“Trust Me Mom — Everyone Else Is Going!”
The New Rules for Mothering Adolescent Girls
Excerpt Chapter One
Moms, Take Heart – A NEW OUTLOOK
“My daughter is only ten, but she’s acting like a teenager. I guess I expected these sorts of problems when she was in middle school or high school, but I’m not ready for this now. In fact, I’m already at the end of my rope, and she’s not even driving yet! My two older children were never like this. Sure, some of their friends weren’t my favorites, but they were never consumed with all this social stuff like my youngest is. She’s talking about issues that her siblings didn’t mention until they were in their midteens. Even her language seems way too advanced for her age. Other than stopping the clock for a while, there doesn’t really seem to be anything else I can do. Maybe I could use some help. My head is spinning!” —Francesca, fifty
“I had no idea that being a mother could be this hard! I guess I thought that if my daughter and I were always close, if I taught her the right values and spent lots of time with her, that we would basically see eye to eye as she grew up. But she and I couldn’t be less alike. In fact, sometimes I wonder where she’s come from. Among other things, I’ve always stressed how important it is for her to be an individual, to think for herself. But she’s completely swayed by what’s in and, especially by what her friends do and say. We also have very different ideas about what’s appropriate for girls her age. It really amazes me—and scares me—to think of how focused she is on boys, how eager she is to please them. How could this have happened? And how are we going to get through the next few years?” —Gerri, forty-five
Nearly every time my telephone rings lately, it’s the mother of a teenage girl who is confused, upset, or absolutely frantic about the state of her daughter’s social life—her friends, her attitude, her boyfriend, her secrecy, her nightlife. Without exception, mothers are concerned about what exactly their adolescent daughters are doing, who they’re doing it with and, especially, if they are safe. Whether your daughter is approaching or well into the teenage years, you too may question the quality of her friendships, worry about substances and sex, and have reservations about her romantic choices. Maybe you panic whenever you see a red flag that may signal trouble, making you wonder if you are completely crazy at times. If so, be assured that you are in good company. These days, no mother seems immune.
Perhaps because we have considered ourselves a more aware and progressive generation of mothers, we expected that our daughters would somehow make smarter decisions in their lives and bypass the typical teenage troubles. Unfortunately this turned out to be a fallacy. Mothers today share a nearly universal perception: Even girls who were once rational, reasonable, and levelheaded suddenly seem to be making stupid, frightening, or potentially dangerous choices.
These girls are not all troubled; these are difficult times. Since the publication of my first book, I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!, which dealt with conflict in the mother-daughter relationship, women have increasingly told me that their teenagers’ social lives have become their number one concern. In fact, countless mothers have confided that they never could have imagined, much less predicted, their daughters’ behavior. For example, some girls were caught using alcohol or drugs, sneaking out of their homes, and lying about their whereabouts. Others were found to have diaries or e-mail peppered with vulgar words or explicit sexual references. A few were even taken to emergency rooms or picked up by police or suspended from school.
These aren’t evil girls from awful families but typical teenagers, some of whom are struggling, many with remarkable talents, who are nonetheless making worrisome choices. It may be difficult or even unthinkable to accept that your daughter, if she has not already done so, may soon join their ranks. Yet it is important to acknowledge from the outset that poor decisions, rash actions, and risk taking are as fundamental to adolescence as acne, braces, and the first kiss. It is just that you probably never thought you would have to deal with them.
Until now, it was always other teenagers who wove elaborate cover stories to elude parents who forbade them from certain peers and situations. You were sure that the open communication and trusting relationship you worked so hard all these years to establish with your daughter would eliminate her need for such subterfuge as a teen. The first time you discover that she has manipulated, deliberately misled, or outwardly lied to you, your whole foundation may be shaken. Is it possible that your daughter is being evasive, telling half-truths, or blithely ignoring your rules?
Similarly, some of you may gasp in shock and dismay when you discover that your daughters have not been victims but perpetrators of unkindness. Was it really your girl who started the vicious rumor, excluded the “loser” from the lunch table, or mercilessly used that lovely boy who had a crush on her? After discovering her thirteen-year-old’s efforts to bad-mouth and ostracize a longtime pal, one mother maintained, “I never would have dreamed she would do anything like that. I thought my daughter would know better—and act better!”
