Close your eyes and picture that sweet, little bundle of a girl you had twelve, thirteen, fifteen years ago—that tiny little thing you used to hold, oh, so close and hug and kiss a million times a day and she—not only let you—she soaked it up. When Mommy was a compliment, not an accusation. When you, and not a rectangular piece of metal, were first to learn her secrets and won the best of her smiles.
Remember that kid?
We’re at a tricky time with them. Just when your daughter and the most troublesome features of life—sex, drugs, booze, and general cyber-madness—have more access to one another, just when you have more reasons to want to protect her and tighten the controls, she has the developmental task of challenging you, breaking away and asserting herself as a separate entity from all you stand for.
You can’t control her; you can’t put her in time out like you once did. You can take away her devices, but that may amount to cruel and unusual punishment that may be more of a headache for you than for her. But you can improve your relationship and make both your lives easier by changing your responses to the behavior she dishes out.
Here are four common issues I’ve run into in my family therapy practice as well as in my interactions with my own teen daughter—and four tweaks to improve the outcome.
Issue #1: You personalize what she says and does.
Your daughter gets home from school, barely grunts in response to your greeting, grabs a snack and goes to her room, presumably to do homework. This irks you, so you go and knock. There’s no answer, so you open the door to find her earbuds in as she scrolls away on her computer.
You: I think I said hello.
Her: I said hello.
You: That was not a greeting.
Her: Hello, Mother. How was your day. Better?
You sigh. You leave. It’s the best you can get when she’s in a mood. But an hour later, when her grandmother pops by for a visit, your surly child becomes an angel.
“Nanna! Hiiii!!” She hugs Nanna and tells her all about everything—her favorite teacher, her favorite boy, the cupcake recipe she just learned on YouTube—the sort of tidbits you have not been able to pry from her lips in years.
Nanna goes home and it’s the cold shoulder for you all over again. Then, from the kitchen, you hear your daughter laugh in delight. You remember that laugh. You love that laugh. But don’t kid yourself. She will not be sharing the joke with you. She’s snapchatting with her friend, Samantha. You wouldn’t understand.
You do everything for your kid, yet everyone gets a better version of her than you do. What did you do wrong? Were you not around enough when she was little? Were you around too much, leading her to take you for granted? Were you too strict? Not strict enough? Did you favor her sister? Compare her to her brother?
Maybe you did. Maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter. You can’t change the past, but you can make the most of the present no matter what she’s mad about.
How to Tweak it:
Grow a thick skin. Recognize that your child is developing her identity—trying out new personas, trying to impress new teachers, mentors, friends. This is exhausting work. You—the most stable entity in her life—are the only one she doesn’t need to try so hard with.
That said, you are still her mother and deserving of respect. But keep your emotion out of it. You choose to let her hurt your feelings or not. When she stomps in with barely a grunt, try some levity. Say:
“Hold up my friend. Do-over. Repeat after me: Hi mom, how was your day? Mine was good. And for extra credit throw in a hug.” When she hugs you, say, “Ok. Love, you too. Now go get your snack.”
She may actually laugh.
Issue # 2: You kitchen-sink her.
This means that you can’t stop picking:
“You owe grandma a thank you note.”
“You forgot to walk the dog.”
“When are you going to do something about your hair?”
“You are not going out of the house dressed like that.”
“I checked the parents’ porthole: why are you marked absent from global studies three days in a row?”
“Your room is a mess.”
No surprise that she ducks and heads the other way when she sees you coming. She knows you’re going to tell her she’s done something wrong or failed to do something right. One problem with this is that she will be inclined to tune you out, since everything she does elicits the same kind of complaint.
Another problem with this is that you can fall into the trap of failing to see and acknowledge her accomplishments because her flaws loom so large for you.
How to Tweak it:
Choose your battles, pick the most important issue or issues and make those the priorities. I think cutting a class trumps the messy room every time. If everything is a priority? Then space them out. Don’t deliver all your gripes at once.
Most importantly, look for opportunities to praise her efforts, just like you did when she was younger. Don’t forget to celebrate her successes–that A on a lit paper, or a the great assist in a soccer game–to balance out the criticisms.
