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Mother-Teen Daughter Relationships: What I Wish I'd Known Then
Because parents don't have crystal balls, when we're
in the thick of raising kids we have no idea how everything is going to turn out. It's this
lack of future knowledge that triggers much of our anxiety. This is especially true for mothers
of teen daughters, who are often dealing with previously unthinkable dilemmas, mercurial moods,
and episodic blowups that result in hurt, anger, worry, and resentment. This is when we are most
apt to wonder, "How did we get into this situation?" and "Who
Is this child, anyway?" Many mothers despair how they and their daughters will even
survive this challenging period, let alone ever enjoy each other's company or have the sort of
close relationship they previously enjoyed or always envisioned before the teen years struck.
In my 30+ years of working with women in the throes of such struggles, I always think how
reassured they would be if only they had the perspective that comes strictly from
experience—in this case, after adolescence. Now that more than a decade has passed since
my own daughter left her teen years, I can look back with far greater clarity and use that
knowledge in my clinical practice. Along with what went well, I recognize certain of my
fallacious thoughts and futile worries led to misguided efforts. What I'd most like women
raising teen girls today to know (which I wish I'd known back then) are three basic beliefs
and three basic strategies that can powerfully shape the mother-teen daughter landscape.
Three Helpful Beliefs
1. Keep Expectations Realistic
It's common for women today to think that because we've strived to be different from our own
mothers and are more involved in our young daughters' lives, we will be spared the challenges
of adolescence. But just as doting new mothers can't avoid their infants' teething and colic,
teens and tweens will present specific issues related to their development. So don't be
surprised (or hurt) when your daughter suddenly lives for her friends' opinions, prefers their
company to yours, and finds your presence "annoying." If she stops telling you the details of
her social life (or, in some cases, anything), don't jump to the conclusion the relationship
you've nurtured for years is now over.
If you're patient and set the foundation, one day she will want to spend time with you again.
If you respect her individuality, she will even value and seek out your opinions. In other
words, your daughter will come back. Pave the way for her by being loving, supportive, and
emotionally available now—rather than driving her away by being critical, difficult, or
guilt-inducing. When your daughter chooses to be with you because she enjoys you, not because
she needs your car or credit card, you'll experience the joys of an adult to adult relationship
that are well worth waiting for.
2. It's Not About You!
Many mothers become the target of their teen daughters' frustrations. Even more than fathers,
women get the surliness, disrespect, scathing comments, rolled eyes, slammed doors, and silent
treatment girls wouldn't dare use on anyone else. Probably the biggest mistake mothers make
during these years is taking this personally. (Of course, it's hard not to.) But it is truly
misguided to believe all this is actually about you. Or, that you've done something heinous
enough to justify this treatment. Or worse, that if only you could only find the magic formula,
your daughter would be as courteous and "charming" as you hear she is with her teachers and
friends' parents. Bending over backwards to discover this elixir is futile and a waste of
energy. Better to reframe this. It's not that your daughter despises you, it's that she feels
completely safe with you. She trusts you'll love her no matter what she says or does. So she
holds it together until she's with you and then...
I'm not suggesting you encourage or even condone her dumping on you. Only that you don't take
it personally. That way, you can think more rationally and dispassionately about what is going
on and how to react. By all means, set crystal-clear limits about what you will tolerate (e.g.,
raised voices or profanity send some mothers over the edge, while "I hate you!" is absolutely
unthinkable to others). Keep your cool (i.e., don't respond in kind, no matter how provocative
she is). Say firmly, "It upsets me when you do thus-and-such" and discuss how her behavior
affects you. Insure things don't escalate; if necessary, walk away. One day, your young adult
daughter will approach you—calmly, maturely, and articulately—to make you aware of
something about your relationship that's bothering her. You'll be amazed, but actually she'll
just be imitating the appropriate behavior you've been modeling for her.
3. This Too Shall Pass
Each trying parenting stage often seems endless. Unable to imagine the possibility of our kids
changing, it's easy to make anxious projections: "She's always going to be a miserable,
self-centered person!" or "How will she ever get along with a roommate or coworker?" It just
too hard to believe maturation will enable teens to eventually grow up—and grow out of
their unpleasant habits, attitudes, and behavior. But it's true. Serious, withdrawn, or studious
girls can turn playful and wickedly funny. Girls who love to party and gravitate to risky
situations settle down and become uber-responsible. You just never know when.
