Eleven tips to help your teen daughter maintain emotional connection and achieve independence
Teenage girls have a way of getting under one’s skin—especially when you’re their mom. As their anchor, you’re also their doormat, chauffeur, punching bag, therapist, and enemy. Your teenage daughter knows she needs you, but developmentally, she’s withdrawing from the parent-child relationship. Your challenge is to make her independent, resilient, and strong while she rejects, ignores, and yells at you. This isn’t easy! I’ve made plenty of mistakes with my three daughters, and in my frustration and confusion, I’ve turned to friends and books. One of my favorite books is Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood (Ballantine Books, 2016) by Lisa Damour.
As our teenage daughters contend with a barrage of challenges, including surging hormones, mixed messages, and social pressures, they need support, and we do, too. Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way. But let’s be real: teenage girls have a way of disrupting our well-intentioned rational behavior, so forgive yourself when you slip up, then try again.
- Ignore the eye roll. Eye-rolling is a very basic teenage girl response that can make our blood boil. They all do it! Unfortunately, drawing attention to it just results in more eye-rolling. Shake it off, but feel free to bring it up later when things have calmed down: “When you roll your eyes at me, it makes it hard to have a mature conversation with you,” you might say. Bottom line: it’s annoying and developmentally appropriate, and she’ll eventually grow out of it.
- Check yourself when commenting on their skimpy outfits. All three of my daughters have shocked me with their short shorts, skin-tight jeans, and revealing tops. Depending on the occasion, I’ve either had them change or held my Puritan tongue, even though I cringe at the message I feel they’re sending. The truth is, though, that with their clothing—or lack thereof—they’re not soliciting sex, but trying on a more grown-up identity. Tread gently, or your daughter will feel judged and criticized for simply trying to grow up. Of course, it’s important to discuss the societal messages inherent in their self-presentation, but not in the heat of the moment. Choose a calm, connected occasion to explain that dressing like the Kardashians shouldn’t be equated with adulthood.
- Discuss a range of sexual behavior and pressures. Because talking about sex is awkward, parents tend to get “the talk” out of the way and hope for the best. But that doesn’t cut it. In her book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (HarperCollins, 2016), Peggy Orenstein explains that while girls expect equality in the classroom and on the playing field, boys are pressuring them to engage in sexual activity that is often sexist and demeaning. For example, Orenstein reveals that teenage girls are often pressured into oral sex—and go along with it because at least it won’t get them pregnant. Discuss a realistic array of sexual behavior with your daughter to build a foundation of communication and trust. As moms, we need to demystify the pressures that girls are likely to face.
- Tolerate their egocentrism. All teens are self-absorbed. As annoying as it may be, it’s developmentally normal for teenage girls to be egomaniacs. Keep trying to role-model compassion, and talk about the importance of empathy and frugality, but don’t expect them to notice that you might be having a hard day or that their request for expensive shoes is unreasonable. Remind yourself that their self-absorption is normal and temporary.
- Hold your tongue when it comes to their friends. Teenage girls are inherently social and loyal to their friends. Developmentally, they’re making the critical shift away from relying solely on family to expanding their support system. Therefore, to criticize your daughter’s friends is to criticize her. If she shares that she’s facing negative peer pressure or cruel comments, try not to overreact or disparage the friend. Take a breath, and be happy that she’s opening up to you. Discuss the problem calmly to assess its severity. Is your daughter unloading, or is she asking for your assistance? If you withhold judgment and criticism, the two of you are more likely to forge a plan when this happens again. You don’t want your daughter to regret coming to you and shut you out. And at this age, dynamics often change: Today’s mortal enemy may be her bestie tomorrow, so be prepared!
- Be the grown-up in the room and acknowledge your own bad behavior. Only a saint can parent a teen without having a few regrettable moments. If you’ve resorted to shouting, shaming, or throwing your power around, you’re not alone. But you need to acknowledge your bad behavior and move forward. Take ownership by apologizing. An apology will go far in terms of role modeling and building connection. Show your daughter that being an adult doesn’t mean being perfect, but it does mean admitting to your mistakes and making amends.
- Help them develop resilience by allowing small failures. The good news is the majority of Solo Mom kids will develop resilience simply by virtue of their family circumstances. Too often, however, we seek to protect our daughters and, in doing so, may undercut their resiliency. Don’t bail your daughter out of a science project she procrastinated on or write a note to her teacher if she didn’t do her homework. Allow your daughter to learn from the difficult situation and realize that the world doesn’t come to an end if she screws up. Facing consequences and overcoming challenges is part of becoming a resilient adult. Too many teens lack the fortitude to make it in college because we parents too often intervened. Be there for support, but don’t rescue your daughter from important small failures.
- Develop high expectations. Never make statements such as, “That’s OK; I was never any good at science and math, either.” This might seem like a supportive comment, but it gives your daughter an excuse not to strive. You might share that you had to work hard at math or science, but avoid negative statements couched in empathy that perpetuate tired, old gender stereotypes. Don’t put your own insecurities or weaknesses on your daughter, as her own path to success might be quite different from yours. Psychological research has proven that our expectations can shape our outcomes, so avoid generating negative prophesies. Sadly, girls fall prey to such prophesies far more often than boys do, especially in stereotypically male areas. It’s much better to say, “I know you got this.” Give your daughter every possibility of success by telling her she’s smart, capable, and hardworking. Better yet, remind her of a time when she kicked ass!
- Help your daughter make sense of her world. As much as we hate the way our daughters are attached to their phones, it’s better to navigate their phone use thoughtfully than to hurl empty threats about taking their phones away. Explain the dangers related to social media, especially to her self-esteem. The film Screenagers is a great discussion starter. Take time to explain that social media, television, and magazines are selling our daughters a distorted view of women, and encourage her to think critically about the unrealistic images presented by models and movie stars. I also like to point out that there are industries that profit if she feels less attractive. A healthy dose of critical thinking will go far toward preserving her self-worth and promoting confidence in who she is, not who she thinks she should be.
- Be there for her when she screws up. A teenager’s cerebral cortex isn’t fully developed, so she’s bound to say and do things that aren’t very smart. Sadly, if her friends are with her, she’s even more inclined to engage in behaviors that are risky or just don’t make any sense. Instead of obsessing over the silly thing she did, teach her to deal with the consequences. Show her that she can tackle a situation more maturely. Obviously, if the behavior is irresponsible and dangerous, she must be called out on it, but avoid shaming at all costs. Words thrown in anger can stay with girls for a long time. Chalk up the behavior to her age, and move on.
Your teenage daughter is experiencing a surge of hormones that make her weep one minute and laugh hysterically the next. The good news is that if she’s upset and cranky, it will pass. So prepare for a long roller-coaster ride, knowing that when it’s over, you will have a fabulous, strong daughter whom you will enjoy for years to come. Good luck!
Portions of this article were drawn from “15 Things You Should Not Say to Your Teenage Daughter” and “10 Rules for Living with a Teenage Daughter.”
Dr. Marika Lindholm founded ESME.com to ignite a social movement of Solo Moms. A trained sociologist, Lindholm taught courses on inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University for over a decade. After a divorce left her parenting two children on her own, she realized Solo Moms lacked much-needed resources, support, and connection. She built her social platform, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, out of this combination of academic and personal experience. The acronym has since evolved to Empowering Strong Moms Everywhere, to encompass all moms. In September 2019, She Writes Press will publish We Got This! Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor, an anthology of Solo Mom personal essays and poetry edited by Lindholm with Cheryl Dumesnil, Domenica Ruta, and Katherine Shonk. Marika can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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