Parents need not dread the teen years — and nor should children — yet many do. We remember what we were like in our teens and hear what other’s teens get up to and we quake a bit. Then when our own teen begins to go all monosyllabic on us or off-the-scale dramatic we think we’re in for a good few years of parenting trauma.
It doesn’t have to be like that. For a start you can help your teen by understanding this life stage better, the changes that are going on in her brain and how they affect her outlook and relationships. Then there are practical tools you can use to stay closely connected with your child at the same time as letting go to allow her growing independence. This will permit you to play a part in guiding her safely through adolescence.
Teens have such a bad reputation, well-earned in some cases, that it affects how we treat them all. We forget that adolescence is an exhilarating, sensitive and precious time. It takes effort to stay in close connection with your daughter as you let her go. The teenage years call for her increasing independence, but this requires a bigger role for parents not a diminishing one. Your daughter wants you alongside during this vulnerable phase; she needs you more than ever, despite how it may sometimes seem. We see how the particular challenges of adolescence cause our teenage girls to be increasingly susceptible to mental health problems. You cannot protect your daughter from the world, but you can prepare her to take her place as a strong, sure and capable young woman. Parenting an adolescent is exciting but is also demanding and can require every ounce of your patience, resilience and love. It also takes your time. Committing to a regular Mother–Daughter Date lets her know how important she is. It also serves to keep you connected and able to offer her the support that she needs.
I hear from parents whose children have run into difficulties, wishing that they’d noticed sooner and given better attention earlier. None of us are immune from life’s challenges and just because we might have difficulties in parenting a teen, does not mean we are poor parents. When the difficulties do arise, however, it helps enormously if your relationship with your child is alive and strong.
Parenting a teenager can be immensely rewarding. Teens are vital, adventurous, questioning and self-conscious. Being closely involved in a teen’s life can prompt us (or force us!) to reevaluate our own priorities, question our assumptions and remember the reasons for our choices. Being witness to a young person forming her ‘self’ is a great privilege. Remember that it’s not in your job description to be your teen’s best friend or for her to like you all the time. You are here to love her, guide her and gradually let her go.
Teenagers are great!
I often hear comments about how infants bring a sense of wonder back into our lives. With teenagers, however, the focus tends to be on how they irritate us and less on how their behaviour can remind us of what is truly important in life. For example:
Taking myself and my feelings really, really seriously
Fighting for my right to live how I want
Caring a great deal about my friends
Experimenting with how I look
Wondering who I am
Sleeping until I no longer feel tired
Eating what I really fancy
Courting new friendships
Acting on impulse
Learning by doing
Going for what I want
Trying new things
Railing at life’s injustices
Believing that a better world is within our grasp.
A better world for our teenagers is possible and we’re the ones to create it for them. If not us, then who? So here’s how:
Your children need your time
Teens, like toddlers, need parents to be around, involved, watchful and available. The teen years are a time of great vulnerability, growing self awareness and increased anxiety. Adolescence brings greater freedom, exploration and experimentation, and these inevitably will lead to some poor decisions as well as a lot of good ones. There are many children who struggle. Some lose their way for a bit. It’s hard to watch our children suffering or going in a direction that we wouldn’t wish for them. A parent’s impulse is to want to protect. It’s not unusual to wish secretly that your child would go to sleep one night and wake in the morning as a young adult, leapfrogging the teen years altogether. You’d miss the defiance, the drunken mistakes, the rebellious choices, the regrettable dalliances, the late nights, the friends who seem anything but, the worry, and that feeling of losing control of your child, of losing your little girl.
The idea of a Mother–Daughter Date is for you to spend time alone together, once a month, for a few hours – just you and your daughter. The point is to be together, regularly: a ‘date’ she can count on. It can be a time to have fun, to really talk, to share a simple pleasure, to do something you have both been longing to do. Be as creative, simple, adventurous, ordinary, inexpensive, extravagant, experimental as you like. Ink it into the family diary. Once she realises that you plan to have this time together, she feels your commitment to her and it boosts her esteem. She knows that you want to create a regular special space for the two of you. Think about prioritising a Mother–Daughter Date over dance class, telly time, vacuuming or homework. If you think that you really cannot find a couple of hours once a month to spend with your daughter in this way, then perhaps this shows an imbalance in your lives . . .
