“I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!”
A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict
Excerpt: Chapter 1
You and Your Daughter
“I don’t know what’s gotten into my daughter lately. The other day some out-of-town friends called to say they were in town and asked if they could stop by for dinner. So of course I said yes, and I called home to ask Melanie, who’s fifteen, to give me a hand by straightening up the kitchen and setting the table. When I rushed home from work, I found the kitchen in disarray and Melanie upstairs in her room, door shut, sorting through a stack of CDs. When I asked, quite calmly, why she hadn’t done as I had asked, Melanie said she’d forgotten. She shrugged and just kept rearranging the CDs. I could hear my voice beginning to shrill when I demanded that she help me … NOW! She said okay but didn’t budge. So I promptly started screaming at her to get off her duff and get downstairs. She had the nerve to ask me why I was making such a “big deal”! But I knew we had hit rock bottom when she muttered under her breath that I wasn’t “exactly Mrs. Reliable.” I said the first thing I could think of: that she was grounded … until further notice.” –Alice, age forty-six
Is it any wonder mothers almost universally fear their daughter’s adolescent years? Like the majority of mothers of teenage (or nearly teenage) daughters, you may be wondering how your relationship suddenly became so complicated. How did the simplest, most mundane situations become so highly charged? When did you and your daughter stop seeing the world through the same lens? And, most important, what became of your delightful, agreeable “baby” girl?
Perhaps during her early childhood you heard the warnings: “Just wait till she’s a teenager” or “You’d better enjoy her while you can.” You were told your relationship would begin to unravel, if not explode, just around the time your daughter got a training bra. But adolescence seemed a lifetime away. Besides, it wouldn’t happen to you and your daughter. You had developed a close relationship with her, more like the one you’d always longed for with your won mother. You’d cherished those morning cuddles in bed, the giggles you’d shared, and all the precious drawings and heartfelt poems she’d ever given you.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed between the two of you. Out went the easy chats, holding hands on walks, and keeping her secrets. In came slammed doors, exasperated sighs, sullen moods, and rude comments. There are still plenty of whispered confidences, but now they’re only to her friends. As soon as you even approach the vicinity, the whispering stops abruptly; eyes get rolled. You are clearly unwanted, excluded from the adolescent sanctum. These days, if your daughter is not overtly blaming you for “ruining” her life, she’s avoiding you, yelling at you, or demanding that you stay out of her room and mind your own business. You’ve been made painfully aware that your every gesture “annoys” her. This is not the mother-daughter relationship you had in mind.
As Mary-Jo, mother to fifteen-year-old Jeannie, described it, “I’m walking on eggshells all the time. Everything I do is ‘ridiculous’; everything I say is ‘wrong.’ I don’t even like to be around my daughter anymore, especially if she has friends over; she sighs disgustedly every time I even open my mouth. And if I have the nerve to ask one of her friends a simple question, forget it! I’m supposed to be an adult, but instead, I find I’m afraid to say a word.”
Welcome to the world of parenting a teenage daughter, a task more arduous, frustrating, and exhausting than any you ever imagined. Where did you go wrong? You were committed to being open, emotionally available, honest, and consistently supportive of your daughter. She would know that she could come to you with any problem, question, or concern and you would answer her calmly, without patronizing or judging her. These strategies would ensure the building of a strong, close and trusting mother-daughter relationship, and if you were fortunate, this plan worked—at least for the first decade of her life.
Along with the onset of puberty, however, came the intense and unpredictable moods, the temper tantrums you hadn’t seen since age two, and the tendency to bristle over any and all perceived slights. Terry, the mother of a fourteen-year-old, relates this classic example: “I was driving in the car with my daughter on the way to her high school orientation. We were sitting there quietly, in what I’d call companionable silence, when all of a sudden she startled me by saying, ‘Be quiet, Mom!’ But I hadn’t said a single word!”
When you hear another woman complain of these absurdities, it may seem humorous, but it couldn’t be any less funny when it’s happening to you. In fact, your own once-respectful and affectionate daughter may now be telling you to “shut up,” making fun of you, or withdrawing into her room for days on end. You might feel like the forty-year-old mother who described her oldest daughter’s sudden transformation upon entering middle school: “It seemed like one day my little sweetheart moved out and some angry stranger who hated me moved in.” Or like the mother of a thirteen-year-old who explained, “It’s like I’ve suffered the loss of someone very dear to me.”
At times you are relieved, if not ecstatic, to see vestiges of your daughter’s old self. As she proudly shows you an accomplishment, you glimpse the broad grin and unguarded affection of her younger days. Or you hear from another parent about what an “especially lovely, polite child” visits her home. “We must be doing something right,” you think. You are especially delighted to overhear her, incredibly, bestowing advice or kind words to her younger sibling and think, “Maybe, just maybe, she’ll be all right after all.” Then, in the next moment, and for a reason apparent to no one—perhaps not even to your daughter herself—she transforms again, shouting, “I hate you!” and huffing and stomping off to her room, leaving a trail of accusations in her angry wake.