Many of your daughters may make other, less serious but still self-defeating choices. While traveling across the country to speak to groups of parents, for example, I am frequently asked for advice about girls who develop unhealthy friendships and demeaning romantic relationships. Mira, mother to fourteen-year-old Phillippa, says, “I watch my daughter being excluded by her two so-called best friends, over and over, and yet she still lets them hurt her. Why can’t she defend herself or, better yet, make more loyal friends?” Similarly, fifteen-year-old Loren’s mother describes her daughter’s pattern of “longing to be friends with girls in the popular crowd, who not only rebuff her but are often mean to her. It’s heartbreaking.” Norma, mother to seventeen-year-old Randy, is aghast at “the way her boyfriend seems to control her with his criticism, his emotional threats, and that awful pager.”
Whether your daughter is placing herself in danger, tolerating harmful relationships, or engaging in behavior that makes your hair stand on end, you have probably found yourself, at various times, worried, frustrated, shocked, or disgusted. Confronted with her particularly bad decisions, you may even feel angry. As one mother put it, “After staying up half the night waiting for her to come home, I thought if she was still alive I was going to kill her!” You may have reacted similarly when your daughter was a little girl and wandered away from you. As you finally located her or pulled her from the street, your initial relief may have turned to rage as the enormity of what could have happened sunk in.
Even if your daughter is proceeding through adolescence in the slow lane, cautiously staying within the lines, you may be concerned because some of her friends appear reckless in their great rush to grow up. Or your daughter’s shyness and preference for sticking close to home may make you concerned not about excessive socializing or harmful relationships, but loneliness and social inexperience. It is also possible that despite your own daughter’s apparently good adjustment, you can’t help but become alarmed as you look all around you. You may want to learn as much as you can about teenagers’ social lives to avoid problems in the future. It is the rare mother of a teenage girl, therefore, who feels she doesn’t need help.
These days the topic of your daughter’s social life is likely to ignite instant contention between you two, along with a smoldering sensation in the pit of your stomach. Why is this happening? you might ask. It hasn’t always been this way.
Since your daughter was a young girl, you have probably invested considerable thought and effort in teaching her to follow her heart while learning to get along with others. Still, despite your mindfulness, probably neither your daughter nor her life has been perfect. Perhaps her chattiness, possessiveness, or flair for melodrama has occasionally alienated others. Teased or disappointed by a close friend, she may have become furious, inconsolable, or vengeful. If your daughter acted without thinking, you may have helped her deal with the fallout of blurted nastiness or regretted self-disclosure.
Back then, however, the biggest social dilemmas were how she would handle a bossy friend, whether or not she should quit Girl Scouts, or whom she invited to (and could exclude from) her next birthday party. Sure, you may have been taken aback by the passion of her second-grade crush, but today the issues are far more serious, the stakes infinitely higher. You may be fearful about where she is headed, and worried that if she picks the wrong friends, she will be led astray or cave in to peer pressures with irrevocable consequences.
There are perfectly valid reasons for these fears. Though you may feel crazy, you are actually responding reasonably to a number of issues that are complicating your daughter’s social life and therefore, your relationship with her. You may find it comforting that other mothers are struggling with these same concerns.
A Scarier World
If you have the sense that your daughter is growing up in a world different from the one in which you were raised, you are correct. Of course, the worries of undesirable friendships, traffic accidents, and teenage pregnancy have been around for generations. Similarly, despite the strong warnings you have issued, probably ad nauseam, your daughter could be one of the 52 percent of teenagers who admits to using an illegal substance by senior year of high school. But, without question, there are additional worries, wider choices, scarier dangers, and more intense pressures faced by contemporary teenagers, with fewer cultural protections in place.
