Q: My daughter is 11, and I can’t deal with her mood swings. She’s a great kid, but the hormonal stuff going on with her right now is just, ugh. My main issues are the occasional outbursts and yelling. I know her emotions are legitimate and real, and we never discredit what she’s feeling. But how she treats us when she’s in a funk or wants to be alone is not acceptable. Any tips for helping her communicate that to us in a more respectful way? And how should we respond to her and defuse things if she does begin going down a negative road? I’d be cool with hearing “Mom, I need some alone time — can we not talk for an hour?” vs. “Mom! You are so annoying! Stop asking me about my day!” (complete with eye-rolling and foot-stomping).
A: Oh, boy. This is a tough one. As a parent of a tween, I feel your pain. It can be frustrating and confusing to try to reach out to a prickly young woman, and we are easily triggered by her sassiness. So please know that this is the same advice I give myself daily. Let’s begin by reviewing the development of an 11-year-old girl.
I read this quote recently on WebMD: “Your child at 11 will be embarking on a period of physical growth at a faster rate than at any time in life except infancy.” Think about that. Her neural synapses, her hormones, her weight, her height and her budding sexuality feel as if they are exploding. Her inability to control her emotions is not a function of being bad or disrespectful; it is a natural consequence of a rapidly changing body.
Now, add the ever-growing weightiness of school and social groups. School is different than it was when we were growing up. The pressure to do well, the homework and the testing have created a stressful environment for many tweens, resulting in more anxiety diagnoses than ever before. And when tweens are giving their best at school, parents and caregivers often shoulder the worst behaviors at home.
The social lives and peer pressures for tweens have also been ramped up by the need to keep up with social media and texting. Kids are constantly in touch with one another, and, if parents are not vigilant, it is easy for them to become addicted to social media. And because tweens are highly influenced by the opinions and values of their friends, these peer groups can easily become a wedge in your relationship. Rather than relying on you for much of their direction, tweens often turn to friends for advice, guidance and support. And who wants that? Their peers are not equipped to provide sound advice.
That just sounded like a bunch of bad news, didn’t it? I don’t mean to bum you out. I am trying to point you in the direction of empathy for your daughter. All is not lost. In fact, there is much good in all this growth.
Yes, this is an intense time, but your daughter’s ability to be reasonable, logical and empathetic is not only budding, it is often in full effect. You need to harness this maturation by not reacting to the sassiness and instead connecting with her when times are calm. But how can you do that when you resent her behavior so much?
This is the part where you need to get over yourself a little bit. You state, “I know her emotions are legitimate and real, and we never discredit what she’s feeling. But how she treats us when she’s in a funk or wants to be alone is not acceptable.” Says who? Yes, I agree it is frustrating and annoying, but you cannot stipulate how she gets to express every feeling. I know this might sound scandalous, but you would never say to your best friend: “You know what, Beth? I know your husband cheated on you, and you have a right to be upset. But your anger and language are offensive, and I need you to change them. For me.” On the contrary, you would make lots of room for your friend’s big emotions and would listen to her vent.
So why can’t you do that for your daughter? The less space you give her feelings, the more of that space the feelings take up. What in you is so easily triggered by your daughter’s sassiness? Were you allowed to express your thoughts and feelings as a child? Were you shamed, punished or ignored when you misbehaved? Were feelings okay as long as they were expressed a certain way? Please, dig into why behavior is such a deal-breaker for you. When you free yourself from this trigger, you will begin to see that your daughter is telling you something with her sassiness. Chronic sassiness from a child means that she does not feel connected with you. She may feel bossed around, not accepted and/or not listened to.
Here are ways to strengthen that connection:
• When the sassiness begins, accept responsibility for yourself and glide (as gracefully as you can) out of the situation. Imagine that you are in a storm; you would not shake your fists at the clouds and the rain and yell, “Stop it, stop it NOW! This is unacceptable.” You would hunker down for safety and wait until it passes. Treat your daughter’s behavior the same way.
• Stop focusing on these unpleasant interactions as the be-all, end-all of your relationship. When they are over, leave the negativity in the past.
• On your own, make a list of activities that you two can share that will bring joy. What we are going for is a light in her eyes. Smiling. Laughter. Let your judgments go, and focus on fun, play and being at ease with each other.
• One form of loving connections is having healthy, consistent boundaries. Are there things to which you need to say a strong “no” and hold it? Don’t argue about her emotions; just create the boundary and stick to it.
• Find more ways to say “yes” to her. Where can you offer more freedoms that satisfy her need to grow while also keeping her in your orbit?
• Be gentle on yourself. Be forgiving of yourself. You’re in this for the long haul. Love her and stay gentle with yourself. Rely on others for support and encouragement. Keep going.
• Read “Untangled” by Lisa Damour. This excellent book will give you wisdom and relief as your tween becomes a young woman. And read “The Awakened Family” by Shefali Tsabary for a greater understanding of yourself.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for July 6.