An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
I have a daughter who I am watching become a teen, daily, before my eyes. And let’s be clear, she is very much only a tween. On top of the attitude and mood swings, the child who never wanted anything, ever, is now full of needs and desire for things she swore she never would crave — fashionable clothing, a phone, her own room.
Honestly, I support most of it. We discuss the deeper needs, creative solutions, possible outcomes. We let the desire marinate and develop. With my daughter, the longer a desire marinates, the more specific her vision becomes, and the greater the eventual disappointment when confronted with limitations of reality, even with conversations all along the way. I guess what it looks like is a lot of tears and a lot of disappointment.
Are we helping to form boundaries and expectations for this next phase of her life, or is this going to go on and on? How can we set healthy boundaries and expectations for the oldest of three as she explores her self and identity? How do we help her stay close to her Self? I feel terribly underprepared for this phase of parenting.
I hear you, Mama. Staring down the teen years as a parent, particularly for the first time, can feel like standing at the top of a Black Diamond ski slope and realizing you’ve never been on skis. It is like living one of those perennial anxiety dreams about giving a presentation and realizing that you are absolutely naked.
Anyone who thinks they’ve got it all figured out is on the fast road to disaster and that crash is going to be U-G-L-Y. Me? I’m just trying to get us all through this alive and relatively unscathed.
With my oldest child every new, significant phase in his life has felt daunting, honestly. I stopped thanking him for being my practice kid a couple of years ago only because he got irritated with the reminder over and over again that I was breaking in my parenting skills on his dime. I’m still incredibly grateful that he chose me, even though I very rarely have any idea what I’m doing, but I’m learning, slowly but surely, how to make our life together less and less about me. This usually means listening more, and talking less.
This is not how I was raised, by any stretch of the imagination. I was the youngest of three, and my job as I understood it, because everyone in a family system has an assigned role to make the machine go, was to not step out of line. As long as I redeemed my parents ideas of what children were supposed to do and be — obedient, accomplished, never angry, defiant, willful or wanton, ideas to which my siblings had given the middle finger from the get go, then they were happy. It would never have occurred to them to ask who I was drawn to becoming, or how I thought I might best do that.
On the surface we got along great; there was very little drama. I did my job like a champ. But, in actuality, I didn’t trust them with the truth of me and wanted to get far away from home as soon as possible. I didn’t trust myself, either, for more than 40 years. My mother and I are finally forging a relationship of honesty and mutual respect in the last handful of years; I’m nearly fifty.
That’s not what I want for my kids or our relationship, but there aren’t a lot of direct models in my own life for how to do things differently. So, I wing it and pray a lot.
Also, I hate to break it to you, but now my next two are twelve and thirteen, and I don’t often know what the hell I’m doing with them either. They went and became totally different people from my oldest, damn them, so there’s a whole new set of issues to be negotiated, personalities to be accommodated. Some things are easier the next time around, but only because I’ve gotten used to making it up as I go along.
I will say, however, that there are some things that have proven true for us so far. I hope they will be of use to you parenting your girl, and the next two coming up fast behind her.
- Most of the essential things that you want your girl to know you’ve already taught her, in a thousand different ways. She knows she is loved. She knows how to share, and how to care for other people. She knows the necessity of hard work and cooperation. She knows that when you fall down, more often than not you can just get back up. She knows that sometimes you fall down and need a hand up, but that a hand will be there. She knows that what is really important in this world is family and community, not stuff. She knows how to eat and move her body for health. She knows that we don’t always get what we want and it doesn’t kill us, even if it does make us horribly, dramatically sad.
- You will continue to teach her these things implicitly in the way you live your own life. Even when it looks like she is ignoring some, or all, of these lessons, she is still watching how you embody them. Focus on modeling the kind of person you hope she will be, and trust that she is that at her core, no matter what is happening on the surface.
- Remember that it is her job right now to reject many aspects of the life you have offered her as a first step in coming into her own power. Teen years are like a repeat of the toddler years, just with bigger bodies. They have to wade through a lot of no’s until they figure out what their yeses are going to be. Don’t take it personally. Someone needs to maintain the longer view that it’s not actually about you, and it likely won’t be her.
- Yes, you can absolutely set some expectations and boundaries for her, but be prepared to explain what the main motivations are for you. Is it safety? Is it health? Is it fulfilling commitments? Honesty? Be open to explaining what you’re going for, and involve her in a conversation about how to achieve those goals. If she suggests a tweak to a rule that still achieves the same result, but in a way that gives her a little more breathing room or a sense of control over her life, let her have it. If there are non-negotiables for you, be very, very clear with yourself and her about why. Reducing the number of hills you are willing to die on makes for less of a war.
- Middle school is truly an absolute nightmare for everyone I have ever liked as an adult. Even the people who looked, at the time, like they were living their best life in the midst of that Lord of the Flies hormone storm were, it turns out, completely miserable. Some days you just have to remind yourself, and her, that it is a very small number of years in the grand scheme of life and you will all survive. One of the developmental capacities that she doesn’t yet have is the ability to know that today is not forever, so you have to hold that truth for her.
- Always remember that she isn’t an extension of you, but her own particular mystery of a person. She will not always make the choices you would make. She won’t always want the things that you want. She will not always make sense to you. That’s not her job. Her job, for her whole life, is to become her most full, authentic self. Your job is to provide a safe, loving container for her to do that at the beginning, and to cheer like hell until the end for whoever she is becoming.
- Be a safe place for her to be imperfect, to make mistakes, to not know what the hell she’s doing. Feeling shame over our imperfections is a fast road to very destructive choices. Being that safe space for her requires being that safe place for yourself. We can’t teach what we don’t know. We can’t offer what we do not have. Be transparent. Admit what you don’t know. Make apologies when necessary. Slowly but surely transition yourself into her partner and companion in learning, rather than her caretaker. Let her grow away.
Despite how horrible it feels in the moment, it’s also worth remembering that fighting with our parents is, in and of itself, an important learning experience for many of us. How else are we going to learn to stand up for ourselves without being petty, cruel, or destructive, except by trying and failing with the people who hopefully will stick with us from beginning to end?
Months, or even years, of conflict between parents and children is neither a sign that you are failing, nor of the potential for closeness later. One of my dearest friends was at war with her mother from age 11 until age 17. Forty years later, they talk every morning on the phone. They giggle together. Love for the long haul is like that sometimes.
It sounds like you are doing all the right things to help your girl navigate this incredibly challenging phase of her life. You’re loving her. You’re talking to her. You’re working to help her understand her needs. You’re keeping her loving company while she experiences disappointment, frustration, and every other emotion under the sun. With clear, consistent boundaries and a heavy dose of empathy, she will survive the mood swings and you will survive her attitude. Trust that you chose each other, even when it’s hard and confounding.
My oldest is seventeen, in his senior year in high school. He’s not done learning, but he’s fast approaching the end of the phase of his life where most of his learning is done with me. My goal at this point is to love him as hard as I can, but with an open enough hand that I get invited along on the ride once it’s not required that I be included anymore. Not everyone gets invited into our adulthood, in my experience. At this point, I think I’m invited. This is one of the greatest gifts of my life.
But before we got here we had to survive middle school together. I wasn’t always sure we would, but we did. You and your girl will, too. By the time you get to this point neither of you may be who you’re expecting now. We aren’t. I like who we are becoming together, though. We are raising each other well.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
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