My central area of interest in the field of psychology has long been conflict and conflict resolution—as you can see from the title of this blog Resolution, Not Conflict. Colleen O’Grady, MA, author of Dial Down the Drama: Reducing Conflict and Reconnecting with Your Teenage Daughter has published a new book on parenting teenage daughters. Given my interest in conflict, the book's title caught my attention. Colleen and I began to dialogue, resulting in this co-authored post.
Note that though the post refers for simplicity sake to "her," the information pertains to both boys and girls.
You prayed for a child, but now that she is a teen, are there times you’d like to give her back? What happened? She was once your constant companion and now all you get is one-word answers, a shrug, the infamous eye roll, and a lot of drama.
Here’s the good news: you don’t have to let drama define the teenage years, and you can have a rewarding relationship with your teenage daughter.
Then why is raising a teenager often so difficult?
Dr. Heitler’s view
In the teenage years your daughter’s job is to become an independent adult, or something close to that in any case. That means that more and more of the decisions you used to make now are hers to decide.
In addition, the two of you now increasingly need skills for collaborative dialogue and shared decision-making. Without those skills in your quiver, Mom, you are in for trouble ahead.
Lastly, has your daughter learned that anger is a stop sign? If not, beware. She may choose drama as her preferred style of mother-daughter decision-making. So as soon as she begins to leave the zone of collaborative interacting and becomes instead combative, exit the dialogue.
Dr. Heitler's How-to's
To set a collaborative tone, resist the urge to lecture. Instead, begin discussions with about sensitive issues by asking your daughter what her thoughts are on the matter.
What was she thinking when she took the car without your permission? What was she thinking when she stayed out past her curfew? Understanding her concerns, what was on her mind, enables you to see her actions from her point of view. Listen first is a good rule of thumb.
Whatever you hear, validate what makes sense about her concerns. You don’t need to agree with her actions, but do validate her concerns.
The more that you ask questions, genuinely aiming to understand your daughter's persepective, and also the more that you respond by agreeing with her concerns, the more open your daughter later will be to hearing your thoughts and concerns. Establish a habit of talking together like adults.
Tough discussions flow most smoothly within an overall atmosphere of affection. Keep your goodwill tank full by making sure to share good times with your daughter, Appreciate her. Laugh with her. Exit when she escalates anger. Return when she is ready to talk collaboratively again. Enjoy her companionship.
Colleen O’Grady’s view
Though I’d been a marriage and family therapist for years, about the time when my daughter turned eleven, I was shocked at how easy it was for me to “lose it” Not wanting to engage in daily battles with her, I discovered three essential elements for dialing down the drama. The result has been that together my daughter and I gradually built an authentic, enjoyable and respectful relationship.
Dial Down the Drama
A positive connection does not necessarily happen spontaneously. What comes “naturally” can be drama. Still, you can enjoy the teenage years provided that you parent intentionally, with the right information, and with a proactive parenting strategy. The following three habits are likely to be especially key.
1. It’s not personal.
To stay in adult-to-adult mode when you talk with your daughter, beware of taking personally her flare-ups. To dial down the drama, keep in mind “How is she thinking?” as well as “What is she thinking?”
When your daughter lashes out at you it can feel personal, but there’s something else going on. Your daughter is hard-wired for drama.
Have you ever had a “what were you thinking!” moment with your daughter? The time she decided to take your car on a road trip with three dollars in her pocket? The time she came home two hours past curfew? These kinds of actions start to make sense when you understand the major reconstruction that is going on in her teenage brain.
Bottom line, in the preteen and early teenage years, the higher part of your daughter's brain (the cortex)--the part that is responsible for planning ahead, managing emotions, empathy, self-awareness, and understanding cause and effect--is undeveloped. By contrast, the limbic system and the lower parts of the brain (also known as the reactive brain or reptilian brain) are fully developed. These parts generally are running the show. The result is that your daughter frequently operates in primitive patterns of fight, flight and freeze with only minimal input from higher-order thinking capacity.
Remind yourself therefore that her drama is not about you. It’s about a biological quickness to flare that will eventually be tamed as her brain matures.
Your daughter's concerns may include some about you, but the intensity of her emotional expression is likely to be more about her brain’s still-underdeveloped functioning than about you.
2. Timing is everything.
When your daughter goes into full-fledged drama (emotionally flooded), she is in automatic reaction mode. She can’t take in what you are saying because her thinking brain is not processing information. Needless to say, attempting to talk with her while she is angry is a poor choice. Trying to talk then will most likely lead only to more drama.
That’s because her thinking brain, the cortex that is still somewhat underdeveloped, goes completely off-line once she becomes emotional. While that’s true for everyone, it’s most likely true for teenagers whose higher brain parts have not yet fully taken charge.
The ideal time to talk is when both of you are calm. Instead of allowing yourself to get pulled into a discussion when she, or either of you, is angry, say very nicely, “I’d like to talk later, when both of us are in calm mode.” Then remove yourself from the situation. “I need to grocery shop. See you in a bit.”
When your daughter is calm she is better able to process what you say. She is more able to modify her ideas and rethink her actions. She may even want your input. Because her prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed, she needs you to step in and be the brakes when she is about to drive her life off a cliff, and she may realize this reality. You can help her later to connect the dots and see the cause and effect of her actions.
3. It’s not selfish.
Taking care of yourself is crucial.
Nurturing and guiding a teenage daughter, not to mention juggling these roles along with your work, home, spousal, other children, etc. responsibilities, takes significant energy. Beware of ending up exhausted, frustrated, worried and resentful lest you yourself end up becoming a Drama Mama.
Add in insufficient sleep and your risks go up even higher. When you are energetically running on empty, it’s easy to flare up when your buttons feel pushed, landing you in the drama dance with your daughter.
Paying attention to your personal needs gives you the clarity and energy needed to parent from your healthy self. Taking care of yourself is more than getting a manicure. It’s being attentive to your physical needs like rest and nutrition. It’s being careful to keep your adult-to-adult relationships strong, particularly in your love life. It’s making a priority of replenishing your cup so that you feel like your best self.
Here’s the good news!
When you dial down the drama, there’s a huge upside to the teenage years. Your daughter can remind you to live life to the fullest, put yourself out there, try new activities, think creatively, laugh and play hard.
Colleen O’Grady, MA., is a private practice licensed marriage and family therapist in Houston. She is the author of Dial Down the Drama: Reducing Conflict and Reconnecting with Your Teenage Daughter---A Guide for Mothers Everywhere. Connect with Colleen at www.colleenogrady.com.
Clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD is author of the website for learning the skills for marriage success, poweroftwomarriage.com. Her most recent book,available now on Amazon and soon in bookstores as well, is Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More.