Birth, Babies, and Beyond

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting

Girl Talk

What works & what doesn't when talking to your teenage daughter

When it comes to dealing with teen issues, my default function is this: I use clichéd one-liners for general issues, such as sex, drugs, and self-esteem. And if I don’t want to deal with something, if I just don’t want to spark another long drawn-out tearful argument, I kind of avoid the subject or rationalize that kids will work things out on their own. Sometimes that really is the right approach. Sometimes I’m not so sure.

Just a few weeks ago, I got third-hand information from a semi-reliable source that one of my girls may not be behaving as nicely and inclusively as she should. My first inclination was to do nothing. The second idea was to get her older sister to talk to her. In the meantime, though, I searched the web for advice.

Seemed that no matter what I typed, it generated words of wisdom about fortifying your innocent victim against all those mean girls. Are we really a nation (or at least a cyberspace) of innocent victims? Does that mean that no one wants offer advice to the powerful girls?

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I confronted my daughter close to midnight one Friday night, after we were both exhausted from a hectic week. Yes, I realized moments after my words started spewing, that it’s hard to imagine a worse time to have mother-daughter talk. Needless to say, she acted like an angry 13-year-old girl. And so did I.

So then I decided it was time to talk to some real experts and perhaps, I thought, that you may want to learn some belated parenting advice along with me:

My first big mistake, according to Dr. Sharon Lamb, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts, was thinking in those outdated terms: mean girl versus victim. “I think there is a backlash in the field and people are saying not to use those words,” because we are all victims sometimes and mean other times and really it’s just about teenagers (girls and boys) learning to deal with each other.”

There is nothing wrong with being a strong leader, but it’s about learning empathy without cramping your style, said Dr. Lamb, who is also the author of Sex Ed for Caring Schools. It’s important to let teenagers work things out on their own—particularly when you aren’t around to see what is going on first hand—but it’s also a good idea to check in with them every now and then just to talk about how you and she think the media and society forces girls to conform to a certain image and how you and she will behave despite these pressures.

What she told me, which certainly would have spared a few tears, was that you don’t have to talk specifics (which can sound like an accusation) but speak in general terms about values and friendship.

Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler added that most of the time we aren’t talking all-out bullying or even outright nastiness, it’s “all this insidious stuff, it flies under the radar of adults and much more difficult to eradicate.” Sandler, whose most recent book is Easing Their Stress: Helping Our Girls Thrive in the Age of Pressure, said one of the issues dealing with strong girls is that all too often “mothers equate power and popularity and I believe that—and parents would be loathe to admit this—but a lot of mothers condone or tacitly encourage their daughters to adopt this persona because they equate it with popularity, the opposite of being the shy, left-out, wallflower. They would rather have a girl who is the bully or the nasty girl.”

Cohen-Sandler offered a few simple steps:

1. Empathize with your child. Talk not as a judge but as a sympathetic listener.

2. Do not give advice. While this may sound counter-intuitive, it makes sense. What kind of teenager ever said, “Gee, I’m feeling stressed, please Mom, provide me with some words of wisdom so I can navigate this situation.”

3. Ask questions and let her elicit her own ways that she likes to deal with things.

Allow yourself and your daughter to take a breath and stop and think about what you are each saying. What is her goal? What is yours? As any mother knows, chances are that anything you say is likely to elicit a snarky response, but your point of view is sinking in, Cohen-Sandler reassured  me. I'm thinking if I follow this three-step process, next time around, I can spare my daughter some tears and I just may act more like that adult that I’m supposed to be.

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

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