These changes are mystifying and devastating to mothers. Are you really as out of touch with her life as she accuses? Worse yet, is it possible she sees in you some of the traits you abhorred in your own mother and swore you’d avoid? Just what is it that makes you the prime target of your daughter’s wrath?
Unquestionably, teenage girls bristle and rage about nearly everything—from minor disappointments to undeniable tragedies—with nearly equal intensity. It is well known that adolescents perceive the most innocuous of comments as slights or even major insults. Many a mother has commented that she has only to look at her daughter to be accused of criticizing her or thinking she is “fat”! Paradoxically, because your unquestioned love makes your daughter feel safe, she feels free to direct much of her frustration and hostility toward you, regardless f whether you are remotely involved. You have likely joined the ranks of mothers who are tired of feeling they can never say or do anything right.
At times your relationship with your daughter may deteriorate further. As Ann, a thirty-five-year-old single mother, put it, “I’m dealing with a level of conflict I never imagined. Since she was thirteen, Morgan pretty much decided she didn’t need to listen to me or respect me. She treats me with nothing but contempt. I’m devastated by what our relationship has become and frightened by what lies ahead. If we’re constantly at each other’s throats, how can I hope to help her through these next years? How can I keep her safe from alcohol and drugs and all the rest?”
Not only do mothers despair over feeling that their relationships with their daughters have been lost, but they become terrified about surrendering any lingering threads of control they may have held.
Yet again, you may be reading this from the perspective of the unaffected. Perhaps your daughter is still asking you to French braid her hair, give your opinion on social matters, and accompany her on long nature walks. She may still confide in you the details of her day: who said what to whom, which girls are on the outs, who got into trouble in music class. You may be seeking to preserve the closeness you now share with your daughter and especially to prevent future struggles you may anticipate or worry about. “Frankly, I’m petrified,” said Fran, the mother of a teenage son and a ten-year-old daughter. “I look around, and all I see are the problems lurking ahead. Every day I hear about drugs, teenage pregnancy, date rape, AIDS. My friends whose daughters are already teens tell me how horrible it is. I want to know what I can do right now to ensure these problems don’t hit us in a few years. What I want, most of all, is for my daughter and me to continue as we are now.”
Whether you’re still anticipating the teen years, reeling from the rockiness of your ever-changing adolescent, or struggling with a mother-daughter relationship that’s deteriorating by the day, this book is written for you. While there are books that discuss such parenting topics as the adolescent girl’s physical development, body image, peer relations, substance abuse, and sexuality, this book focuses specifically on the evolving and challenging mother-daughter relationship during the teen years. We speak to mothers who are desperate for help in handling conflicts with their teenage daughters more effectively (“I can’t stand another minute of this arguing!” “I’ve about had it!”) and to those who experience painful self-doubt about their mothering skills (“Am I making the best decisions?” “Should I be doing something differently?”). It is important to note that while we acknowledge that fathers play a pivotal and ever-growing role in raising teen daughters, we have deliberately chosen to focus on the unique dynamics of the mother-daughter connection.
Because of our distinct careers and experiences—one of us a clinical psychologist working intensively with mothers and daughters, the other a senior editor of a national girls’ magazine—we are able to portray the needs, concerns, and viewpoints of both mothers and adolescent girls. We clarify the concerns of teenage girls and specifically what they are seeking when they say their mothers “just don’t understand” them and are “always butting in” or saying “all the wrong things.” We shall also help you by describing what typically distresses daughters, why they are so quick to blame their mothers, and how they can better handle negative emotions. In the chapters that follow, we’ll show you many ways to connect with your teenager or to restore previous closeness and to find more gratifying ways of interacting. At a time when your own daughter may be withdrawn and secretive, this information can be invaluable.
Mothers nearly always wonder if what they’re going through is normal. The balance of voices throughout this book will help you put your experiences with your own daughter in perspective. As you will see, there is an enormous variation of predictable struggles that are influenced by your daughter’s age, genetic endowments, family background, and experiences. At any given moment your relationship will be affected by these factors, as well as by your teenager’s notoriously mercurial moods and inconsistent behavior. Your relationship with your daughter, like all relationships, will have its ups and downs. But when you establish a solid connection with her and keep your long-term goals clearly in focus, you can be confident of your relationship’s withstanding these inevitable turbulent periods.
