I’m right at the start of the teenage girl journey at the moment, with a 12 year old who has just entered high school. So it was with interest that I recently read Untangled by Lisa Damour, PhD. Through her book, Dr Damour is keen to help parents understand that teenage girls are a force of nature, with powerful emotions that can scare even themselves – and it can’t all be put down to hormones.
In the book, Dr Damour says that the sudden force of teenage girls’ emotions can be a shock for parents, because between the ages of 6 and 11, children go through a stage called latency – where they’re pretty easy going, with not too much drama. So when teenagehood starts to kick in around 12, it can be a shock to everyone.
But it’s a mistake to put it all down to hormones. Sure, teenage girls have a lot of hormonal changes going on which can influence their body changes, but their moods are much more often affected by what is going on around them, and their relationship with their parents.
That means that we need to be proactive players in this stage of our children’s lives.
And Dr Damour says it’s important to understand that the way girls can sometimes express themselves isn’t dramatic for drama’s sake. “Here’s the bottom line: What your daughter broadcasts matches what she actually experiences. Really, it’s just that intense, so take her feelings seriously, regardless of how overblown they might seem. Parents who are surprised by their daughter’s dramatic ups and downs can lose sight of the fact that she is pretty shocked too.”
So if you’re living with a teenage girl, you’re probably living with someone who secretly wonders if she’s crazy, and who needs help processing the roller coaster of emotions going through her every day.
But that doesn’t mean you should charge in with all guns blazing. There is a right way to help, and a wrong way.
When your daughter complains to you, Dr Damour suggests you listen quietly and remind yourself that you’re giving her a way to process what has happened in her day. It’s normal to want to jump in with a solution or to fix the situation for her, but it’s important to resist because no matter how valid your assessment or suggestion, it will probably be rejected.
In Tangled, Dr Damour says, “If you really want to help your daughter manage her distress, help her see the difference between complaining and venting. Complaining generally communicates a sense that ‘someone should fix this’, while venting communicates that ‘I’ll feel better when someone who cares about me hears me out’.”
Most of what teenagers complain about is stuff that can’t be fixed. And venting can help your child understand the more adult concept that the world isn’t there to grant her wishes, and that sometimes things happen that you don’t like.
Dr Damour says you can help your daughter learn this process. “When she starts rolling out the complaints, consider asking, ‘Do you want my help with what you’re describing, or do you just need to vent?’ If she wants your help, she’ll tell you. Even better, she might take your advice having actually asked for it.”
And if your daughter just wants to vent, she can tell you that too, and you can sit back, knowing that you’re helping just by lending a sympathetic ear. “More important,” says Dr Damour, “She’ll start to learn that sometimes, just by listening, you are providing all the help she needs.”
This will help your daughter to learn the difference between problems that can and should be solved, and problems that are best dealt with just be sharing them with someone who cares.
But what if you identify something in the vent you can really help with?
“Consider saying, ‘I have a different take on the situation. Do you want to hear it?’” says Dr Damour. “If she says yes, carry on. Should she say no, bite your tongue and find comfort in the knowledge that your daughter is now aware that she shouldn’t mistake your silence for a tacit endorsement of her views.”
Of course, teenage girls won’t always vent in such a considerate way. Sometimes they may take their emotions out on family members, and Dr Damour says it’s important to stand your ground.
“Congratulate yourself when you can get your daughter to advance to venting, because there will be times when you won’t even be able to get how she expresses her displeasure up to the level of complaining (much less venting). These are the days when she simply takes out her annoyance on anyone in her path – a particularly unpleasant, and common, form of using you (your other children, or the family dog) as an emotional dumping ground.
“If your daughter feels that she must punish your family for her bad day, you might let one or two cutting comments pass. But, if it becomes clear that she plans to be wretched all evening, go ahead and say, ‘You may not be in a good mood, but you are not allowed to mistreat us. If you want to talk about what’s bugging you, I’m all ears. If you’re going to be salty all night, don’t do it here.’”
If you’d like to read Dr Damour’s excellent advice on raising healthy teenage girls, you can buy her book here.