A Practical Survival Guide
This article is about dealing with teenage girls because I survived two of them, and they are doing well in young adulthood, for the most part. I’m not certain how boys differ.
There were moments when I truly was not sure that we would all survive. My daughters are very different personalities, but certain methods held true with both.
Do not try to talk to your teenager! She doesn’t want to hear from you. This is the first rule that took me years to learn. Of course, we have to speak to our kids to give and receive information, but keep it short. Ask yourself first, “Is this really necessary?” We want to continue to talk to them as we always have, but they do not. They want space. From us.
I have often thought that the term ‘Teenager’ should be in the DSM-V as a mental illness. I would swear that during this period of time, our children are mentally ill: irrational, dramatic, volatile, moody, impulsive and engaging in risky behaviors. I put my daughters in therapy when they were young to help them cope with the divorce of their parents. I kept them in therapy to help us all survive their teenage years. The therapy helped a lot, especially for me. They are at an age where they are questioning authority, especially their parents’. Having someone they (at least in the beginning) perceive as an authority even higher than you, that YOU can tell on THEM to, gives you a bit more leverage for a short while.
All the popular parenting advice tells us, “Talk to your kids about drugs,” “Talk to your kids about sex.” My best suggestion is DON’T TALK to them. Talking only causes conflict and seizure-like facial expressions. Let them talk to you. Be available. Listen. Let them know you are listening by making eye contact, but look away quickly or you may hear, “Why are you LOOKING at me like that?”, and then it’s over. If you have ever seen a wildlife professional on TV approach a gorilla, you will notice they do not make eye contact to avoid being perceived as a threat and thereby attacked. Teenage girls are similar to the Highland Gorilla. You must keep eye contact minimal so they know you are hearing them, but do not feel threatened. Nod, smile and ask simple questions. Be cautious with the questions, however. Teenage girls do not want their parents invading their privacy and that is exactly how they will perceive too many questions.
As in the animal kingdom, there are ways of communicating with your teenager that do not involve speaking. Loving notes in a lunch bag or left on a pillow can be a great way to show support. They can read them when you, or others, are not around, thereby saving face. They are easily embarrassed.
On the flipside, a well-timed, cold stare can get a message across with no one else knowing. Your teen will possibly pretend she doesn’t see it either. Rest assured she does. These creatures communicate largely through body language and exaggerated facial expressions, but also enjoy Instagram and various video chats, just typically not with family members.
Sex and drugs are big, important topics during these years and usually they are the last thing your daughter will want to talk with YOU about. I chose two books that I felt mirrored my personal values on the topic of sex and left them in obvious places in the living room for my daughters to find and read at their leisure. One of these books was “A Child is Born”, by Lennart Nilsson. It’s a factual photographic journey from conception through birth with astonishing photos that fascinate kids of all ages. One daughter did have a couple of direct questions after looking through this book. I kept my answers brief and direct and avoided any wild gestures. The other book was specific for teen girls, on sex, dating and bodies. I noticed them passing the book back and forth, giggling and asking each other questions. In the book I wrote, “I’m here if you have questions.” Approaching this topic in this way leaves teens with the feeling they have found information they are not really supposed to have. This is a rewarding perk to a teen. I also began leaving condoms in their Christmas stockings when they were 15. They were stunned and appreciative. My only comment: “It’s most important that you be healthy and safe.”
Drugs and alcohol were a more challenging issue to manage. My daughters spent their younger years going to AA meetings with their father and I, since we were both in recovery. Initially, they were very much against drug use well into high school. One of them even won the DARE speech contest in school. But eventually, peer pressure won out. Both girls engaged in underage drinking and smoking Marijuana. This was a very stressful time for us, their parents. Our objections caused them to relegate us to the old and uninformed closet of their lives. When I told my youngest daughter that driving under the influence of marijuana was the same as driving drunk, she rolled her eyes and declared, “All of your information is from the eighties Mom. You don’t know anything anymore.” Confirmation Bias is impossible to argue with. They will believe what they choose to believe. The key seemed to be keeping them engaged in exhausting activities. Part-time jobs and yard work in exchange for privileges are engaging and tiring. Yoga on the weekends, lacrosse and theater after school also accomplished this, so time and energy for illicit activities was minimal.
At one point, when my girls were engaging in less than desirable behavior while I was still at work, I informed them that I had installed nanny cams around the house to keep an eye on them. A couple of accurate and easy guesses allowed me to inform them of things they had done while I was not home and convince them thoroughly that the cameras were real. (They were not) They were incredibly well-behaved for a few months while they searched for the cameras. The only exception was when they had a fit at the thought there was one in the bathroom. It was a worthwhile lie, much like Santa Clause.
As kids grow older its important to give them increasing, age-appropriate freedoms. When the bickering of sisters became pinching, pushing and constant yells of, “MOOOM! She’s touching my stuff!” I informed them that they no longer needed my interventions and should only call for me if there was bloodshed. Giving them space to work out disagreements was also very helpful. On one occasion that involved a good deal of running in the house, shrieking and throwing things, I told them I had the solution for them! They came immediately to attention where I stood at the back door. I opened the door and pushed them both outside and told them they could come back in when they settled the problem. I closed and locked the door. They stood staring in the window trying the knob in disbelief. Then they looked at each other and simultaneously called, “Truce!” and shook hands. I let them back in and enjoyed some quiet time.
Parenting is joyful, stressful, heart wrenching and heartwarming. The teenage years are a particularly wild adventure. I hope some of these suggestions can help you survive too.