What is normal is also broad because adolescent maturation is hardly uniform and rarely linear. Whereas one mother swears she “barely survived” her daughter’s thirteenth year, another claims age sixteen is “positively the worst.” If there is one thing we can assure you of, it’s that there are no givens. Occasional backsliding into behavior characteristic of earlier developmental stages (what therapists call regression) in response to stress, heightened demands, or life circumstances is to be expected as well. For example, your staunchly independent daughter, who has embraced each new school year with the barest of waves good-bye, may at thirteen suddenly cling to you like Velcro when she is introduced to junior high school teachers. Or, out of nowhere, you may find your fifteen-year-old five-foot-tall baby girl on your lap—a not so subtle message that she needs some extra TLC.
Your relationship with your daughter is also highly determined by your own goals and expectations for raising her. No one can tell you what kind of daughter you should raise or the nature of the relationship you want to have with her. Whereas one mother may find her daughter’s exclamation “I hate you!” unacceptably disrespectful, another may take comfort in her teenager’s ability to express strong negative feelings. Similarly, while some mothers are so primed for confrontation that every piece of lint on their daughter’s carpets is an impetus for a major battle, others may overlook red flags signifying serious problems in order to avoid conflict at all costs.
Recognizing the uniqueness of every woman and teenage girl, this book prescribes few absolute solutions. Instead, we invite you to participate actively in the process of learning more about yourself and your daughter as well as about how to strengthen your relationship. the first part of this book helps you examine the respective issues each of you brings to the mother-daughter relationship. As you explore the intense feelings and challenges intrinsic to mothering today’s teenage girl, we ask you to reflect on your own particular attitudes, strengths, and formative experiences.
Similarly, you will view from the perspective of adolescent girls the developmental, interpersonal, and social challenges they commonly face, thereby gaining a better understanding of your own daughter’s likely wishes, fears, hopes, and frustrations. Empathy for your daughter’s emotional experiences, and appreciation for what she brings to the relationship, are at the heart of your connection with her. You will have the chance to examine what you have learned from your own family and the larger culture in which you live and how these lessons influence your relationship with your daughter.
The second part of this book provides the practical know-how, the tools to improve and strengthen your relationship and to stay connected with her in spite of daily challenges. You will learn to choose your battles wisely, to be clear on what you hope to accomplish, to respond more pragmatically when your daughter expresses her anger, and to communicate effectively about important issues. The empathy you develop will then guide you in interpreting her everyday communications, both verbal and nonverbal. You will better decipher what she is really saying when she screams, “I’m not hungry,” and stomps away from the dinner table, when she “forgets” the errand you desperately needed her to take care of, or when she leaves to catch the school bus in the very same ripped jeans you told her not to wear. You will see the myriad possible messages that can be communicated by the universal slammed bedroom door. You will also learn how to stay the course during your conflicts with your daughter, remaining fast to your beliefs and values even when your most valiant efforts bring less than optimal immediate results.
Mothers typically ask, “What do I say?” and “What do I say when my daughter says—-?” Hearing from the dozens of mothers what they’ve learned from their teenage daughters will give you both effective strategies and much-needed words. Because people often learn best by realizing what not to do, we offer dialogues illustrating common but unproductive ways to communicate with adolescents. We will set you at ease by anticipating worst-case scenarios and teaching useful ways to recognize and handle them.
By the close of this book it is likely you had your daughter will still have your struggles. On occasion you may even battle intensely. But you will be convinced that conflict is not necessarily dangerous or to be avoided at all costs. In fact, you will have discovered that you and your daughter not only can stay connected in the presence of conflict but can grow from it. You will come to appreciate that strong emotions such as anger can be powerful tools use to improved your relationship (and life in general), rather than to harm or ruin it. Your repertoire of effective communication and conflict resolution skills will increase your confidence in many other areas of your life.
Not only will you be empowered by this knowledge, but so will your daughter. In the third part of this book you will learn to help her apply these new skills to other areas of her life. When teenage girls clash with friends, teachers, and boyfriends, mothers are often hard pressed to figure out their own roles. In these chapters we show you how the tools you’ve acquired in resolving mother-daughter conflict can be put into practice as you r adolescent moves beyond the home and into the adult world.
Girls, now more than ever, must learn to handle conflicts with employers, college professors, coaches, peers, and even themselves. Daughters need both permission and know-how to take a stand against many potential threats; they must learn to tolerate anxiety and even to risk rejection by their friends when it is in their best interest or safety to do so. This is not merely an issue of “just saying no.” Recently a sixteen-year-old told her therapist that the previous Saturday evening she had had sex with four boys. When the therapist asked, “Did you want to?” the girl replied, “No, but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.”
These are the times when women and girls must discard politeness, even feminine concern for others, in order to protect themselves. In fact, these are the times when you want your daughter to know how to speak up and wage a good fight.
By hanging in there in the face of conflict with your daughter, you will teach her, by example, these vital life skills. By your plugging along and demonstrating your commitment, she will realize how worthy she is and how well she deserves to be treated. In this process you will accomplish your ultimate goal: developing and maintaining a close, enriching, lifelong connection to your daughter.