Recently I gave a lecture on parenting teens to my Monday night class. Many people asked for my notes so here they are.
Parenting Teen Girls
One thing I hear from parents over and over again is concern for their young girls and their body image. It isn’t unusual for a slim nine-year-old girl to express concern over her weight. What is going on? We know the media plays a huge role in all of this and I too have heard the same concerns voiced from my very petite daughter as well. I have concluded that there are several important areas to focus on:
- Health first, educating our daughters about the radiance of health is a good place to start.
- Do some media busting and counter that powerful force with some education about the tools used to make people appear beautiful.
- Give positive messages about your own comfort with your body shape.
- Spend time with massage and brushing your daughter’s hair to help her feel good and comfortable with her body.
- Never comment on her weight or state concerns about eating too much.
- Role model self-care and healthy living.
- Try not to over-react when you hear your daughter complain about her weight, avoid saying things like: "Don’t be silly, you aren’t fat." or "You look fine." Dismissing doesn’t help and she may not believe you after a while. Listen to her and let her express her thoughts and feelings. You can say something like; "It is difficult living in a culture where looks are emphasized so much. Most people struggle with this issue no matter how they look."
- You may share times where you felt self-conscious too and how did you work through it?
- Give her specific and sincere positive feedback spontaneously about her strengths.
- The strong bodies that girls enter into puberty with slowly start to soften and spread just at a time when our culture tells them that thin is beautiful. Girls feel enormous pressure to be beautiful and are painfully aware of the constant evaluations of their appearance. Many girls are afraid of their bodies changing and feel a loss of control; they would just like to stay young and avoid the pressures of growing up.
While walking through the mall with my twelve-year-old daughter I couldn’t help but notice the sideways glances from other young girls walking by. I stayed behind her and observed her reaction. She seemed to stiffen a little and adjust her hair, as she too was aware. I could understand why the getting ready time was getting longer. As a mother, I want her to be relaxed about her looks yet I am also aware of how painful not feeling attractive can be. I made an oath to myself right there and then to refrain from being judgmental about the perceived shallowness of this age group. I vowed to myself that I would support her with the fake and not so fake piercing, the streaks in the hair and the clothes that look too low or too high to me and acknowledge that they are a part of her world. Instead of moving into fear and trying to control this powerful force I surrendered fully at that moment to faith or at least trust that she knows what she needs to do and that I have what it takes as a mother to support her (I hope).
This doesn’t mean that I haven’t taken time to teach her. We have had and continue to have open dialogue about sexuality, how men think in comparison to women about sex and relationships, the pitfalls of premature sexual experiences, the value of being in a respectful relationship, media and the messages right through to sexual safety and health. We can overdo the teaching so we need to listen and be available to our children’s agenda rather than our own. One day in the doctor’s office while waiting for an appointment I was thumbing through a magazine and saw a model whose image had been stretched so much she was missing the middle of her body. When I pointed this out to my daughter she replied, "Mom, does everything have to be a lesson?"
For a while I thought her pants looked a little too low but I buttoned up my lips as much as I could and within a short period of time she commented on how uncomfortable the low riders really are. She asked me why anyone would want their butt hanging out of their pants. I have learned not to be too gushy and enthusiastic when she gets one of these great insights. I have developed that kind of expressionless, neutral yet pleasant look that many mothers seem to wear through this stage.
What are the messages in our culture around looks? We’re all aware of how a girl feels if she loses in the constant "beauty contest" of the peer group. But it’s also true that if a girl is too beautiful, she’s seen as stupid or ditzy, or identified as a sex object. Beautiful girls often doubt that they are liked for reasons other than their packaging. Being beautiful can create a lot of rejection, as girls are jealous and boys write the beautiful girl off as a snob.