So avoid thinking that your daughter's personality at this moment will be her character for life.
This mindset can cause you to panic, overreact, and perhaps become frantic to correct whatever
flaws you see. Remember that evolution takes time. To get a sneak preview of the young woman your
daughter is likely to become, think about what other adults say about her: She's polite?
Well-spoken? Helpful? Resourceful? Kind? That's exactly what you can look forward to!
Three Effective Strategies
1. Back Off!
Of course you're desperate to stay close to your daughter during the teen years. Yet even your best
efforts seem destined to fail. That's because she's craving the sense of autonomy she gets from
carving out a social world that doesn't include you. In my experience, the biggest mistake mothers
make is to push harder. When you knock on her door, she may act like this is an intrusion tantamount
to the U.S. spying on foreign dignitaries. Many teen girls just want to be left alone. Asking probing
questions, which is another way mothers typically try to "find out what's going on in my daughter's
life," usually backfires and causes girls to clam up more.
Instead, try your best to give your daughter space. Instead of pouncing on her as soon as she walks
through the door to ask about her day, a test, or her argument with a friend, try smiling warmly and
offering a snack. Go about your own business. You might be surprised by her seeking you out to talk.
When she's out, monitor her whereabouts but don't micromanage. As she grows up and leaves for a summer
experience or college, take her cues about how often she wants to connect, when, and by what means
(e.g., phone, text, or email). When your daughter is secure in being her own person and having some
say over your relationship, it'll be easier for her to be close to you again. If you're flexible and
receptive, that'll go a long way, too.
2. Focus on the Positive
When teen girls are living at home, it's easy to get bogged down by the outrageous behavior: the
expensive clothes dropped on the floor, the obliviousness to others' feelings and needs, the need
for multiple reminders to do the most basic of household chores. For one thing, it's all in your
face. It also affects the whole family. And it's easier to focus on observable, more manageable things
than scary unknowns such as who girls are really socializing with or whether they're experimenting with
substances. But this approach, of course, creates constant harping and bickering that drains everyone's
emotional energy and makes your daughter feel like she "can't do anything right."
Though it can be challenging, I'd suggest making every effort to find and focus on the positive.
What is your daughter doing that you like, admire, and want to see continue? Maybe it's that she is
empathic with her best friend, goes all out for field hockey, or remembers to call her grandmother.
Maybe she was pleasant at breakfast one morning. Teen girls may act as if they don't care, but they
really want their mother's recognition. Acknowledging what your daughter is doing right makes her
want to keep doing it so she continues to please you. It's adding good will to your relationship,
now and in the future.
3. Acknowledge Your Mistakes
Many mothers, feeling powerless against the many pressures in their teen daughters' lives, can become
rigid and unyielding in their interactions. That's because every issue can seem like life or death. Do
you find yourself repeating your position, over and again? Does your daughter accuse you of not listening
to her? Do you mentally review your grievances to bolster your resolve to stand your ground? Do you think
changing your mind is the same as caving in? Are you worried about being manipulated?
One of the most helpful things mothers can do is to self-reflect and come clean about our own flaws and
missteps. This won't detract from your authority; it will add to your credibility. More important, it will
tell your daughter just how committed you are to your relationship. You're invested in working on it and,
most important, you're prepared to be accountable for your own behavior. It will be a great relief to her
that she's not the only one being blamed for the problems between you—and she's not expected to do all the
changing. Although this strategy may not transform your interactions overnight, it will do wonders to
create a strong, mutually respectful relationship in the long run.
My last piece of advice? Relax! One of the really important
conclusions one can draw after more than a decade's additional wisdom and reflection is that we mothers
don't have nearly as much power as we think we do. What determines the young women our teen daughters
become? Genetics, their temperament, formative experiences after high school, the intimate relationships
they form, and the opportunities they have or don't have, much of which is beyond our control. Anyone who
has parented a 20-something knows this all too well. So when I say I wish I'd have known how important
these beliefs and strategies are back then, it's not that I believe things would have turned out
differently. It's just that like many mothers, I would have avoided a lot of needless anguish.