When your daughter enters her teen years, it can cause a lot of anxiety for parents. You know she will need to grow up eventually, but you worry that she is making risky choices. She may be hanging out with peers that you find unsavory or starting to talk, dress, and act differently. You might have caught her in a lie, uncovered a shameful secret, or discovered that she’s been experimenting with drugs and alcohol. You worry about her grades, her safety, and her future.
But when you are anxious and acting out of fear or nervousness, your first instinct could be exerting control. You might try to immediately control her behavior, how she spends her time, and who she spends it with. And as you may know, this approach can put a bigger wedge between you. The young girl who used to listen and hang on your every word is now becoming more and more distant. The more she withdraws, the more compelled you feel to encroach on her independence and privacy. If this sounds like a cycle you’ve found yourself in with your daughter, keep reading.
Here are 5 common mistakes that well-meaning parents often make when trying to help their teen daughter. Which of these caricatures have you become when trying to get your daughter to make better choices?
- The Fixer: offering solutions and pushing them on your teen
If your daughter opens up to you about a dilemma with friends or school issues, you see this as an opportunity to set her straight and tell her exactly how to fix the problem. You give your daughter solid advice on exactly what she needs to do to make the problem go away. But surprisingly, she still gets annoyed or shuts you out. Why? She came to you because she wanted your help right? Maybe.
Sometimes your daughter just needs a listening ear or someone to help her think through the problem. Resist the urge to oversimplify and give her the “right answer”. She may not be seeking a simple solution, since she probably views it as a really complex problem. Be there for her, listen, and help her process to come up with her own solutions. You’ll be surprised at the the level of maturity and wisdom she may show you.
- The Protector: restricting her access to opportunities so that she never gets the chance to make a mistake.
You’ve had to learn the hard way that bad teenage choices can lead to some pretty major heartbreak, devastation, and long-term consequences. As a parent, you want to help your daughter avoid the mistakes you made by keeping her sheltered from the dangerous world around her. Dating? Out of the question. Crushes? You tell her not to think about that kind of thing. Sleepovers? No, because you can’t trust what other families allow their daughter to do.
This approach often backfires because it can lead your daughter to hide things, lie, or find dangerous ways to assert her independence. The last thing you want is for your daughter to learn about important topics from her friends, rather than you. While it is a scary world out there, with some precautions and boundaries, it is possible for your daughter to have a healthy adolescent social life while still being safe. If she gets a bit of leeway and understanding from you, then she’ll also come directly to you with questions, giving you more leverage in helping her navigate risky situations.
- The Doomsday Dad or Mom: painting the world as a dangerous place to prevent your daughter from taking risks.
You know what people are capable of and you don’t want your daughter to get mixed up with a dangerous situation. So you sometimes highlight the worst case scenario or exaggerate how risky something is so that she is afraid to even think about it! While you might think this is a good safety measure, your actions could have unintended consequences. For young women to be successful, they need a healthy curiosity about the world, a strong sense of confidence, and the ability to discern safe situations from dangerous ones.
Having such a grim outlook on the world can cause her to become nervous and fearful. This hinders her ability to develop interests, passions, and purpose, since all of these involve taking some risks. If she is always afraid of others, her ability to trust and build healthy relationships (of all kinds) can get derailed and she may develop insecure, jealous, or noncommittal attachments. Not to mention her general stress and anxiety levels could cause an entire different host of problems for her. Take a step back and think realistically about what you are communicating to your daughter. Make sure you are balancing precaution with optimism.
- The Reprimander: the second she makes a small mistake, you try to shut down those opportunities and avoid discussing it
Your daughter casually starts telling you stories about an incident at school or something that happened at her best friend’s birthday party. She mentions something that stops you in your tracks. Maybe her friends were doing something unsafe or your daughter broke one of your family rules at the party. Without further conversation, you immediately tell her she’s grounded for a month. She protests but you stick to your guns – there will be no further discussion.
You’ve reprimanded her for breaking a rule. But what you’ve also done (inadvertently) is punish her for being open and honest with you. You might think this is a way to enforce your rules, but you’ve also enforced a lot more secrecy in the future.
Being consistent and following through with established house rules is so important. But don’t forget to include respectful conversation and provide opportunities for your daughter to discuss what she did, why it’s wrong, and hear her perspective on it too.
- The Friend Bouncer: if you get a bad feeling about one of her besties, the kid is out and your daughter is not allowed to see them anymore
Have you ever met one of your daughter’s friends and just had this feeling that she might get your baby into trouble? There’s nothing wrong with listening to that intuitive suspicion, but it’s important that you proceed carefully. If you discover something about your daughter’s friend that makes you concerned, take a deep breath before shunning this child forever. If you start telling your daughter who she is and is not allowed to be friends with, you are doing two things. First, you are making her feel controlled, which as we have talked about, causes backlash. Second, you are implying that your daughter has poor judgement.
Believe me, just as you are worried about your daughter’s friends, she herself is trying to figure out who is a good person to have around and who isn’t. If you are there as a listening ear, she will come to you with reservations, complaints, or other issues she is facing with her friend. Then you can help her think through the relationship and help guide her to the friends who ARE good for her. Also remember that there is no such thing as a bad kid. Even her friend, making all the worst choices, is just another child struggling to navigate the confusing world of adolescence in the best way that she can.
Keeping lines of communication open, being a trusted thought-partner for your daughter, and setting rules and boundaries in a reasonable manner help you become an ally rather than an enemy. The more your daughter trusts you, the more she will come to you for advice when she is facing a tricky situation.
For more on this, here are 4 ways you can work to build more trust and openness with your teen daughter.