As but one example, your daughter’s use of PCs, cell phones, pagers, e-mail, and instant messaging makes it that much harder for you to monitor her social life, as well as to anticipate and resolve any difficulties that arise. In fact, you may be scrambling even to keep up with your daughter’s knowledge of this technology, much less to establish guidelines that can limit or prevent its hazards. Similarly, unlike your own mother, you have to think about guns on playgrounds; angry, sexist lyrics inciting aggression toward girls at rock concerts; and the routine sex and violence in movies, television shows, and CDs. Even more alarming, there are the unthinkable possibilities: your daughter planning a rendezvous with a young man she met in a chat room, being raped after drinking a Roofie-laced soda, or contracting the fatal HIV infection. This new world requires a new approach, with new rules.
It may surprise you that it is not only mothers who perceive the world as scarier; daughters do too. A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that over 43 percent of teenagers surveyed believed they were having a harder time growing up than their parents had. These teens cited, among other causes, a faster pace of life, worries about a more dangerous world, and greatly increased peer pressure to use alcohol, drink excessively, and do other new drugs such as laced marijuana, ecstasy, and inhalants.
These data are consistent with a disturbing trend; although I have treated adolescents in psychotherapy for over twenty years, it is only during the past five years or so that girls have reported markedly higher levels of distress—and their mothers have dealt with correspondingly more distressing teen behavior. Interestingly, as I was finishing this book I came across a new study that corroborates this change. Psychologist Jean Twenge of Case Western Reserve University found that today’s children feel significantly more anxious than did children in the 1950s. In fact, normal children ages nine to seventeen display more anxiety today than those who were treated for psychiatric disorders fifty years ago.
It is hardly surprising that your own apprehension slips so easily into overdrive. Perhaps on occasion you have extrapolated from your daughter’s single bad decision to extreme or dire consequences. For example, the mother of a sixteen-year-old described that “after getting the inconceivable news that my daughter spent an evening at an unsupervised home with a boy generally regarded as trouble, I instantly became convinced that date rape, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, and AIDS were just around the corner.” Similarly, even the glimpse of a beer can or whiff of alcohol on her breath may result in panicky predictions of overdoses, addictions, and accidental deaths. Your memories of reading about tragedies involving teenagers and thinking, “That could be my daughter” are never far from consciousness.
Is it any wonder that whenever you are confronted with your daughter’s poor judgment and risky behavior, you may think, “Has she lost her mind?” Or just as likely, you fear you will lose your own.
She’s Not Fully Mature
Because your daughter is still developing, you may have doubts that she is ready to handle a more dangerous world. It’s not that she lost her mind, it’s just not full grown yet. Techniques such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron-emission tomography) scanning have proven that your daughter’s brain is still maturing through the teenage years and even beyond. Although this information may not reassure you that she is ready to take care of herself, it does clarify why the adolescent stage of development is, by definition, a minefield of impediments to good decision making.
For example, the corpus callosum, a structure that connects the left and right sides of the brain and is responsible for self-awareness, is not fully developed until the twenties. The temporal lobes, which facilitate emotional control and language, do not reach maximum maturity until age sixteen. Perhaps most important, the frontal lobes—the center of executive functions such as organization, planning, judgment, and the regulation of behavior and emotions—hit their peak growth spurt between puberty and young adulthood. Not only is the immature adolescent brain more vulnerable to trauma and drugs, but it also cannot manage stresses such as social pressures and sexual or aggressive urges as well as the adult brain. No wonder your daughter’s tenuous impulse control has you worried!
There are other valid reasons for teenagers’ poor judgment. Some have not yet developed sufficient abstract thinking to generalize from their experiences and benefit from their mistakes. Many have not learned good problem-solving skills. For example, teenagers’ occasionally rigid, black-or-white thinking (“If I can’t do it now, I’ll never do it!”) prevents them from considering several solutions to their problems. When one approach fails, they tend to give up (“Forget it, there’s no way!”). Or often their adolescent veil of invincibility and immortality (“I’ll be fine, nothing will happen”) allows them to make choices without even considering the possible consequences of their behavior.