Many girls, whatever their looks, seem to lose themselves in the shuffle. They stop asking important questions like "Who am I?" "What do I want?" and instead ask "How can I please my peers?" It is as if the authentic self gets buried under the junk values of our culture. I have heard my own clients at the young age of twelve tell me how they lose themselves in the tight tunnel of being nice. Be nice or risk getting called a bitch. Or parents may say, "Smile when you tell me about your bad day."
Depression or the blues?
Hormones can have your daughter seeming high one day and depressed the next. This emotional volatility can have parents walking on eggshells. While estrogen actually makes the brain cells more active, progesterone makes them more inhibited. Progesterone has been compared to anesthesia because it seems to put the brain to sleep. While there are many other contributing factors that control mood such as personality traits and cognitive factors it is helpful to observe the swing effect of hormones.
Mary Pipher, in her book Reviving Ophelia says, "All girls experience pain at this point in their development. If that pain is blamed on themselves, on their own failures, it manifests itself as depression. If the pain is blamed on parents or peers; it shows up as anger. This anger is mislabeled rebellion or delinquency."
Besides hormonal effects, the teens can be a time of getting tossed around emotionally by social, school and family pressures. How can a teenager stay strong with who she is when at the same time she is so painfully aware of her flaws and shortcomings? How can she bask in the support of her family when it is a time for being independent? How can she fit in when she doesn’t agree with what she has to fit in to?
Watch your daughter through the dips and turns and look for times where she is experiencing joy, a sense of success and an ability to communicate with somebody in a meaningful way. Does she care about herself even though she may feel discouraged? Is she still moving forward and taking an interest in things? If so, chances are the down times are simply the blues. If you aren’t seeing any peaks then get her some help. An adult mentor, a counsellor or a group experience can be an emotional lifesaver through these years. It isn’t a time to bury our heads in the sand even though we may feel like it when we are on the receiving end of the three D’s; distant, defiant and down. Stay calm, stay cool but watch her.
What helps the blues?:
- Exercising regularly is a very important tool in fighting depression.
- Help your child with her image, shallow as it may seem, it matters.
- Help your child focus on making a few new friends if need be.
- Ask your child what kind of relationships she wants. What would she like to be appreciated for?
- Help your child be aware of how she behaves when she feels empowered and then suggest she borrow that behaviour when she needs it.
- Ask your younger teen daughter to think of boys not as dates but as friends. Allowing these friendships de-sexualizes the relationships and gives her a chance to figure out what she might look for in a partner down the road.
- Help her be true to herself. Validate her feelings and teach her to ask for what she needs.
- Help her separate thoughts from feelings.
Mothering Teen Daughters
There is no greater insult in our culture than to be told you are acting just like your mother. Yet to hate our mothers is to hate ourselves. Girls can become painfully critical of their mothers. Mothers are asked to love completely and yet know when to distance emotionally and physically. This is harder than I imagined and I find myself going through a grieving process while my youngest child moves closer to her peers and ever more distant from me. My inner child comes out often feeling rejected, geeky and very hurt as my adult mind says "Don’t be silly, you teach classes on this, you know it is normal." "Talk to me!" I hear myself saying as my daughter stares right through me. Where did she go? Those panicky times of hearing our mouth say things we wish it wouldn’t are often more frustrating than our child’s behaviour. The truth is, my inner child can be much more volatile, irrational and insecure than my daughter can. Learning to walk away, breathe, run around the block or take up belly dancing are all good options to get through these years with some dignity.
Being a mother comes with a lot of uncertainty during these years. Mothers want their daughters to date but are terrified of date rape, AIDS and other diseases. They want their daughters to be independent but are aware of how dangerous the world is. Many girls have difficulty being close to their mothers during Junior High and High School. They too feel sadness as they reject the help of the one person who wants most to understand their needs. Healthy mothers model self-sufficiency, self-respect and can be responsive to family members rather than responsible for family members.
