Ginger, the mom I’m talking to, is upset and mystified. Fourteen-year-old Jessy has been acting up.
She talks back to her mom. She doesn’t do all of her chores and her bedroom floor is four feet deep in clothes. She is nasty to her younger sister. She told her mother to get out of her room and get out of her life.
Her mom wants me to fix her. She doesn’t yet understand that what needs fixing is their relationship.
Having talked to Jessy and ruled out drug use, mental illness, and a negative peer group, my conclusion is that she is an absolutely normal teenager. Her hormones are bouncing, it’s true. She admits that sometimes she cries for no reason and gets furious over little things. But she is reasonably happy most of the time.
Jessy does well in school, has a group of friends who are generally good to one another and has a normal level of interest in figuring out what boys are like. What she doesn’t like is how much her mom is still trying to be her friend. Yes, she loves her mom. No, she doesn’t want to hang out with her much and doesn’t like it when her mom tries to join in when her friends come over. She is beginning to do the normal separation that is part of growing up. She’s ready for it. Her mother is not.
I do understand why Ginger is upset. She grew up with a mother she describes as a cold fish. Her mom was hypercritical and rarely had a kind word to say to her.
She vowed that if she ever had a daughter, she would do it very differently. She wanted her daughter to know she was loved. She wanted to be involved in her life in a meaningful way. She wanted to erase what she thought was a forbidding and unnecessary chasm between the generations.
Ginger has succeeded admirably. Her daughter most certainly does feel loved and supported. What she doesn’t yet understand is that her daughter needs her mom to be a mom, not a peer, buddy or companion who is 20 years older than she is. It’s going to be an adjustment, but it’s essential to her daughter’s growth that she step back into being a loving authority figure.
Jessy needs a mother, not an ersatz friend. Mothers get to make rules, provide good structure and give good advice. The kids don’t always like our rules, but if the rules are reasonable they do help keep our kids safe.
Teens, being teens, often are daredevils. Out of ignorance or inexperience or concern that they will look uncool, they may take a dare, drink too much, neglect their schoolwork or get caught up in a friend’s drama. They need rules from Mom until they can make good rules for themselves.
More than one teen I know has counted on her mom to forbid something so she doesn’t look to her friends like she is wimping out of something dangerous. More than one teen has begrudgingly admitted that her mom’s rules were what kept her out of more trouble.
Ginger had a difficult time as a teen. She had to dress very conservatively. She couldn’t listen to loud music. She wasn’t allowed to go out with boys until she was 18. “I didn’t get to be a teen at all,” says Ginger.
Sadly, there are some things that if missed, we just can’t retrieve. The time to be a teen is during the teens. Once we’re past 30, dressing and acting like a teen isn’t fun or funny. Oh, it’s fine to share a few items of clothing. But it’s not fine for mom to try to fit into teen fashions. (The whole point of teen fashions is to declare they are different from their mothers.) It’s not fine to horn in on time with her peer group. (That’s where she needs space to complain about her mom!)
Relationships with daughters can’t be reciprocal. The rule of women’s friendships is that they have equal time to talk about similar concerns and there is real give and take. They talk about their exasperation with their husbands and kids. They confide about financial matters and health worries. Sometimes they gossip about other adults.
These are not things our teens should hear. And they aren’t things a kid can talk about from a position of equality. We can’t use our teens as confidants about marital problems or sexual affairs. We shouldn’t pit them against their other parents or siblings. We shouldn’t make them feel in any way responsible for holding the family together by keeping their mom from falling apart.
Teen daughters are emotionally bouncing, so they need their moms to be stable. Remember what it was to be an adolescent? Crying one moment and doubled over with laughter the next? Heartbroken when a boy you liked wouldn’t look at you and terrified you are wearing the wrong thing?
Teens are searching for identity and belonging. Their bodies are changing inside and out. They need something to hold onto. That something is a stable mom; a mom who will sympathize but not get into the drama with her; a mom who can hold her when she needs her but who can also trust her to make some of her own decisions.
The hard reality for moms is that our job is to work ourselves out of a job. If we’re successful at this thing called parenting, our children don’t need us anymore — hopefully by the time they are in their early 20s. Our job is to gradually, thoughtfully withdraw our involvement and support as they develop their own identity, competencies and confidence. They need us to give them less and less direction and more and more responsibility so they can become functioning adults and solid citizens.
Daughters need their mother’s love and, yes, friendly commentary along the way. But, bottom line, separation from mom is part of the process.