As if all this weren’t enough to override teenagers’ logic, the added ingredients of raging hormones and intense, unpredictable emotions are a surefire recipe for girls’ unfortunate decisions. Adolescent daughters are all but infamous for mood swings. If your daughter is among the girls today who are experiencing the earliest signs of physical maturation by age eight or nine, this probably won’t mean full-blown puberty or imminent menstruation. But she may be experiencing hormonal pulses long before her brain—not to mention her coping skills—are mature enough to handle them.
Of course, these developmental factors are not completely to blame; there are times when your daughter simply forgets to use her head. Caught up in the moment, she doesn’t think. Or she deliberately chooses to ignore the wisdom you know she is capable of in favor of an appealing peer’s influence or a tantalizing social experience. Among themselves, the teenage mantra seems to be, “Yeah, I know it was stupid . . . but I had fun.” No wonder your fears have skyrocketed!
Yet it is important to remember that your daughter’s unfortunate behavior, detrimental relationships, and even lapses of judgment do not suggest that she is a bad seed or terrible person. She has merely made unfortunate decisions. Although you might wish she would always use her head, you know this is hardly realistic. It also may be comforting to learn that your daughter and her friends are not unique in this regard. Not only are poor choices common during adolescence, but a survey by Who’s Who Among American High School Students found that even academic superstars are not immune. For example, more than 75 percent of honor students nationwide have cheated, only half of sexually active teens use condoms, and 10 percent have driven a car while drunk. Obviously, being book smart doesn’t make teenagers act smart.
Secret Social Lives
Just as the perils threatening your daughter appear to multiply, you probably feel it is harder to supervise her, let alone to protect her. The powerful developmental push to establish peer relationships—and ease away from intense emotional ties at home—is responsible for teen girls’ developing private, almost secret, social lives. These days it is hard to miss the hints that your daughter prefers the company of her friends—if not the solitude of her room—to being with you. As Peggy, mother of fifteen-year-old Martha, put it, “She used to hang around and chat with me while I got dinner on the table, and sometimes we watched our favorite TV shows together. That’s a distant memory now.”
Other than to make requests, your daughter may be eager to communicate only one thing: that she is her own person and, therefore, no longer needs to rely on your opinions or advice. To make clear her independence, your daughter may adopt a perpetually bored demeanor around you, appearing so listless and apathetic that her typical response to your remarks or queries is a dismissive “whatever,” or a barely audible, whispered syllable that sounds like “mumblemumble.”
Until the phone rings, that is. Then you hear the delighted shrieks and peals of giggles reminiscent of her younger years. And if a boy happens to call, you may hardly recognize the charming, dulcet voice that answers the phone. With that all-too-familiar sinking sensation in your gut, it dawns on you that you no longer have the power to elicit this reaction from your daughter.
Even if your daughter is forthcoming about her social life, it is an illusion to believe you have all the information. Ask any mother who has wisely pretended to be invisible while driving a carload of her daughter’s friends. When girls get caught up in conversation and forget to be guarded, mothers can overhear snippets of experiences they have had, names of people they know, and memories they share—none of which are remotely familiar. Once again, it may hit you that your daughter has her own social life, with its unique history separate from yours.
Your daughter may now be guarding this social life with a passion. Maybe she used to burst in the door from her elementary school bus, animatedly describing how Kendall’s secret got spilled, why Dora and Marie got in a fight during recess, and what she is planning for tomorrow night’s sleepover. But now you may find it difficult to obtain any particulars about what she and her friends are up to. She probably responds to even the gentlest of inquiries about her social life with retorts such as “What do you want to know?” or “Please, leave me alone!” Your more direct questions—should you have the nerve to ask any—are experienced as intrusions tantamount to brain surgery.
And heaven forbid you doubt her peers! Despite any misgivings your daughter herself may have, she will feel compelled to defend or even champion her friends to you or any adult who has the temerity to question them.
Although you may know full well that it is normal for teenage girls to prize their privacy, this developmental shift enormously affects your mothering. Needless to say, if your daughter classifies her thoughts, feelings, and activities as top secret, parenting her will be all the more challenging. Plus, if you cannot find out reassur-ing information, your maternal anxiety can run away with your imagination.