Mother–Daughter Dates can form the basis of a healthy and ongoing relationship with your daughter as she approaches puberty. Adolescence is a magical time, a phase of rapid change and a time when your daughter needs you close. She is probably beginning to spend less time with you and more with her friends. This might coincide with you working away from the home more. You will notice other changes: she seems to be growing up before your eyes; one minute she is playing with her dollies and the next she is experimenting with your eyeliner. You catch her dolefully eyeing herself in the mirror, angsting that she is fat – and her girlfriends seem to have so much sway over what she wants. Even if things seem fine, this is the time to establish a way of staying connected. The closeness you shared when she was little changes, but it doesn’t have to mean that you lose touch with each other. Stop off on the way home for a hot chocolate. Go roller skating, to a film, to choose some seeds to plant. Walk the dog together at midnight. Watch her favourite programme with her. Sit and listen to each other’s top tunes (without judgement). Experiment with making different flavours of popcorn. Colour in adjoining pages of an intricate colouring book. Let her do your hair. For inspiration, think back through your memories of precious times spent with adults when you were a child. When you develop a regular Mother–Daughter Date routine while your child is growing up you give her a habit of expecting to spend special time together that she will want to hang on to into her teens. You co-create a space to enjoy each other’s company, even when friends become more important, even during tense times, especially when she needs you but feels like she ought to manage on her own. Even though the idea of having a Mother–Daughter Date is simple, many mothers report amazing developments in their relationship with their daughters as a direct result. Try it.
Case study: Sophia is reminded that her mother is always there for her
Cathy and her daughter Sophia had always been close. Sophia told her mother everything – in great detail and at length! Cathy heard all about what went on at school, who was getting on with who, what Sophia wanted to spend her birthday money on, all about the characters in her favourite TV programmes, her changing music tastes, and her hopes for the future . . . Just recently, though, since Sophia started at secondary school, she didn’t seem so keen to share so much with her mum. Cathy knew this might be normal but still missed the closeness they had. She sensed that maybe something was troubling her daughter, but when asked Sophia just said that she was fine. In the end Cathy took her daughter away for a day by the sea, leaving her brother and dad at home. They played mini-golf, paddled and ate ice cream. In the evening, over fish and chips, Sophia started to talk about herself – her worries about making the grade at school, complications in new friendships, feeling like she ought not to need her mum so much, feeling really moody for no reason, moody with her mum sometimes too. Sophia felt her mother’s support that day and, although she still shared less with her, she was reminded that she always could and that it helped. Cathy made a point of making time to be alone with her daughter every few weeks. And on, into her teens.
Whether or not you have established a regular routine of having Mother–Daughter Dates through her pre–teen years, the teen years are the time to make sure you have regular special time with her. You might find that:
You love aspects of watching her grow up, but you worry that it’s happening too fast.
You feel your daughter takes too much notice of her friends’ opinions.
You want your daughter’s adolescence to be easier than yours.
Something is troubling her, but she won’t tell you what.
You want to make her feel special when she starts menstruating, but you don’t want to embarrass her.
You feel like you are losing her.
Every morning you promise yourself that you won’t lock horns with your daughter, but you still do.
Take her to your favourite cafe, a good film, on a country walk, to your childhood home, go swimming, get your nails done, redesign her bedroom, sky-dive . . . Tell her about what you admire in her, about your dreams as a teenager, about your mother, about your aspirations for yourself now. Ask her about her dreams and aspirations. Above all, listen to her. Listen without judging or guiding her. Let your teen know that she can rely on you to spend special time with her every month, whatever else is going on. Stick to your Mother–Daughter Date even when the emotional climate is difficult between you and the last thing you feel like doing is spending time together. Make it an unquestioned habit that is never denied as a consequence of bad behaviour – honour your date even when you feel she doesn’t deserve it. Finally, keep it going even if you have already had lots of time together that month, or if life feels so busy that it seems impossible to find time. Time your Mother–Daughter Dates to coincide with the week that she is menstruating. We all know that feelings can be heightened around this time of the month, so the treat of time alone together can become a valuable pressure-release valve where you can give her the opportunity to talk, sound off, weep, take a break and feel your support. Arranging your special meeting at this time of the month can also become a private but powerful acknowledgement between you of her status – that of a developing young woman. This is deceptively simple and yet very powerful. Everything that is precious about your relationship will show itself here. Everything that is hard about your relationship will also surface. No matter what, keep the Mother–Daughter Dates commitment going.
This article was written by Kim McCabe with excerpts from From Daughter to Woman: Parenting girls safely through their teens, which is out now.