Parenting teenagers is rarely easy. Teen girls in particular get a bad rap, thanks to horror stories of previously sunny children turning sullen overnight. It’s true that the teen years are a time of transformation. Physical changes, cultural clashes between home and the outside world, and emerging sexual and gender identities create instability that can lead to conflict within a family, however a new book by US-based clinical psychologist Lisa Damour, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood (Atlantic, $29.99), seeks to demystify the world of teenage girls. A practical guide for parents, each of the book’s seven chapters is dedicated to a transitional stage of adolescence and ends with a critical ‘when to worry’ section.
Here are five tips for parents who want to connect with a young teenager whose behaviour has suddenly become unfamiliar and challenging.
Allow more privacy
Damour’s first rule for dealing with teenagers is to give them more privacy. A suspicious parent’s strongest instinct might be to interrogate and even worse, to snoop, but this will likely alienate an already withdrawn teen. “Some parents wrongly suspect that if their daughter is closing her door, she must be up to something, but most teenage girls close their doors to do the exact same thing they used to do with the door wide open.”
Establish weekly family time
A good way to counter a teenager’s reclusiveness is to establish weekly family time – well before they become a teen. “It is easier to enforce attendance at the designated night if this tradition begins before your daughter is a teenager and isn’t sprung on her as some sort of punishment when you haven’t seen her for more than five consecutive minutes in three weeks,” says Damour. Mealtimes offer another opportunity to connect with your daughter. Studies show that family meals improve girls’ health and wellbeing - even if they aren’t always eager to take part. “Girls who feel remote from their families may be the ones who most need for parents to prioritise time with them – whether it’s over dinner, breakfast or a weekend lunch – even if time together feels strained,” Damour writes.
Make the most of time in the car
A car trip has great potential for a parent to connect with a teenage child. “The conditions of riding in a car – not having to look directly at the parent who is driving, the assurance that the conversation will end when the ride ends – are just what some girls need to open up,” Damour says. Offer to chauffeur your daughter and her friends home from a social event if you want any insight into what they get up to. If you’re quiet enough they’ll forget you’re there and speak much more openly than if you were quizzing them directly.
Ask about something specific that you really want to know, and don’t overlook any conversational crumb she throws your way.
Ask the right questions
Teenagers are notoriously reluctant to answer their parents’ questions, but “When asked honest questions,” writes Damour, “I always find that girls produce honest answers.” The trick is to ask the right questions at the right time. Don’t probe her when she’s preoccupied with another task, or stick to a rigid script of preplanned questions. Instead, ask about something specific that you really want to know, and don’t overlook any conversational crumb she throws your way.
Voluble responses to parental questioning is an unrealistic expectation, but Damour draws the line at rudeness. If you are on the receiving end of disrespectful behaviour from your teenager, you are justified in refusing her requests for your help. If she refuses to answer your questions politely, for example, it’s fair to say no when she asks you to drive her to a party. It’s not emotional blackmail, argues Damour, but simply how the world works. “People don’t do nice things for people who are mean to them.”
Acknowledging sexual identity
Establishing a sexual identity is hard enough without the extra stress of discrimination faced by LGBTQI kids. According to one study two-thirds of teenagers who identify as LGBTQI have experienced suicidal thoughts; other research suggests that substance abuse is also common among LGBTQI teens. Parental acceptance reduces the stress load on LGBTQI teenagers, and “accordingly, reduces drug use, depression, and suicidal thoughts and actions, while increasing self-esteem,” writes Damour. Create a supportive environment for your teen, whatever her sexual identity, by modelling accepting behaviour. Don’t tolerate homophobic slurs and assure your daughter that you will support her choices.