Your New Status (i.e., Demotion)
If your daughter is the eldest or only child in the family, you may be jolted by the realization that her strides toward independence are nudging—or, what is more likely, demanding—you to mother her differently. After all, during the past ten years or so there have been many moments when you felt reasonably confident; you have seen your daughter’s adjustment and your relationship with her as an endorsement of the job you have been attempting to do as a mother. Now, suddenly, she may be telling you or showing you, “All that’s in the past, Mom!” Her adolescent changes are increasingly causing you to doubt yourself.
At the same time, many women I speak to pride themselves on being more closely connected to their daughters and in tune with the teenage world than were their own mothers, whom they happily believe remained oblivious to their adolescent exploits. A modern mother’s sense of being more in the know and involved with her daughter can lead, however, to a false sense of control. Thus you may be disappointed or even devastated in those moments when you feel helpless to make changes in your teenage daughter’s social life. For example, even if you think the newest member of her youth group personifies trouble, your daughter may eagerly befriend her. Despite the poor reputation of a particular family, your daughter may spend considerable time in that home. This loss of control is not unlike when your school-age daughter became friends with children whose parents had different habits, rules, and expectations, some of which made you uneasy.
Now that she is a teenager, these fears are undoubtedly far worse. You realize that your daughter has stopped behaving according to your wishes, your guidance, and your wisdom. Not only have you been ousted from your long-held position as her ultimate authority and moral compass, but you have also been replaced by her peers as the litmus test of what is and isn’t acceptable. Your daughter is making countless, daily social choices without your input or guidance, most of which you may never find out about.
Any lingering doubts about your status in your daughter’s social life should be clarified by this rather humorous exchange I recently overheard between two sixteen-year-old employees of a clothing store:
“I met your mother yesterday,” one said to the other, “and she was really nice.”
Given this mentality, it is not surprising that even when you raise valid concerns about her life, your daughter is unlikely to be overly grateful for your interest. Instead she may be shocked by your accusations and eager to deny the existence of a problem (“I’m totally fine!”). Moreover, she probably tells you that it is not her but you who has the problem or, alternatively, that she does have a problem—and that her problem is you! If all else fails, teenage girls usually blame their mothers (“Why are you always overreacting?” or “You don’t have to flip out!”) whenever there is the slightest possibility they have erred.
Even when you have undeniable evidence of your daughter’s foolish behavior or serious infraction of a basic family rule, she is likely to minimize the situation (“I just made one little slip; did you expect me to be perfect?”) or defend herself (“Everybody else was much worse than me; you should be happy!”). Any efforts to correct her are not only rebuffed, but also intensely resented. Developmentally this makes sense. Because she is struggling mightily to establish a sense of who she is and who she will become, your teenager may cling to slivers of self-confidence that instantly chafe at the tug of your questioning. In fact, any advice you offer, no matter how cautiously, may be interpreted as an absolute demolition of her character.
Even if you realize this is normal, you can still feel discarded, rejected or abandoned by your daughter. In a somewhat wistful manner, the mother of a seventeen-year-old described her daughter as “kind of a boarder in my home. She sleeps here and eats here and that’s about it.” Bette, the fifty-one-year-old mother of a high school junior, put it perhaps most poignantly: “I anticipated losing my daughter when she went to college. She hasn’t moved out yet, but she certainly has moved on.”
An Evolving Mother-Daughter Relationship
So just what are you supposed to do? Of course, one of your main roles is to guide your daughter along the many pathways to becoming a young woman. You see it as your responsibility to step in when she faces hardship and trouble. It goes without saying that you would desperately like to keep her from becoming a teen in turmoil. But it is hard to know how to accomplish these and all your other goals, especially when your adolescent daughter seems to resist and resent your assistance.
Frustrated and discouraged, some mothers simply become resigned to their daughters’ “doing whatever they want.” Many conclude, in effect, that teenagers should take care of themselves because, “There’s nothing I can do, anyway.” It is not that these mothers are unloving or uncaring, but they withdraw from their daughters’ lives because they don’t know any other possible course. Perhaps it is agonizing helplessness that prompts some mothers’ unconscious parenting philosophy: “If I don’t see any problems, I don’t have to deal with them” and its associated wish, “and then they will go away.” Yet clinical experience proves over and again that this disconnection from mothers is the very last thing teenage girls need.
