Worried about raising a teenage girl in today’s Instagram world? A new book claims to have all the answers. Suzanne Harrington takes a look with her 15-year-old daughter, Lola.
Reading a new book on the perennially hot topic of parenting teenage girls, a few things struck me — either (a) I am a bloody good parent or (b) I won the teenage girl lottery or (c) a bit of both.
Because I did not recognise my cool-headed, warm-hearted 15-year-old daughter in the mean, withdrawn, self-harming, narcissistic, insecure, miserable, internet-addled creature who appears again and again in Untangled by American child psychologist Lisa Damour.
Nor did I recognise the fearful, controlling, conservative, helicopter parents she encounters.
The ones who don’t allow their daughters privacy, online or off, who urine test them for marijuana, who march them to the child psychologist when their grades dip. And whose daughters retort with all kinds of verbal meanness and distressed behaviours.
God, I thought, as my teenage girl and I rolled another spliff together on the kitchen table, what kind of monsters are they?
Just kidding. No need to call social services. The only thing we roll on our kitchen table is pastry.
But when my daughter came home from a party recently and told me all about the snogging, smoking, boozing, puking teenagers, I sat and listened, rather than screamed and fainted.
After all, this is what teenagers do. They try new stuff out. They experiment, and make mistakes.
Although quietly relieved that she wasn’t one of the boozy pukers herself — I know she would have told me if she had been — it doesn’t mean she won’t be in the future.
There are no taboo topics in our house — loads of boundaries, but no taboos. And I trust her — not to be perfect, but to occasionally screw up.
If she didn’t, I’d be worried. (If this all sounds horrendously smug, rest assured that I also have a 12-year-old son who thinks he’s a 25-year-old gangsta, but this is about girls.)
Lisa Damour identifies seven developmental transitions for teenage girls.
They are fairly self-explanatory: parting with childhood; joining a new tribe; tribal warfare; harnessing emotions; contending with adult authority; planning for the future; entering the romantic world; and caring for herself.
Perhaps the most bewildering for parents is the first one, when your little honey goes upstairs one night and a surly teen comes down the next morning.
“How do you connect with her when she’s annoyed even by the way you breathe?” wonders Damour, citing one mother who sought therapy for herself when her daughter showed initial signs of wishing to break away from her.
Could this be a bit of an over-reaction?
Eileen Keane coaches parents and mentors teens.
She has four daughters herself, aged 19, 17, 14, and 11.
Her approach to parenting is a cool blast of fresh air in the face of so much overheated paranoia about girls and eating disorders, girls and predatory online grooming, girls and narcissism, girls and bullying, bitching, backstabbing, isolation, over-sexualisation, insecurity, low self-esteem, exclusion, self-harming, you name it, girls are prey to it.
Or are we now so prone to over-parenting that we catastrophise the normal ups and downs of adolescence, jumping in to save our daughters from ever making any kind of mistake, and psychologically paralysing them in the process?
“Kids who are over-parented have no coping skills,” she says.
“So that normal life lessons become a huge deal, rather than being met with resilience. Good communication at home is essential.
"The ability of a parent to apologise, to explain yourself — sorry I snapped, I’ve had a crap day — teaches kids how to react to situations. How to deal with stuff.
“Lots of parents are still trying to mould their daughters into what they want them to be, rather than what the girls themselves are passionate about.
"If we were all more open to our kids’ dreams and passions, we’d have much more content and successful adults. And by successful I don’t mean money. I mean happiness.”
The big scary thing for the parents of today’s girls is the internet, just as previous parents worried about their girls reading novels, riding bicycles, bobbing their hair, getting an education, going to work, or growing up gay/feminist /both.
Certainly the relative newness of the digital age can cause anxiety for those of us who are not digital natives, and for girls, social media can be yet another source of pressure — particularly as Eileen Keane asserts how girls try very hard to impress not boys, but each other.
She is concerned about the lack of education around how social media actually works psychologically, so that teens don’t get overly sucked in.
“We need to reinforce the idea that social media is not real life,” she says.
“You’ll never see a picture of Mary from down the road bawling her eyes out on Facebook because she’s feeling fed up and lonely. We only see carefully presented fragments.
"But we cannot exclude teenagers from the social media world, because this is the world they live in.”
Nor should we overstep the privacy boundary, even if we are convinced that we are doing it for the good of our kids: “Checking your teens’ phones is a horrendous invasion of privacy — there has to be trust.”
Tricky, isn’t it?
And yet every generation of teenage girls from the dawn of time has thus far made it through to adulthood, despite the anxiety of their parents.
We tend to worry, rather than reminding ourselves that being a teenage girl today — in Western culture at least — can be quite splendid.
Carol Dyhouse, in her brilliant cultural history Girl Trouble, suggests that the internet provides a 21st century borderless forum for consciousness-raising: “The digital revolution has opened up opportunities for the sharing of stories and experiences on an unprecedented scale.”
It’s not all pro-anorexia sites and self-harming groups, or predators and axe murderers.
But we still fret. And it’s bad for us.
Research from the Northwestern University in Illinois surveyed 247 sets of parents who had children between 13 and 16.
These days parenting culture is considerably more empathetic and less brutalist than past generations, resulting in happier teens with better self-esteem, which is marvellous; but being one of those ultra-dedicated parents who is on call 24/7 as the teenager bumbles her way through adolescence towards young adulthood can actually be bad for your health.
Not their health — your health.
They will flourish, having a parent who will get up at 3am to pick them up from God knows where, or drop everything, including your own plans, to accommodate theirs at no notice.
Such super-accommodating parenting results in chronic low-level inflammation in the parental cells, and a compromised immune system.
The happiest parents I know are the ones who have their own lives — and this is reflected in their kids, because this is where they learn about boundaries and expectations and not being the centre of the universe.
“The greatest role model for teenage girls is yourself,” says Eileen Keane.
“Lose the guilt — if you’re a parent who can give a good half hour communication every day, who can teach your girls how to react to a situation, if you can instil good self esteem by being proud of yourself, that’s brilliant.”
Conversely, comments which include “complaints about your own body parts”, or showing a disordered relationship with food, or being critical of your child’s weight and size are “insane, soul-destroying, and damaging”.
Lots of girls are not sporty, says Eileen Keane, but non-sporty doesn’t mean unfit.
There are many fitness options beyond traditional team sports.
Guide your teenager towards them, she says.
And then step back.
Step back from her friendship group — she’ll find the right friends without your help.
And step back from her romantic life.
Teenage girls are the most shamed, over-policed demographic on earth when it comes to sexual exploration.
Provide her with practical knowledge, self-esteem, the ability to say no, or yes, as she wishes (and perhaps even the idea of — whisper it — pleasure and desire) — and back off.
Backing off often makes for happy teenage girls.
Obviously we are there for them, as guides and mentors, as moral and practical support, listeners and advisers, cash dispensers and chauffeurs — and in return they may be occasionally vile.
It’s nothing personal.
Let them get on with the joy of being young, alive and free.
And when they screw up, you’ll be the first one they call. At 3am.
Untangled by Lisa Damour. Publisher Atlantic. Price: €19.10
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