Issue #3: Your worries shut down communication
You haven’t had a good talk in ages. Maybe years. Then one day in the car—when you are not asking her questions or looking at her, so her guard is down—she starts gabbing:
“So guess what happened yesterday when we were all at Samantha’s house? We were making a video with this guy Tony’s phone and then—”
You cut her off: “Yesterday? You told me you were at a Key club meeting yesterday. And I told you you couldn’t go to Stephanie’s house after that whole house party thing. And who’s Tony? You’re not supposed to be hanging out with boys when there are no parents home!”
Congratulations. You just missed out on an opportunity to learn something about your daughter’s inner life.
How to Tweak it:
The thing to do here is separate Rules Mom from Confidante Mom. Bite your tongue and listen to her with open ears, an open heart and an open mind. She is sharing a story with you, possibly sharing her feelings and opinions. These are gifts.
If she mentions worrisome behavior or dangerous activities, wait till the conversation is over and till there is a change of scenery to talk to her about that. For example, while you are making dinner together, you can say:
“I’m glad you told me about Tony’s video. It sounds like you guys had fun. But now we need to talk about a few things.”
And again, choose your priorities. Which matters more: That she lied about going to Stephanie’s house? Or that there was a boy there? You may also need to have a conversation to renegotiate ground rules about hanging out.
Issue # 4:You mistake her for yourself.
When you were your daughter’s age, you were passionate about the cello. You wrote for the school newspaper and volunteered at your church every day. You wanted to do these things. She has no interest in them. She tries sports and clubs, but only because you make her. She isn’t passionate about anything. This drives you crazy. You raised your children to stand out from the crowd like you did.
You were outgoing and sporty as a kid. You had a million friends, boyfriends too. Your daughter is quiet and bookish and has just one close friend. What’s wrong? Is she lonely? Why doesn’t she talk more? What about dating?
How to Tweak it:
Be accepting of who she is and how she is different from you. Then, be patient and wait for her to find what makes her happy. Find out what she likes and support it.
Here’s my personal story about this one:
I was a ballet dancer in my first professional life. When my daughter was five, I could see from her elegant posture and the shape of her feet that she had the potential to go even farther than I did in dance if she chose to pursue it. And with those feet and my genes, of course she would choose to pursue it—who wouldn’t?
Well, it turned out she wouldn’t. For years I tried her in different types of dance—from ballet to hip-hop. She’d show some promise in all of them, but no love for any. That’s the thing about children and passions: you can expose them to a dozen different disciplines, but you cannot make them fall in love. That requires the magic of what I call the experiential cupid. The out-of-nowhere spark that ignites a child’s interest and imagination. You can’t force it if it isn’t there.
So two years ago, I stopped trying to get my daughter to love dancing. She switched to gym and was instantly more confident and joyful. Now she plays on the tennis team at school and recently fell hook line and sinker for a brand new sport into which she is pouring her whole heart: ice hockey. Something you couldn’t have paid me to try at her age.
I celebrate her new passion and am relieved that I saw how guilty I was for mistaking my dream for her own.
The Bottom line:
Your child is still that wonderful creature you used to hold, hug and kiss. She’s just a new, transitional version. Accordingly, you need to respond to her in new ways.
- Do listen as much as possible, without judgment, to what she has to tell you.
- Do drop everything on those rare and inconvenient times when she’s being communicative. (Even if it’s one am. That’s when teens tend to be the most open.)
The more you are open, the more you refrain from criticizing or judging, the more she will give you and the better you will get to know this new version of her.
- Do embrace her individuality; acknowledge the differences in your temperaments.
- Do remember this: as long as she is taking care of the basics—doing her best in school, staying healthy, avoiding negative influences, and making good choices—you can give yourself permission to relax a little about some of the other stuff.
In any case, when you change up your viewpoint, lighten up, let certain things go, it’s easier to appreciate the unique, magical young woman your teenage daughter is.
About Lisa: Lisa W. Rosenberg is a psychotherapist (L.C.S.W.), writer and speaker-for-hire on various topics related to parenting, body image and identity. In her private practice she specializes in adolescence, anxiety, and multiracial issues. Lisa lives in Montclair, NJ with her husband, two children and dog. You can find her online at her site, Facebook, and Twitter!
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