That is why I wanted to write this book: to offer an alternative approach that can help you to remain closely connected to your daughter while parenting her effectively through the adolescent years. This will require that your relationship with her evolve according to her age, skills, and needs. Essentially, you and your daughter will become a team—not as equal partners, of course, but as a mother and a teenage girl who, working together, benefit from both of your perspectives, desires, and expertise. This collaborative way of interacting with your daughter, as you will see through-out the chapters ahead, is guided by your BRAIN—that is, by the principles of Being flexible, Respectful, Attuned, Involved, and Noncontrolling.
Whether your daughter is nearing puberty, in the throes of adolescence, or getting ready to leave home, this approach will enable you to strengthen your relationship as well as your effectiveness as a mother. Of course you already have ideas about how your daughter is managing her life and assumptions about how you can help her to adjust well to adolescence. But as you read this book, these assessments may well change, especially as you become more aware of your own role in this relationship. Thus rather than jumping to conclusions or reacting automatically, you might want to consider these new rules for mothering.
Being Flexible and Attuned to your daughter, for example, helps you to adapt more precisely to her growing maturity and changing needs. You will learn to pay attention to your daughter’s cues to decide when to pursue an issue, when to dig deeper, and when to let go. You will figure out more adeptly when to change a rule, make an exception, or stick to “Absolutely not!” When you are Respectful of your daughter’s individuality, you can best convey your ideas about healthy relationships, solving interpersonal problems, and learning from mistakes.
Above all, this approach guides you to remain appropriately Involved, yet Noncontrolling. This delicate balance is key to successfully parenting a teenage girl. Being noncontrolling requires you to recognize that you cannot know everything about your daughter, make her decisions, or prevent her mistakes. Instead, you will learn to gauge when she is ready for the next step and support her age-appropriate autonomy. That way your daughter will get opportunities to practice thinking clearly, making smarter choices, and becoming more responsible for her own behavior. At the same time, however, it is equally crucial to stay involved with your daughter. When you monitor what is going on in her life, you can step in correctly when she oversteps a boundary, rushes ahead too quickly, or needs different limits. Remaining involved yet noncontrolling allows you to intervene appropriately and to prevent future problems.
Throughout these pages you will learn to use everyday situations as springboards for fundamental discussions about, say, expectations in friendship, limit setting, and personal values. The voices of real teenage girls will advise you about which of their mothers’ approaches seem to work and, conversely, those they perceive as intrusive, condescending, or simply ridiculous. These tips will help you to communicate in ways that counteract the harmful cultural messages your daughter gets about self-esteem, romantic relationships, and sexuality.
In addition, to supplement what your daughter may or may not disclose, you will learn from other girls about the perils and pleasures of teenagers’ social lives. As you read poignant accounts of the emotional roller coaster of the typical adolescent—the confusion, pain, elation, insecurity, enthusiasm, loneliness, self-consciousness, and discomfort—you will find yourself more attuned to your own daughter’s feelings. As you are reminded of the devotion to friends and desperation to be cool that often guide teenagers’ decisions, you will better understand your daughter’s motivations. As you learn how these girls struggle and progressively learn to navigate their social world, you may become more sanguine about your own daughter’s ability to do so.
Before you get into the nitty-gritty, however, I would like to share five basic premises that prove reassuring to other mothers raising teenage girls:
1. There Are No Perfect Kids—or Mothers
Of course at least on some level, everybody knows there are neither perfect daughters nor perfect mothers. As Minna, forty-five, says, “It wasn’t until my daughter had graduated from high school that my bubble was burst. I looked in her yearbook and was absolutely shocked at what her friends had written. The profanity! The sexual innuendoes! I realized then that I had known only a fraction of what they really did!”
Mothering is not only hard, but humbling.
