- Recent research has found that during COVID-19 lockdowns, many parent-child relationships are improving.
- Mothers and daughters appear to be experiencing more benefits to their relationships than any other family pairing.
- Experts believe these strengthened bonds could be the result of mothers and daughters having more time to connect.
After months of living in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are facing the reality of family burnout and strained relationships with their loved ones.
However, a new survey has found that the increased amount of time some families are spending together has helped strengthen their bonds — especially for some mothers and daughters.
Grant McCracken, PhD, is a cultural anthropologist with decades of experience studying American families. His research has been featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and he’s worked with everyone from “Sesame Street” to the White House.
As part of his latest research, he’s been looking into family dynamics in our new COVID normal.
“I have been studying the American home and family for 35 years,” McCracken told Healthline. “With the COVID lockdown, I was eager to see how this might change the home and family.”
McCracken surveyed 500 families, completing ethnographic interviews with 50 of them.
“I wasn’t sure what I would see,” he explained. “In fact, I was nervous that I was going to be looking at families in crisis.”
What he found instead surprised him. “Families were rising to the occasion,” he explained. And he quickly pieced together why. “It didn’t take long to see that the architect of this accomplishment was Mom.”
Through his research he found that roughly half of American families believe they will come out of COVID-19 stronger than they went in, while only 5 percent think they will be weaker.
Mother-daughter relationships improved the most
McCracken’s survey found that family relationships were strengthened across the board, but none so much as mother-daughter relationships.
Over 60 percent of families reported a much more connected bond between mothers and daughters since the pandemic began.
“Mothers sometimes lose touch with their daughters,” McCracken explained, telling the story of one mother he spoke to who described her home as a train station, with everyone coming and going.
“Plus, moms are distracted by a million different tasks, many of them driven by the effort to get their kids ready for college.”
Add in the orbit of popular culture teen girls often fall into, alongside their pull toward their peer group, and it makes sense that mothers and daughters drift apart in the teen years especially.
But McCracken said COVID has changed all this. “It brought daughters home. It made moms visible. It gave time and attention so that moms and their daughters could really talk, close the gap between generations.”
Licensed marriage and family therapist Alisha Sweyd said McCracken’s observations makes sense.
“When it comes to parent relationships in general, the quality of the conversation is truly important,” Sweyd explained. “But for mothers and daughters, it is even more so.”
For little boys, she said conversations often go better while doing something active like playing catch or going for a walk. “However, for girls, their brains are more receptive to in-depth conversation signals, such as eye contact, no distractions during the conversation, and body language.”
During the pandemic, Sweyd said mothers have been less distracted by the constant moving and going and scheduling.
“They have more time and energy to commit to engaging in conversations with their daughters. Thus, the mother is actually engaging the daughter’s brain in the most effective way possible to strengthen the relationship,” she said.
Trauma can also bring people closer together
It’s important to remember we are in the midst of a worldwide tragedy. As terrible as that is, one of the benefits is the way people come together when they are hurting.
“Both the mothers and daughters are going through a difficult time at the same time, and this isn’t something we ever prepared for,” Sweyd explained. “This will help both mothers and daughters to be more empathetic towards each other, more understanding about how hard it can be.”
Under normal circumstances, Sweyd said mothers and daughters often go through times of upheaval as teens and young adults pull away. But the pandemic is easing some of that natural disconnect.
“This pandemic, this international turmoil, removes this disconnect and allows for the bridge to be made on through the commonality of suffering,” she said.
Are these improvements long lasting or temporary?
One question that can be raised by McCracken’s research is whether or not these strengthened relationships will continue to endure as things return to normal.
McCracken thinks they will.
“My guess is that the new bonds will persevere,” he says. “We have been building them for months now. Plus, they are rich and vivid and strong. There will be a little atrophy. But I think only a little,” he said.
Sweyd said she thinks it will mostly depend on how we respond culturally.
“If our culture quickly returns to the bone-breaking and unrealistic expectations on families, in particular working mothers, then these shifts will be difficult to maintain,” she explained, pointing to the expectations often placed on working mothers to have it all together and to balance everything with grace and poise.
“When those expectations are set, women will be too distracted and overwhelmed to have the time and energy to focus on the mother-daughter relationship,” Sweyd said. “We have to be intentional with our children, but in our society it was difficult to do that prior to the pandemic.”
Still, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Sweyd said that if we, as a culture, can permanently shift our expectations on people with families, we may be able to reap the benefits of this change over the long haul.
Nurturing stronger parent-child bonds
To that end, mothers and daughters may be wondering what they can do to maintain the connections they’ve built with each other since the pandemic began.
McCracken said it’s as simple as continuing what they’ve already been doing. Keep talking, listening, and making connections. Ask about each other’s world views, what movies you like, what fashion choices you share, and what you each want for the future.
“Mothers and daughters are in a position to make an extraordinary connection,” McCracken said. “Some mothers and daughters may have gotten off to a rocky start. This is a chance to take a breath and start again.”
Sweyd said the best way to accomplish that is for mothers to continue being intentional with their children. “As life begins to open up again, mothers will need to plan for time with their daughters that is free from distractions and intentionally focus on the moment with their child.”
This could be accomplished through mother-daughter date nights, girls’ trips, or any other number of options for spending concentrated time together.
“And when the daughter has issues, or acts out, the mother (and other caregivers, as well) needs to be patient and focus on understanding the whole situation that is impacting their daughter,” Sweyd said.
These strengthened relationships can endure, but not without both mothers and daughters working toward that goal.
The struggles endured during the pandemic can result in long-term benefits
Of course, mothers and daughters still have some uphill battles to face.
“The unrealistic expectations and double standards we set on women during normal seasons in our society can truly break a mother-daughter relationship,” Sweyd said.
For that reason, she believes it’s imperative we take this time as a society to recognize where we’ve gone wrong in the past, and to learn how to provide grace and understanding when we can.
“During a pandemic, everyone is suffering, and we have become more patient with each other regarding unrealistic expectations. Because we are all suffering, and we all know it. Just because the pandemic ends, doesn’t mean that suffering has ended for any particular person or group of people,” she said.
McCracken also hopes the struggles endured because of the pandemic will result in long-term benefits, perhaps starting with mothers and daughters.
“I think when you change the relationship between moms and daughters, you change the American family,” McCracken said. “When you change the family, you change the American culture.”
He pointed out that, culturally, we’ve been pulling further apart in recent decades, with divides growing deeper between genders, ethnicities, and political parties.
“Moms and daughters can’t put every bit of humpty dumpty back together,” he said. “But by connecting two generations, they can make a start. They can build a foundation.”