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10 Rules for Living With a Teenage Daughter

Ten goals to strive for when raising a teen daughter.

Key points

  • A teenage girl's eye rolls are a sign that she is beginning to judge and think for herself.
  • Parents who buy their kids beer or lie for them might feel cool in the moment, but they are undermining their role as parents.
  • It's important to help teen girls think critically about the unrealistic images presented by models and movie stars.

As a mom to daughters ages 13, 15, and 23, I’ve made many mistakes and will no doubt make more. In my yearning to maintain an emotional connection with them while encouraging independence, I’ve conferred with friends and family and read many books. (One of my favorites is Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour.) All girls are different, but regardless of their personality and circumstances, our teenage daughters contend with a barrage of challenges including surging hormones, mixed messages, and social pressures. I’m still trying to do better by my daughters, but here are 10 goals all parents of teen girls can try to reach. They’re challenging to meet, yet rewarding to achieve. Teenage girls have a way of disrupting our well-intentioned rational behavior, so forgive yourself for slipping, and then reset your efforts.

1. Learn to ignore the eye roll.

Let’s start with this very basic teenage girl response, which can make any parent’s blood boil. They all do it. Don’t give them the power by overreacting to this almost instinctual teenage tic. Shake it off, but feel free to bring it up later when things have calmed down: “When you roll your eyes at me, it makes it hard to have a mature conversation with you,” you might say. Try to focus on the fact that eye rolls are a sign that your daughter is beginning to judge and think for herself. It’s annoying, but it’s also developmentally appropriate, and she’ll eventually grow out of it.

2. Don’t confuse sexy with sexual.

All three of my daughters have shocked me with skimpy outfits; depending on the occasion, I’ve either had them change or held my Puritan tongue. When they put on very short shorts or revealing tops, I cringe at the message they’re sending. But the truth is, they aren’t trying to invite the male gaze. Instead, they’re trying on what they believe is a more womanly appearance. Parents have to decide what they are comfortable with, but it’s useful to remember that dressing sexy is not about wanting sex. Of course, it’s important to discuss the societal messages inherent in their self-presentation, but not in the heat of the moment. Choose a calm, connected moment to explain that dressing like the Kardashians shouldn’t be equated with adulthood.

3. Go beyond the birds and the bees.

Because talking about sex is awkward, parents tend to get “the talk” out of the way and hope for the best. But that doesn’t cut it. In her book Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein explains that while girls expect equality in the classroom and on the playing field, they’re still being pressured to engage in sexual activity that is too often sexist and demeaning. Our daughters deserve more dialogue before finding themselves in situations where they’re being pushed into sexual behavior. For example, what should they do or say if kissing turns into unwanted touching? Too many girls go along with sexual advances that make them feel ashamed or distressed. As parents, we need to demystify the pressures that they’ll inevitably face.

4. Tolerate their self-absorption.

Teens are egomaniacs. It’s developmentally normal for them to focus on their problems and their desires. Don’t expect them to notice that you might be having a hard day, or that their request for expensive shoes is unreasonable. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t discuss empathy or frugality, but don’t be surprised at how selfish they can be. Remind yourself that it’s normal and temporary.

5. Use caution when discussing their friends.

During the teen years, girls shift their focus from family to their tribe of friends — and this tribe might be doing things you don’t approve of. However, as tempting as it is to say something negative about a girl who is being mean to your daughter or pressuring her to engage in negative behaviors, use caution. If she shares this with you, try not to overreact or disparage the friend. Take a breath, and be happy that she’s opening up to you. Discuss the problem calmly to assess its severity. Is your daughter unloading, or is she asking for your assistance? If you withhold judgment and criticism, the two of you are more likely to forge a plan when this happens again. You don’t want your daughter to regret coming to you, shut down, or shut you out completely.

6. Call out bad behavior.

Teenage girls can be rude, obnoxious, and cruel. They know how to say things that hurt and push your buttons. Instead of getting into an argument or allowing your daughter to escalate the situation, just say, “You aren’t allowed to speak to me like that. Let’s talk about this another time.” Or consider a small punishment — I usually take away their phone for a day if they mistreat me. It’s important for them to learn that bad behavior has ramifications. It’s even more important for you to stay calm and remember that your teen is a sea of raging hormones. Don’t hold it against them or give them the silent treatment. Negotiation and conversation are always better than scare tactics, hysteria, and ultimatums.

7. Be the grown-up.

Being a teenager is confusing and demanding, and presents a minefield of tricky decisions. Your daughter will seem very mature one day and then silly and giggly the next. But as much as we want to connect, we don’t want to be their buddy. Teens need us to be their moral compass and to be in charge. When they know our rules — even when they break them — they feel safe. Make them feel safe by being consistent and compassionate, authoritative not authoritarian. Parents who buy their kids beer or lie for them might feel cool in the moment, but they are undermining their role as parents. Teens, like all children, need to be parented.

8. Let them learn from small failures.

It’s no fun to watch any child struggle, but often parents are even more protective of their daughters. But a big part of building a sense of self-worth and resiliency is the ability to bounce back from a setback. Don’t bail your daughter out of a science project she procrastinated about or write a note to her teacher if she didn’t do her homework. Allow your daughter to learn from the difficult situation and realize that the world doesn’t come to an end if she screws up. Facing consequences and overcoming challenges is part of becoming a resilient adult. Too many teens lack the fortitude to make it in college because of parental intervention. Be there for support, but don’t rescue your daughter from important small failures.

9. Help your daughter become critical.

Social media, television, and magazines are selling our daughters a distorted view of women. Take time to help your daughter think critically about the unrealistic images they’re presented of models and movie stars. Teach her about all the effort that goes into making women in the media look perfect, such as airbrushing and plastic surgery. I also like to point out that there are industries that profit if she feels less attractive. A healthy dose of critical thinking will go far toward preserving her self-worth and promoting confidence in who she is, not who she thinks she should be.

10. Own up to your own bad behavior.

Only a saint can parent a teen without having a few moments she’s ashamed of. If you’ve resorted to shouting, shaming, or throwing your power around, you’re not alone. But you need to acknowledge your bad behavior and move forward. Take ownership by apologizing. An apology will go far in terms of role modeling and building connection. Show your daughter that being an adult doesn’t mean being perfect, but it does mean admitting to your mistakes and making amends.

Enjoy the wonderful times with your daughter, and remember that even in the tough moments, you’re helping her become a confident woman whose company you will enjoy for many years to come.

More from Marika Lindholm Ph.D.
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