Fathering Teen Daughters
Fathers have one of three kinds of relationships with their daughters: supportive, distant or abusive. Many are distant because they don’t have the skills to deal with their turbulent daughters. Fathers who see nurturing or emotional closeness as wimpy may well never have closeness with their children. Yet, the role of a father can be extremely powerful. Supportive fathers tend to have daughters with high self-esteem. Good fathers are nurturing, physically affectionate and involved in the lives of their daughters (and sons). Fathers can often lend a voice of reason while mother and daughter struggle to define their relationship.
A father has an important place in discussions of sexuality with his daughter. He can help his daughter understand the nature of male sexuality, so that she can make educated choices about how she dresses. He can validate her strength, intelligence and creativity and show her that these traits are very appealing in a woman. He can allow his daughter to have an assertive voice in the safety of their relationship. He can develop an ability to discuss feelings and resolve family conflict for the good of all, most likely a skill which he did not learn in his childhood.
My son is half way through his fourteenth year as I write this and I am really pleased to see that there isn’t this immoral spirit taking over his body as many parenting teen books would have us believe. He has creatively skirted around some of the typical trouble spots such as shop lifting, smoking pot and setting the teacher’s porch on fire at Halloween. Now I know I can’t get too cocky here there are more years to come but what I am seeing is someone who has great moral values and who makes good choices for himself, actually, better ones than I made at that age.
I am watching him while he navigates through these tender years. As the abstract thinking comes in I can see him struggling and questioning the adults around him. It is kind of intimidating because he sees through a lot of bunk including mine! Have you ever listened to teens at this age talk about their teachers or adults in general? They pick up on everything from the two bit lectures to the two faced comments about abusing drugs and alcohol.
It seems that as their minds start to move in the world of abstract they also seem to lose their ability to make simple decisions. Teens can become overwhelmed with daily choices and can surprise parents with their need for direction or assistance in making these choices. The fun part is being asked and then having your great suggestions rejected.
I notice that my son still talks about his feelings but in comparison to his sister, he talks about them less, where I couldn’t say that even one year ago. I have learned to watch my expectations around how much my son should share. I actually think I have been disrespectful of who he is when I have called him to the plate and looked him in the eye to talk about feelings. It is overwhelming for him at times and I need to respect that. I think that without this kind of respect we can actually neglect our young fellows. Michael Gurian writes about this extensively in his book "A Fine Young Man".
While I see this neat person emerging with his long hair and tall slim body I’m watching closely to see that he’s okay. I watch to see how overwhelmed he is with school work and friendships. I observe how much time he spends in his room or in front of a video game. Is he staying active? Does he have close friendships? Is he having fun and finding joy in life? Is there something he feels passionate about? Does he know what he needs and can he ask for it? I’m trying to stay out of the way while showing him that I really care. Watching without being intrusive and supporting without fixing.
Boys aren’t so tough:
Boys are much more fragile than they appear. Gurian’s book says "Boys have a greater risk of suicide (four to one) and for mental health disorders (six to one). While girls are more overt with their emotions, boys tend to mask them. The feelings can easily go underground. Only one out of six adolescents diagnosed with ADHD are females. This may be why boys have a history of more accidents."
Blanenhorn and Reichert state that, "An MRI scanning shows that a male brain is much tidier than a female’s. On average they have higher spatial concepts. A boy’s emotional cycle is not controlled by hormones. He also has a lot less brain activity around emotions because of the way his brain is formatted. It doesnt mean he won’t have ups and downs, he will. It does mean that he won’t have the same fluency as a girl when it comes to discussing emotional issues. So we know that the reason boys talk less than adolescent girls is because of how the brain is constructed. He may be very verbal about a cognitive issue like how best to set up a tent or put a puzzle together. He may debate issues with verbosity, but he will be less likely to talk about how he is feeling."
