As a parent, you may be wondering how you can help you fragile adolescent daughter to navigate the extremely rough waters of adolescence. You may be the type of parent who feels their child’s pain so intently that you wish you could go up to the school and give those mean girls a piece of your mind. Or, you may be the type of parent who thinks the drama filled relationships are a waste of your daughter’s time and efforts and thinks they need to be worried about more important things like school and impending college applications. But either way, you probably don’t feel like you are equipped with the tools to deal with the fall out that you see each time your daughter comes home from school wounded by the day’s traumas and dramas with friends.
What I have found in my work with adolescent girls in middle school is that as adults, we often forget what it was like to be an adolescent trying to survive the trials and tribulations of the adolescent social world. With age we have had the opportunity to learn many things about ourselves and about relationships. We have learned and reflected on our many years of experiences and have realized the mistakes we made growing up. More or less, we feel that we have really mastered the art of navigating our social world. Although I often find that as adults we too probably experience the challenges of gaining and maintaining friendships and social status. The process may be a bit more mature and dressed up, but even adult social circles can be stressful and drama-filled. So, when our daughters come to us exasperated by what Sally said about them in school or how Jocelyn used to be her friend but now she is hanging around the “popular girls,” we often respond with statements like “just ignore them, no one will care about it tomorrow,” or “focus on your school work because that is what is important.” And, truth be told, in our wisdom, much of the advice we give is very accurate. In adolescence, much of what is breaking news one day is old news the very next day. And, grades and future goals are very important and often more important than Joe and Courtney’s explosive breakup. But often our well intentioned simple solutions don’t adequately validate our daughter’s experiences and she often walks away feeling a lack of support and understanding.
So, as a parent, what do you do when your daughter says that “her life is over because Tommy broke up with her and now no one will like her ever again?” How do you support and validate her worries and feelings while helping her learn how to make it through school as unscathed as possible? Here are some tips that I often give parents:
1. Listen. Give your daughter some time each day after school to vent about all the dramas from the day. Often, you are the only person that they can truly share these stories and opinions with. Because, as you may remember, nothing is safe in the girl world and everything can be misinterpreted and shared with others. Sometimes you may feel that the stories are hard to follow or seem silly or have no point. Just listen. Use this time as an opportunity to learn about your daughter, her friends, and what her world is like. Often parents under value this time and miss a chance to bond with their daughter and gain insight into her life.
2. Don’t judge or criticize. Listen with an open mind. Girls feel judged enough each and every day at school between teachers and peers. Be the person that they feel will love them no matter what.
3. Validate and empathize. Often girls just want to vent about all the events experienced during the day. They may not have an outlet at school and have been holding it all in until they get home and want to share with someone. Most of the time they are not looking for advice but rather someone to validate the struggles and feelings they are having. So, sometimes we need to turn off our parental instinct to fix or help them fix the problems. Key statements like, “that must have been hard,” and “it must have frustrated you when Julie would not talk to you” can go a long way to helping your daughter feel heard and validated.
4. Give advice when warranted. What I often see is that every parent wants to teach their daughters the lessons that took them years after school to figure out. They want them to learn early so they don’t have to experience the pain that they felt in middle or high school. But often in our attempt to give advice, we lecture. And, if there is one thing I have learned that adolescents will fight against, it is a lecture. As parents you may feel you are giving them the key to happiness, but all they hear is you telling them how to feel and what to do. So what I recommend to parents is after you have listened to your daughter, ask her what she has tried to do to handle the situation. Brainstorm with her and see how her solution has worked. You can also ask her if she could use some thoughts on how you might handle the situation. Sometimes in order to give advice we also need to be subtle and strategic. Empathize with their experience and share a time when you went through something similar. Then, share how you handled it. Sometimes it is OK to share a time when how you handled something didn’t go so well or backfired. I find that kids really like to hear about their parents’ experiences growing up and often like to hear that their parents made mistakes too and don’t know it all.
5. Be a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes your daughter may just need to let out all of her feelings. Just being a shoulder to cry on can fulfill your daughter’s needs. If she doesn’t want to talk about it, don’t take it personally. Allow her the space to process her feelings and the situation any way she needs.
To review, here are five tips to helping your daughter navigate adolescents:
2. Don’t judge
4. Give advice when warranted
5. Be a shoulder to cry on.
Now that you know some insider tips on how to help your daughter, watch your relationship grow and strengthen and your daughter’s self esteem rise.
Kate Alcamo is a licensed marriage and family therapist, middle school counselor and associate at Laurel Fay & Associates in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland.