Over the years our children learn to feed themselves, take the bus alone, make friends, choose what to study and eventually leave home. We have to trust that our children will be capable. Children need us to believe in their competence. We have to trust that they will survive their mistakes. Our children need the experience of learning from their mistakes. We have to trust ourselves to know when to loosen our hold and when to rein them in. Our children’s behaviour will guide us.
Staying connected while letting go is key. As parents we search for the right balance between ensuring safety and allowing freedom. Some parents cling on, others flip-flop between letting go and not, while others manage to gradually release their children as they grow.
Clinging on – when a parent is very risk-averse and constantly steps in to protect her child, it becomes hard for that child to be able to assess danger for herself. Research has shown that paradoxically these children can be at greater risk of harm in the long term, as they are less experienced at making decisions and taking responsibility for themselves.
Flip-flopping – some parents find that by turning a blind eye to what is going on they can avoid the stress of constantly needing to make new age-appropriate boundaries with a child who is rightly pushing at those boundaries. It’s confusing to a child when parents oscillate between saying no to everything and saying yes to everything.
Releasing gradually – sometimes parents are able to achieve that delicate dance of standing back, releasing their offspring to make their own way while at the same time counselling against danger.
YOUR CHILD’S NEEDS
Sometimes the hardest work of parenting is to get our ‘selves’ out of the way. Adults who were over-cosseted as children will often have a tendency either to repeat this with their own children or to react against it and be too liberal. If as a child you were bullied, or as a teen you went off the rails, it’s hard not to fear that your own child will go the same way. But our children need us to see them as they are rather than through the spectacles of who we were. Try not to parent your child how you would have liked your parents to have been with you – but instead parent your child in the way she needs to be parented. You know your child well, you can assess how much holding and how much encouraging and how much freedom would best serve her development towards becoming a self-assured, competent and free-flying adult.
Many mothers return to work after their children start school. At first it might be part-time to fit around school times and holidays but as their children get older many parents find they are freer to spend more time away from home. This all changes in the teen years where many parents find they need to be around more again. Teens, much like toddlers, need us to keep more of a careful eye on them. They’re going through a period of rapid change, at the same time as pushing for more independence and so need more adult attention and supervision. Trouble is, they may not want more supervision, so it needs to be given artfully. They don’t want to feel like we’re breathing down their necks, nagging them to do stuff and stopping them from doing other things. Instead we parents need to stay involved but with a respect for their growing independence. Many parents find they need to be around more, in the background, paying good attention and stepping in when needed.
CREATE A STABLE BASE
Teenagers give their parents whiplash as they alternate between “leave me, I can do it” to “you have to fix this for me!” Teens need their parents to be a stable base from which to push off into the world and then to scurry back to when it’s all too overwhelming for them. Now, even if your parents did this for you, and many of us don’t have that experience to draw on, your own teen is going to need her own particular brand of parenting. Take yourself back to that life stage to help you know what might be needed as you remember how it is: a time of uncertainty, change, self-consciousness and adventure. Don’t let it scare you as you think back to what you got up to and what you worried about at her age. Your daughter will have different experiences. And parenting from fear rarely works well.
In my work with preteen and teenage girls, I have learned a lot about what they need from us adults to journey through the teen years safely and healthily. They need our involvement, but they also need the way we relate to them to change as they grow older. They don’t want to be told what to do; but they do want our support in figuring out what to do. And they can only accept our help if we can offer our support in a way that feels like they’re in charge. Or partly in charge at least.
“Choosing to spend time with your daughter sends her a powerful message: I like you, you’re worth spending time with, I want to know you”
DATES FOR DAUGHTERS
If you’re not sure how to stay in touch with what’s going on in your teen’s life and so be allowed to guide her, then let me tell you about a simple tool that is working for lots of families: Mother-Daughter Date (or father-daughter, mother-son). Make a regular commitment, once a month, to spend time with your daughter. Think of fun things to do together. It can be as simple as a hot chocolate on the way home or tasty snacks shared while snuggling on the sofa watching a film. It can be as adventurous as trying out a fitness class together or taking her to see the neighbourhood where you grew up. It can be as inventive as watching the sun rise or taking the first train that comes into the station to see where it takes you. The point is to make the effort to be with her differently than in everyday life (like a date); you create opportunities to get to know your daughter as she’s growing and changing, to chat about whatever’s on her mind, to try new things together, to form favourite rituals. This way you stay in touch with what’s going on in her life, what’s important to her and what is troubling her. She learns she can rely on you and maybe even that you know a useful thing or two. Mostly you listen though, without judgement. If you want to hear what’s on her mind she’s going to need to be able to trust that you’re not going to judge it.
If you begin this monthly commitment to your daughter while she’s still young she will grow up expecting this special time with you unquestionably. Then, when she starts her period, you time your Mother-Daughter Date with the week that she’s bleeding. We all know that feelings can be heightened around this time of the month, so the treat of time alone together can become a valuable pressure-release valve where you can give her the opportunity to talk, sound off, weep, take a break and feel your support. Arranging your special meeting at this time of the month can also become a private but powerful acknowledgement between you of her status – that of a developing young woman.
This regular Mother-Daughter Date means that you can stay connected, even when life is busy, or when you’ve fallen out. You get the chance to sort things out, learn how she’s doing and listen to her problems. Even when you think she doesn’t deserve it, keep that commitment going every month so that you can continue to influence her life. Relationships take effort and if you put the work in you won’t lose her. Our daughters need to hear from us what we admire in them and that we see them striving towards the things that are important to them. If she has a passion, help her to follow it. Choosing to spend time with your daughter sends her a powerful message: I like you, you’re worth spending time with, I want to know you.
Mother-Daughter Dates are a perfect opportunity to talk to her about sex too. Girls say they’d rather learn about this from you, even though it’s cringy. Parents say they want to protect their children’s innocence, well then answer her questions and teach her; otherwise someone in the playground will, or online, where there’s no one to protect her innocence. If she’s well informed she’s more likely to wait to get started on sexual activity when the time’s right for her.
It’s never too late to begin a Mother-Daughter Date habit. If you think your child wouldn’t want to spend time with you, you may have to start small. Buy some fancy biscuits and join her watching her favourite show. And if things have become too tense between you and your teen to even begin to imagine being able to spend time together you may need to take drastic action and go away together, to break old patterns away from home turf.
WATCH HER GROW
Finally, let your child know that you see her maturing. She needs you to recognise that she’s no longer a young child. Otherwise, she’ll have to prove it to herself, in how she looks, who she’s with and what she wants to do. This gives the appearance of her growing up too fast but it’s just on the surface. Watch young people testing themselves, taking risks, trying to self-initiate themselves into adulthood. If we don’t give them ways of knowing that they’re graduating through the stages of adolescence towards adulthood, then they’ll do it for themselves. If you really want your child to grow up at the right pace, then give her the guidance she needs and let her know that she’s growing up fine in your eyes.
Let’s make growing up for our teens that bit safer, kinder and better supported. By supporting our girls with a loving, guiding and gently firm hand, we help to shape a better future for them, for society, and for our world.
Kim McCabe is a home-educating mother of one girl and two boys. She is the founder and director of Rites for Girls which, since 2011, has offered year-long Girls Journeying Together groups, support for mothers and training for women wanting to support girls.
READ From Daughter to Woman, parenting girls safely through their teens, which gives parents tools to use from when their children are young to guide them healthily through adolescence.
VISIT ritesforgirls.com for more resources.