02/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to be a Better Mother in the New Year

There's always a spike in mother/daughter material in my practice every year at this time when adult daughters are ready to pull their hair out because their mothers have hurt them over the holidays.

A season unto itself, the barreling intensity around food and body image starts with the on-ramp to Thanksgiving and ends with brake-slamming remorse and subsequent resolutions for the New Year.

From comments mothers make about themselves, like "Oh my God, I'm so fat" to ones they make to their daughters, like "You'd be so much prettier if you lost some weight" or "Are you sure you really want to eat that?" mothers hand down their obsession with body image throughout the calendar year, but the holidays bring it out in full force. And mothers and daughters struggle with this issue regardless of whether they're a size 2 or 20.

A pressure on women that began outside our gender has seeped into our mother/daughter relationships to such an extent that its damaging self loathing has become the standard. Mothers need to be much more conscious of the fact that they're role models for their daughters' self-perception, and they need to limit the destructive messages they send them -- whether their daughters are little girls or middle aged women.

As adult daughters of all ages in my practice and my Women's Realities Study have taught me, if their mothers raised them with an unhealthy focus on weight and perfection, they became women who judge, and feel consistently uncomfortable in, their bodies and this undermines their general sense of confidence, their relationships and their sexual expression.

If mothers want to process their feelings about body image they can do it outside the mother/daughter relationship. Speak, without veering into body bashing, to adult girlfriends; watch Oprah; or go on-line to sites like Something-Fishy or First Ourselves to hear women's experiences and struggles in dealing with how they see themselves.

An occasional reference to our imperfection is one thing; an ongoing commentary is different. You might think that these little remarks are harmless, but they add up.

Look at it through a financial metaphor: every time you critique your daughter's body you make a contribution to her Unrealistic Body Image Fund. And when you put yourself down in front of her, the Mother Company makes a matching corporate donation. You're efficiently funding twice the self-loathing.

Unlike a college fund, your daughter won't be able to put it toward something that will enhance her life. She'll use it to fund things like this, pulled directly from women in my practice:

• Not wearing what she dreams of wearing to a party because she feels she's not pretty enough to pull it off.
• Covering her breasts whenever she's naked in front of her lover
• Not wanting to have sex because her cellulite makes her feel ugly
• Despite thinking of it every minute, trying really, really hard to only weigh herself three times a day
• Binging and purging for almost two decades without anyone, not her best friends or her husband knowing
• Hating going home for holidays because her mother will critique her weight
• Dreading phone calls with her mother for the same reason
• Feeling the shame of a loser when, yet again, she hasn't lived up to expectations her mother set
• Years of yo-yo dieting that have screwed up her metabolism
• An inability to enjoy the pleasures of food
• An obsessive focus on numbers: dress size, weight, age
• A fear of pregnancy because she'll gain weight
• Deep and longstanding resentment toward her mother, but more importantly,
• Deep and longstanding self loathing that she will never be enough

Like you, your daughter already has to live under the pressures of cultural sexism and the media warping her worth, and this is a huge, nebulous problem to tackle. Having a positive maternal impact on her worth in the way you relate to each other is a far easier way to address the problem. And it will make her more likely to want to hang out with you, holiday or not.