Blanenhorn and Reichert studied the self-esteem of boys and found that they had exactly the same plunge during the middle school years as girls. Like girls, they suddenly become aware of all of their flaws. Boys tend to cover up their insecurities with the male bravado. They act tough, get a little louder and can engage in somewhat cruel or aggressive behaviour. This type of posturing can have boys lose their focus as they get caught up in the act. It is especially tough on the tender hearts because rolling with the punches is that much harder.
Often parents talk about the mood swings of girls. Boys are dealing with testosterone, an anabolic steroid. Testosterone helps the body to produce calcium and phosphorus in order to make big bones. Testosterone is a physical hormone that propels the male to display physical and social aggression. Testosterone creates a push for action and solution and puts the emotional processing off to the side until later. As an aggression hormone, it links with the brain system to create efficient methods for reaching goals. Gurian says "For the male, emotionality is very often synonymous with danger, and danger is the very thing testosterone exists to contend with; by causing him either to persevere over it or to quickly solve issues and therefore deflect it. Once again, testosterone cuts off emotional opportunity." When the male kicks or curses people distance. When they spit (yes boys spit more than girls) and show dominance patterns it doesn’t exactly make people want to run up and hug them. A lot of male behaviours cut off emotional connections, unlike those of the female, who cries four times more than her 15 year old male friend. Crying brings people to her and elongates the emotional process.
We have known the effects of testosterone on male emotionality forever and without getting into the science of all of this can we accept that we need to acknowledge and respect the differences? Expecting boys and men to talk about and process feelings with face to face contact is intrusive at the best of times. Yet we need to stay connected. How do we do that?
WHAT DO WE DO?
Tips for parenting boys:
- Make a point in one or two sentences, not much more
- Tell a story or anecdote to illustrate the point
- Ask for a response. If none is forthcoming, try askin for a story
- Listen for feelings when he talks and feed them back respectfully.
- Asking about what he thinks or what is important to him can help identify his needs and why he feels as he does.
- Don’t be afraid to allow silences in the conversation. But help a young man see that silence is not permission to get up and leave.
- As much as possible taper the conversation to allow him to have the last word.
- Don’t sit across from a table trying for eye to eye intensity. Do something side by side. Ask him to help you fold laundry or carry and stack wood or something.
- Bring it up again later to see if he got it.
How we can show respect for men:
- 1. Honour how men show compassion. Men can sacrifice their own bodies and sometimes their own souls to take care of other people.
- 2. Men show immense compassion by problem solving and are often condemned for it. Males problem solve so that the emotional flow of a group situation remains manageable. They problem solve hoping to relieve stress from the female. Be gentle when you reject their advice.
- 3. Males show compassion by leaving others alone. Men will often stand by wordlessly waiting. This action is a way of showing compassion. The words may not come easy so watch your expectations. The caring is there, it just might look different from a woman.
Pointers for parents of teens:
- Encourage another loving adult to be available.
- In our homes give kids both protection and challenges.
- Set firm guidelines and communicate high hopes.
- Practice negotiation rather than having rigid rules; love and respect are most important.
- Listen and give them as much parent time as toddlers had.
- Don’t be too eager to talk or they will back off.
- Listen for what you can respect and praise.
- Good communication encourages rational thought, centered decision making and conscious choices. It looks at options, risks, implications and consequences.
- Congratulate teens on good judgment, maturity or insight.
- Convey a reassuring message that says "You are strong enough to deal with this but I’ll be here if you need me."
- Give reassuring messages that say "Tomorrow is another day." "Nobody is liked by everybody." "Nobody is perfect." without minimizing their feelings.
- Keep your sense of humour.
- Don’t take things too personally.
- Parents need to stay calm through the storm, calm parents hear more.
- Use a sandwich technique for feedback focus on the positive first and last.
- Encourage teens to have friends in both sexes and desexualize the relationships
- Read teen magazines and books to stay up on things.
- Know your child’s teachers
- Discuss important issues like alcohol, drugs, violence, social pressures and appearance.
- If they share their drug experiences listen for how much (???)