Q: We have a 15-year-old daughter (and an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son). While our 15-year-old has always been a very private person, her behavior over the past couple of years concerns us. She is moody to the point of being rude and indignant about even the smallest perceived slights. We feel that we just don't know her. She's an enigma. Of course we try to draw her out, which only angers her more. What are good strategies to learn more about her motivations without driving her away?
A: First of all, from one parent of a 15-year-old to another, I feel you. I don’t believe the hype of the “horrible teen years,” but it is easy to feel as though you are walking into a minefield during your child’s adolescence. Even the most innocuous of gestures can be met with disgust, annoyance and anger. It is a confusing time for both parent and teen.
Why are the teen years so fraught? It is an intense time to be alive. Teens can often use their social groups as their North Star, and a teen’s identity is constantly evolving. How prickly they are with their parents is usually a reflection of two issues: how quickly they’re growing and how connected they feel to that parent. Now, add to this any extra drama, stress, transition or trauma, and teens can become even more reactionary.
You mention that she has always been a private person and now is moody, rude and indignant. No major flags go up for me, but I am wondering at what point you felt she was an enigma and whether, at that point, you stopped trying to connect with her. If you are sensitive to rejection or didn’t understand your child’s development, you may have become accustomed to retreating when you felt offended. Because I don’t know when you began to feel disconnected, and I don’t know to what extent you try to connect to your daughter without being offended, this is a tough question.
It is clear that you care, and that goes a long way. It sounds as though you fear her inapproachability, so my first tip for you is also the most important: Don’t take her prickly side personally. This is easy when you are reading a column, but when she is rude or rolls her eyes, please don’t take the bait. Counting your breaths, smiling and saying, “Okay, I will be back in a bit!” or being lighthearted are the goals here, and while it sounds silly, practice your phrases and calm face with a spouse or friend or even in the mirror.
As you work on taking no offense, make a list of everything you think you could do with your daughter, big and small. Don’t overthink it; just write down all your ideas. A trip, shopping, art, cooking, binge-watching shows together, spa day, hikes, sporting events, art, concerts, taking her and her friends out, movies, you name it. You may have no idea what your daughter is interested in — that’s okay. Just go for it. When you’re feeling disconnected from someone, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and intimidated, and this always leads to inaction. Don’t let that happen.
While many will recommend that you start small, I am a big fan of something bigger. If you can afford it and have the time, I recommend a trip with your daughter. The longer and the further away, the better. Whether it be via car, train or plane, a long trip forces people into close proximity. You can download Netflix all day, but you will be near your daughter. You will have to interact for meals and about basic travel issues. You will share a room, and my hope is that, after some time and your new outlook, your daughter will begin to thaw toward you.
Don’t go for some ideal where you braid each other’s hair and reveal secrets. Make your goal an easy existence, a type of peaceful calm between you two. If the trip involves something that takes you both out of your comfort zone, all the better. You don’t have to be the parent who connects with her daughter perfectly. You can be the parent who freaks out, 20 feet in the air, on a ropes course. Allow your daughter to see you taking chances and having fun. Being, you know, human. Sharing a laugh about your fears or high-fiving an accomplishment gives you two something to talk about other than, “Why are you such an enigma?”
As for small daily ways to connect, I suggest the family eat together as much as possible and you place rules around how long she can sit alone in her room and stare at screens. She will bristle at these rules, but you are the parent and you can reasonably decide, with her, how long she can be alone in her room. Also, figure out small ways to be near her: Walk the dog, run errands, go to CVS. Small acts can lead to closeness.
In the meantime, read “Untangled” by Lisa Damour, “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain,” by Daniel Siegel, and “Mothering and Daughtering: Keeping Your Bond Strong Through the Teen Years,” by Sil and Eliza Reynolds.