Fortunately, whatever I failed to learn in graduate school or in nearly a quarter century of clinical practice, I was taught by my own two teenagers, who have been most eager to correct my deficiencies. A tendency to point out ideal peers was but one. When my son was in middle school, for example, I remember commenting that his friend had been a pleasure to have as a weekend guest because he was always so calm, had good manners, and used a respectful tone of voice. Without skipping a beat, my son replied, “You should know, Mom, that’s because he wasn’t home.”
In addition, your child-rearing solutions are neither perfect nor permanent because your daughter’s social situations are in perpetual flux, your understanding is improving, and she is continuously maturing and changing. What this means, however, is that a parenting strategy that worked like a charm yesterday will fail miserably today. And by next week, you could well be chastising yourself, “Whatever could I have been thinking?” Therefore it is best to take mothering your teenage daughter one day and one situation or problem at a time. Now is the time to be flexible and creative.
3. Parents Can—and Do—Make a Difference
Research corroborates that parents are a critical source of information teenagers get about the world, especially about close, committed relationships, values, sound decision making, and consequences of one’s actions. For example, The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the largest and most comprehensive study of American teenagers, found that feeling close to parents was one of the strongest deterrents to risky behaviors such as early sexual activity, substance use, and violence. According to a recent CBS poll, when one thousand girls aged thirteen to seventeen were asked whom they most admired, 40 percent said Mom. The Roper Youth Report found that the majority of adolescents cited parents as their number one influence—over friends, teachers, TV, and advertising—on issues such as drinking, decision making, and long-term planning.
4. Have Faith in the Learning Process
I learned this purely by accident. For many years I had been concerned about one of my daughter’s camp friends, who seemed particularly moody, remote, and self-deprecating. Fortunately, it was not until much later that I learned more about Tanya’s problems. Had I known when the girls were younger about her tendency to binge when drinking, I would have worried more about Tanya’s influence on my daughter and probably tried (undoubtedly without success) to discourage their association. What happened, instead, was far preferable.
Although for years my daughter maintained her friendship with Tanya out of loyalty and concern, she learned how to take better care of herself whenever they were together. Gradually, she distanced herself from Tanya. More important, perhaps, her own attitudes and decisions about drinking were apparently shaped, at least in part, by her observations of Tanya’s sloppy and nasty behavior when drunk; essentially, she had learned from this friend what she did not want to do. My staying out of that process, however inadvertent, was a blessing.
When my daughter started middle school, she suddenly began to protect not only her privacy, but also her entire territory, with a vengeance. Whenever I entered her bedroom, she went into a flurry, hastily closing her journal and stashing papers out of sight. Sometimes I felt like an intruder! In fact, I still recall a nearly visceral reaction, as if I were being forcibly evicted not just from her room, but also from her life. I longed to know her secrets, to touch the items most important to her, if only to stay in close touch with my daughter and her world. Several years later, however, I was shocked to discover equally abruptly that this situation had undergone a 180-degree turnaround.
In her rush to pack up and leave for a trip during her last summer of high school, my daughter’s room was in unusual disarray. When I offered to straighten it in her absence, I was surprised not only that she didn’t hesitate, but also that she was grateful! A few days later, eager for the project, I stood in the doorway of my daughter’s room and thought, “Okay, where should I start?” However, I couldn’t move.
I was immediately struck by the oddest sensation of discomfort: It was not my little girl’s room anymore. In fact, I was conscious of feeling as awkward as if I were about to rifle through the possessions of another adult, perhaps some woman with whom I was sharing a home. It occurred to me that my daughter’s maturation, my own growth, as well as the myriad changes our relationship had undergone during these years, had all contributed to this unexpected state of affairs. I left the room and closed the door behind me to await her return.
The road ahead with your own daughter may well seem confusing or overwhelming at times. But as you progress through this book, your insights will help you to build and maintain a trusting relationship, to encourage your daughter to develop a strong sense of self, and to enable both of you to tackle daily problems and crises that come your way. The first step, however, is actually to take a step back. Now that she is a teenager, it behooves you to reexamine and readjust, if necessary, your basic approach to parenting your daughter. The next chapter will lead the way.