Mom: “Amy, you need to get up, you’re going to be late for school.”
Amy: “I’m not going to school.”
Mom: “Yes, you are. You have that math test today and you cannot be late!”
Amy (putting her blanket over her head): “I’m never going to school again!”
Susann Shier remembers the low point in her daughter’s early adolescence. The girl was a seventh grader and everything—every little thing—was a struggle.
“She was terrified about puberty, about adolescence, about how to deal with life, basically. She was just completely out of whack. She finally got my attention and made it clear that she was just beside herself with not knowing what to do,” Shier recalls. “The way I remember it is that I just wanted to freak out and go away too. It was just too much to handle.”
Shier didn’t run away, of course. But even with all her years of training and experience working with teens and their parents as a psychotherapist, she still was impressed by the power of her daughter’s pain, confusion, and need for guidance.
As a parent, you may feel overwhelmed during these emotionally fraught tween and teen years when you’re coping with your daughter’s changing personality. These years are often considered to be the toughest parenting stage since the terrible twos. For many, the worst part is that your daughter seems to rarely “act her age.” She may seem so mature in one circumstance, only to turn around and do something so juvenile that you’re left wondering who is the real girl. And when your daughter unleashes a proposal, arguing her point as well as any adult you know, it’s easy to forget that she’s still a kid.
“Girls sometimes look like they’re adults, and that can fool adults into thinking that they’re mature cognitively as well,” says adolescent development specialist Angela Huebner, a Virginia Tech assistant professor. The adolescent brain, Huebner notes, “doesn’t function like an adult brain, especially in the areas of impulsivity, decision-making, and responsibility, the things that drive parents crazy. Adolescents don’t process information the same way.”
Despite this, at various points girls will conduct themselves in a perfectly responsible, mature manner. The problem with a girl’s flip-flopping progress toward maturity is that conflicts are inevitable. You want her to take on responsibility as she gets older; she wants to be awarded more independence. Yet this responsibility-independence partnership rarely glides together in an upward trajectory.
The first step toward a smoother journey is for both parent and daughter to recognize that there will be contradictory behavior. Try a disarmament treaty—if you’ll promise to understand she may act 13, 3, and 23 all on the same day, she’ll promise to understand when you can’t always shift gears quickly. Then as you talk together about some basic developmental struggles all teens and parents experience, you’ll both be able to keep a cooler head and maintain the connection that both sides crave.
Fathers: don’t just do something, stand there. Don’t try to solve problems, just listen to her!
Walk a Mile in Her Shoes
Anyone who remembers her or his own adolescence will certainly remember that it was rife with seeming impossibilities. It may feel to your girl that the whole world is watching every move she makes, every outfit she wears, every word she says. She’s probably right that, at a minimum, many other girls actually are watching closely.
There are dozens of opportunities for self-doubt. She may be wondering about when she will get her period, or whether other girls’ breasts will grow faster. She may be dealing with pimples, hair growing in new places, and endless conversations about looks with her friends. Schoolwork may be more challenging and friendships less reliable. And sometimes, it seems that no one in the family understands or cares about what’s happening in her life.
It can be a very scary time for girls caught between being a kid and soon-to-be adult. Robbie Weisel, who runs mother-daughter weekend retreats as a community educator for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota/South Dakota, remembers one 11-year-old girl summing up what is true for so many girls. “We ask the girls, ‘What is exciting about being a teenager and what is scary?’ One girl said that she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to play pretend anymore. They’re getting glimpses of having to let go of being a kid.”
Helping Her Act Responsibly
Given all the conflicts in a girl’s life, it’s not surprising that taking out the trash, listening to her parents’ rules, and other measures of responsibility are sometimes down on her list of priorities. Parents can help girls hone a sense of responsibility by giving her meaningful tasks at home that she can successfully carry out. When she does the job, it’s important that she knows her contribution matters. If it’s her job to wash the dishes, remember that she’s not always going to show the proficiency you would. Still, she’ll get there, especially if you’re encouraging.
The same strategy can be useful as the issues become larger. Make your expectations about responsibility clear, and be consistent about consequences. Remember that she’ll test the limits, and that she is still learning. “This is development; it’s practice,” Huebner says. “The more parents can step back and think about the big picture, the easier it will be. Think about how much the child has changed between ages 5 and 8. Think about how kids do learn to master stuff and all that they’ve mastered since they were 8 years old.”
Help her see herself as mature and responsible by encouraging successes outside the home. This will also counteract the often harmful and unrealistic cultural messages about what girls should look like, act like, and be like. “Girls can lose their sense of selves if they don’t have something else to define themselves,” Weisel says. “Help your daughter find something that makes her feel good about herself.” If a girl has three or four different interests, she’s more likely to excel in some area even if something is going wrong in another area.
A girl who feels good about herself and who is engaged in the world is more likely to practice fairly consistent responsibility. Girls also learn powerful firsthand messages from what you show them. Show them your best when you can and explain and apologize when you don’t. They will likely follow your example.
Keeping your relationship with your daughter is as important to her as it is to you, even if it seems that all she does is push you away. As your daughter grows up, she has to grow away from you. It can feel scary for a parent who feels like her daughter’s shutting her out. But your daughter’s love hasn’t gone away; she just needs time to see who she is without you.
Her cold shoulder, along with persistent behavior conflicts, will get the best of most parents. We lose our patience, we yell, we blame, we threaten disproportionate punishments. And then we have to figure out how to fix it. “You model apology,” Weisel counsels. “And you model it when it’s real for you. So that means maybe you go to a separate space until you can calm down and then give a sincere apology.”
It’s important to make it clear that despite your temper tantrum, your expectations are still the same. Weisel would say something like this: “I showed you anger and I was rude and I’m really sorry for having done that. But that doesn’t mean my rules and expectations are any less. It just means that I showed you that I’m human too. So cut me a little slack, because that’s how we keep our relationship.”
“Recognize that they’re going to screw up,” Huebner reminds. “But encourage them and they’ll get through it. Give them enough rope to experiment, but not enough to hang themselves. It’s your job to be the safety net.” When a daughter knows that, bottom line, you will always be there for her, she will be much more likely to show you that she’ll come through for you, no matter what age she feels today.
Anne O’Connor is a Wisconsin freelance writer.