Are you the cool mom? The mom who is young in attitude, spirit, and dress? Can you be mistaken for your teenager’s sister? Have you succumbed to the allure of Forever 21 or are you striving to win points in your teen’s eyes?
Well, here’s the thing. Despite well-intentioned efforts to keep up with the times, many a daughter still sees her mom as irrelevant. Being young at heart, it seems, does not bridge the generation gap. There are countless articles and books bemoaning the divide between mother and teen and the fact that daughters refuse to confide in or share their lives with their parent.
Though I would venture to bet that a daughter whose mom is “with it” is the envy of many of her peers – particularly those whose mothers’ shouts of You’re not wearing that! still rings in their ears – it just may not be enough. It would seem that much as daughters may appreciate a mom they can be proud of (shouldn’t it be the other way around?), appreciation does not communication make.
Adding insult to injury, society fuels the myth that it is normal for teens to want nothing to do with their parents – hence the lack of eye contact, preference for peers, and poor communication. Yet, in my experience, most teens do have a profound need to be seen and understood by their families.
So what gets in the way of a close relationship? Well, one pattern I’ve observed is that some mothers approach their teens with interactions that trigger their teen’s instincts to retreat rather than come near. As parents, we unknowingly send messages to our kids about whether we can or cannot hear what our daughter needs to say.
Basically, for a teen to feel close to her mom – and trust her – she needs to be sure that she can risk expressing her feelings and perceptions without being discounted for them. However, a teen may refuse to confide in a parent if, when she has done so in the past, her parent reacted with unwanted lectures, advice, or criticism. In a sense, we teach our kids that it is not okay to tell us their truth – so they give up trying and shut down.
Rachel, quiet and subdued, asks her mom if they could talk a bit. With lots of fits and starts, Rachel tells her mom that the Queen Bee of the freshman class had declared that Rachel’s best friend, Liat, is not allowed to sit at the group’s lunch table. Though sick about her friend’s rejection, Rachel did not have the courage to protest and just went along with the crowd.
Mom is clearly horrified by this tale and overreacts. “I brought you up to be better than this, Rachel!” she says in a very firm voice. “You need to go fix this; Liat has been your friend since first grade.”
Rachel doesn’t need her mother to tell her this. She knows this already – that’s why she feels sick. She needs her mom to be there for her, to listen and understand how hard peer pressure can be. Instead, she gets judgment and advice. After a few similar interactions, Rachel finally gets the score: Don’t expect Mom to get it. Better to fly under the radar and escape criticism. It’s easier to take care of stuff myself than have to deal with my issues and Mom’s reaction as well.
If you’d like to gain your teenager’s trust and confidence, here’s the secret: just listen. Parents need to spend a lot of time not talking. Listening means paying close attention – with no distractions. It requires eye contact and avoiding interruptions. It’s about the willingness to invest time – not about knowing the “answer.” And, often by just talking things out, a teen may clarify her issues and come to some resolution on her own.
It is often hard for us to listen because we are afraid of what we will hear. We are conflicted – we want to know, but aren’t really ready for what they have to say. But developing both the mindset and the ability to really listen is the first step in building a warm and solid relationship with our children.
Dr. Sara Teichman maintains a private practice in Los Angeles, California, where she sees individuals, couples, and families. She is the author of a bi-weekly parenting column, “Child in Mind – Ask Dr. T,” in Binah magazine. Dr T. also gives lectures on parenting and a variety of clinical issues in person and by teleconference all around the United States. Dr. Teichman can be reached via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.