Mothers of girls have a lot on their plates: raising a happy, healthy kid; supporting their daughter’s dynamic relationships with peers and love interests; encouraging a strong academic career; and offering a variety of extracurricular activities to round out her personality.
Add on hormones, attitude issues, and a developing personality, and welcome to the tween and teen years where it’s all about fitting in and standing out at the same time.
How can we parent the independent woman while still nurturing the little girl?
As mothers rock their infant girls to sleep, buckle their toddler girls in shiny new Mary Janes, and braid their elementary-schooler’s hair, they don’t dream the next step will be a morning screaming match that will resume directly after school.
Teen girls and their mothers can often fall victim to the disturbing stereotype of being at each other’s throats. Girls in the teen years need the love and support of their mothers and yet they rarely know how to ask for it. Mothers need a guide on how to proactively support their girls without knee-jerk responses.
Conversation is the key to developing an authentic relationship with your daughter and that conversation must go both ways. Lecturing serves little purpose.
One would think that being a woman would lend you instant credibility to the young woman you are raising, but strangely enough it often makes you the least credible in their eyes. As they explore and define their own identity, they push you away. And please know this is normal — it’s a demonstration of independence, character development, and empowerment even though it often feels more like snubbing or flat-out resistance.
Girls are under tremendous pressure to play many roles, and as they develop into young women, they take these roles on simultaneously. They have to play Mommy and Daddy’s little girl, the cool best friend, the attentive student, the helpful sibling, [fill in the blank], because the list goes on and on.
We’ve stressed to them that they can be anything and do anything they want in life. At the same time, they see conflicting images of women plastered throughout media as static symbols of beauty, grace, delicacy, and even overt sexuality.
Images of strong and complex women are scarce and often negative, yet we want them to be strong and complex individuals. It’s very confusing. Their own peers aspire to unattainable and often undesirable standards. As mothers, we also face our own challenges as we embrace and fight the stereotypical image of women.
Before we, as moms, even tackle any specific topics with our daughters, we are already up against the issues of image and peer pressure. At any given moment one thing is cool and another is not. Even the hippest mother never truly understands because it’s so contextualized and ephemeral.
So rather than trying to become your daughter’s BFF, know her, love her, and raise her. Your relationship dynamics started long before her tween and teen years, but it’s not too late to employ some new strategies to continue it successfully. And for those of you in the midst of a difficult time, it’s not too late to turn it around.
Even when the relationship between mother and daughter is at its most difficult and sensitive, it’s important to keep the conversation flowing. Here are some concrete strategies to help keep the conversation on track and to keep it from turning into a fight every time. Focus on the positive and not on your/her faults.
Initiate conversation whenever possible and try to avoid awkward timing. Find the moments that are most comfortable for both of you. Find an opportunity to talk when you don’t have an agenda — just start a conversation.
Good places to start are in the car or watching television (when she doesn’t have to make eye contact with you) or doing something she enjoys doing. Ideally, you can find moments for special outings (shopping, a lunch date, or a walk) and show her that you are making this a priority. The younger you start, the more comfortable it will be for years to come.
Engage in casual conversation and foster a true relationship so serious conversations can take place later on. Being proactive does not mean forcing a conversation. If it’s a bad time (if she’s not in the mood or if you’re fighting), acknowledge it and find a better time.
Maintain an open dialogue.
When you are talking with your daughter, listen to what she has to say and process it. Stay honest, but don’t feel you need to overshare. When in doubt, listen. Always be available to talk to your daughter. If you’re truly too busy, make a concerted effort to have the conversation as soon as possible.
Acknowledge her feelings.
You don’t have to agree with everything, but you do have to acknowledge her feelings. Let her know that you understand and you’re on her side. If you can, relate to them — i.e. share a personal story if it’s appropriate. This will make you more accessible to her.
If you’re having a private conversation, keep it private. Do not start a private conversation in front of her friends, or even siblings or your spouse. Show respect for her privacy, and if you need to include others, talk to her first before doing so if at all possible.
Once you cringe or say something about a choice she or a friend made, she will shut down. Your criticisms, no matter how constructive and kind you think they are, are going to fall on angry and defensive ears. Even if you’re framing it as a compliment (for example, praising her for not making a choice her friend made), she will hear it as a harsh criticism. This doesn’t mean you can’t judge — you’re human, after all. It just means that you need to keep it to yourself and process it independently before you discuss it with her.
Stay calm and positive.
It’s easy to fly off the handle, especially if she surprises you. And she may purposely push your buttons by sharing something outrageous as you are innocently making dinner, or worse yet, serving as chauffeur for her and her friends. She will say things for shock value.
Practice your game face, your unremarkable remarks, and your open-ended questions for these moments. Acknowledge the good that you can in the situation. For example, “I’m thinking of sleeping with my boyfriend,” is better met with, “I’m glad you’ve shared this with me; I will need some time to process it” instead of, “What? Are you crazy?”
In either scenario, she may ultimately choose to do something you’re uncomfortable with, but you will hopefully first have a chance to share your beliefs, concerns, and recommendations. And whenever possible, make time for yourself to calm down before engaging; in other words, don’t always have the conversation right off the bat.
Repeat only what warrants repeating.
She hears you. I know she doesn’t always acknowledge it, but she does. If you’ve said it, then you’ve said it. Repeating the same thing over and over will be perceived as nagging or your lack of confidence in her understanding. If you find you need to repeat something, let her know you are repeating this for your sake so you know you’ve said it.
Identify a safe-person.
You want your girl to come to you, but make sure she knows other individuals she can talk openly to. You might be unavailable or she may be ashamed or uncomfortable. Make sure she knows how to contact her pediatrician and that she can go to her counselor at school. Identify some close family friends as well that share your values (along the lines of teenage drinking, drug use, and cheating).
Talk this over first with the adult stand-ins and let them know you trust their judgment and that your daughter can have a confidential conversation with them if she needs to. Hopefully she will first come to you, but at least you know she’ll be in good hands should she need a set of trusted ears other than yours.
The most important role you play in the conversations you have with your daughter are as a listener. When in doubt, listen. A great tip for listening is to close your mouth. If you find yourself talking, stick to open-ended questions. Help her find her own answers.
Mothers must convey to their very young girls a healthy and attainable image, and while it’s OK to convey the message they can be anything they want, they cannot be everything all at once, and they don’t have to be. You have the right and responsibility to define what you hope for her and to help her define success on her own terms. Throughout the process, you are there to support her and to gently and constructively critique her — without nagging her.