bad" typically escalates into a pattern of painful recriminations that become harder and harder to back down from.
"If you aren't fighting in these years, it means she's pushed you out of her life or you've pushed her out of yours. Either way, it means you are not in much of a relationship," says Susan McGee Bailey, executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.
But why a fight? Why can't it just be a conversation?
"That's not dramatic enough for what a girl is feeling," says developmental psychologist Annie Rogers of Hampshire College in Amherst. "When you fight, you push yourself and the other person to a rawness of feeling, where you say more than you otherwise would. That's the perfect way for a girl to clarify and demand a recognition for the new person she sees herself to be."
That makes sense to Luttrell, who works hard not to take things personally. Even when that seems to be what a fight is about, it probably isn't.
"Yes, when she tells me my sandals are dorky, that doesn't necessarily feel good. But if I joke about it instead of becoming defensive, she can expand her idea of me: `My mom is a person who wears dorky sandals.' And then she can say to herself, `That's who my mom is. It's not me." Luttrell, a professor of human development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has gained her insight at least partly from hindsight. She also has a 24-year-old daughter, Mikaela.
Until about age 8, mother-daughter fighting isn't any different from mother-son fighting. But between 8 and 12, as a girl struggles to differentiate herself from her mother, the fighting becomes more frequent, often several times a day, and very specific ("Why won't you let me go to the mall?"). At about 13, it changes again: Fewer fights but real whoppers, with a meanness and an edge that seems designed for only one purpose: to inflict pain.
Even if it seems as if she's picking a fight for no other reason than to pick a fight, think of it as a dialogue. Rogers says, "A typical reason a teen fights with her mother is because she's feeling anxious about something she can't articulate. A fight allows her to get it out in the open." A psychotherapist in private practice, her area of specialty is mothers and daughters.
Ideally, a mother's response allows a daughter to gain insight into her own feelings and to reach her own safe, healthy conclusions. That's less likely to happen if a mother jumps in too quickly with advice.
"You risk not being heard, or being heard as a challenge," says Bailey. She tells mothers to be good listeners and to make a few reflective statements ("So what you're saying is. . .") "If there's a hint of anger, judgment, or dismissal, a daughter feels it in every inch of her body; she's that sensitive to you. It makes her push back against you."
It's even more complicated if a mother is defensive, says Rogers. Consider this conversation drawn from real-life:
Daughter: "I'm going out with Joe, even if you do think he's mean to me. It's no different from how daddy's mean to you, the way you have to repeat yourself five times before he pays attention to you!"
Mother: "How dare you say a thing like that to me!"
Rogers says this daughter likely didn't mean to inflict pain; probably she wanted to say to her mother, "Look at your life; it matters to me." In that spirit, the mother could say, "I can see how you might think that. Our relationship isn't perfect, but it's committed. I see some things in your relationship with Bob. As your mother, I can't sit back and say nothing."
A daughter could still walk away and slam the door, but by not backing away from her daughter's words, the mother has shown her respect, which makes the mother's second message more likely to be heard: "What you do matters to me." Even if there isn't a conversation now, there might be later.
When a mother reacts defensively, fighting can only escalate so that: (1) a daughter feels unsafe ("Who's in charge, anyway? I thought she was my mom."); (2) a mother makes threats she doesn't mean ("If you do, don't bother coming home!"); (3) a daughter feels pushed into a corner ("Bob's mother is nicer than you. I'm going to go live there!").
It's not only how you fight that counts but also how you make up. Not that there always needs to be apologies. If your daughter storms off to her room and then shows up 30 minutes later to chop carrots, "Don't send her away to do homework, don't accuse her of being ungrateful, and don't bring up the hot button topic again. Move on and accept this as a gesture of reconciliation" says Apter.
Also don't expect to hear the words "I'm sorry." They may never get spoken. If they are, Apter cautions against interpreting them as, "I'm sorry, I was wrong." A better translation: "I'm sorry I hurt you." She goes so far as to recommend saying to your daughter, "Thank you for saying you're sorry you hurt my feelings," just to be crystal clear.
In the Shreefter-Luttrell household, Emma says her fights with her mother are sometimes scary. "With my dad, fights are about which radio station or which TV show. With my mom, it's about emotional stuff. She says things about me that I haven't even admitted to myself. That's what feels really scary."
Emma and her mother don't always say they are sorry, but they almost always hug. "Just not right away," says Emma.
Also almost always, Emma is angry at herself afterward. "I get mad for thinking I could ever hate her," she says.
Contact Barbara Meltz at firstname.lastname@example.org