teens

"You are the worst mother in the world!": The reality of being a mum to a 14-year-old girl.

‘No-one could ever replace you as my mother. I would do anything for you.’ SIENA, 8

‘I love my mother and everything, but it’s not cool to say that.’ AUGUSTA, 14

Those Hallmark cards have nothing on the treasured stash of home-made greetings mothers receive from their young daughters. Dive back through them, and you’re guaranteed a broad smile. We are their all, early on: their defender, their keeper of secrets and their inspiration. We can do no wrong, as they copy our walk and our talk and follow us into the toilet, just to be with us.

One of my favourite Mother’s Day gifts was a book of homemade vouchers – I received one from both my daughters when they were aged about seven and eight. Each voucher entitled me to the sweet treats I’d obviously yearned for, at that time.

Daily hugs, kisses, back rubs, quiet time, even being allowed to go to the toilet by myself. They were all promised, in a little book, stapled together by a child. Their genius was the promise that they’d never run out. I know they will.

Most teen girls – and more often than not it’s around that sticky age of 13 and 14 – will see their mother through another prism. They will no longer see her as their defender, they’ll choose to share their secrets with their friends, and home will not muster up an iota of inspiration. In your daughter’s mind, she is being consistent; it’s you who has changed. Overnight, she might even come to the conclusion that you are hell-bent on ruining her life.

‘You are the worst mother in the world,’ she may shout as the door slams on her bedroom. ‘You couldn’t possibly understand how I feel.’ ‘You don’t trust me.’ Or even, ‘Why can’t you be like the other mothers? I wish I had one of them.’ Home becomes a theatre, and mothers find themselves starring as the villain in a daily drama.

The mother–daughter relationship is as unique as it is wondrous, and no matter how bumpy those teenage years can be, it’s a union that is almost always built for life. Sometimes, within months of your relationship having been turned on its head, your kind, open daughter will return through the front door. Other times, it might take years.

The mother daughter relationship oftens changes when they become a teen. Image iStock
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But usually, by the time she has her own child, she will be knocking on the door with an understanding of a mother, herself. Once again you will become her best defender, the keeper of her secrets and the font of wisdom.

What’s hard, for many mothers, is the acceptance that the relationship between mother and daughter must change. Those childhood ties have to give way to adulthood. Physically, she is growing into a woman. Biologically, she is becoming a sexual adult. Psychologically, she is working out who she is, and where she sits in a big world, outside her family.

'Ask any mother of daughters and she will say that the only thing tougher than being an adolescent girl is being her mother,' Marise McConaghy told the Strathcona mothers of Year 12s. ‘Ask any daughter and she will say that adolescence is the time she most wants her mother emotionally, but is also most resistant to this need.’

That’s true. That’s exactly what the 14-year-olds I asked told me. Almost unanimously they said they wanted a close relationship with their mother. ‘She just kind of goes all child and family psychologist on me,’ says Anthea. ‘She just doesn’t understand and we both end up yelling,’ says Beth.

Some of them acknowledge that they are lucky enough to call their union close. ‘My mum always knows what to say and I trust her unconditionally,’ Sue says. ‘I talk to Mum all the time because she makes me feel better,’ Lucia says. But many of them yearn for a closer relationship, even to the point of contacting Kids Helpline in seeking it.

‘She’s just too busy,’ says Karen. Alex says her relationship with her mother has taught her how she will parent a teen girl. ‘I’ll try as hard as possible to let her say exactly what she is feeling and allow her to say whatever she wants and talk about anything with me,’ she says. And Samantha: ‘I’ll make sure I talk to her and make sure everything is okay at school and home.’

Perhaps intriguingly, most girls, despite being so articulate, don’t know how to seek that relationship. They don’t want to be the little girl who handed over the schmaltzy Mother’s Day cards, and wasn’t it their mother’s job to improve their relationship anyway?

‘For both mother and daughter then, adolescence and young adulthood is a time when the potential for feeling lonely, confused, misunderstood and hurt by the other may be at its peak,’ McConaghy says. ‘The adolescent girl is going through a complex and important process vital to her development and capacity to flourish in the world. However, it is more confusing because where she is in this process slides backwards and forwards, and in one day your breath might be taken away by her maturity, integrity and thoughtfulness and the next by disappointment in her childish selfishness and self-indulgence. Also, she can be hard to read and difficult to trust because she may be completely honest and transparent about some matters, yet feel that it is morally acceptable to deceive and dissemble about other matters, such as the level of parental supervision at ‘gatherings’, or where she actually was for the duration of a Saturday-night outing.’ Sound familiar?

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raising teenage daughters
"Ask any mother of daughters and she will say that the only thing tougher than being an adolescent girl is being her mother." (Image: iStock)

Fran Reddan, principal of Mentone Girls’ Grammar School in Victoria, describes an analogy she heard somewhere, that a girl’s mother becomes a bit like the edge of a swimming pool during her daughter’s adolescence. ‘The girl goes and swims out and tries things and then comes back to the side – that is her mum – to catch her breath. Then when she kicks away, it is like a kick to Mum.’ It’s the perfect analogy.

‘I feel for the mums,’ Reddan says. ‘I really feel that the relationship between a girl and her mum at that particular stage gets really tough, because they [the girls] know how to push buttons.’ An unusual and unfamiliar creature walks out of the bedroom inhabited only a few years ago by their ‘lovely, uninhibited, gorgeous angel of a 10-year-old', she says.

No doubt exists, though, that a mother’s investment in the relationship she has with her daughter is the best investment she can make. But it’s also a high-stakes investment – arguably more than for previous generations. Families are choosing to have fewer children, so the time that used to be spread across six or seven or eight siblings years ago, is now focused on one or two. Add a couple of other ingredients – those opportunities a mother might have missed in her own childhood, or the goals she holds for her precious daughter – and the urge to keep control of the puppet strings can be overwhelming.

"‘The adolescent girl is going through a complex and important process vital to her development and capacity to flourish in the world." (Image: iStock)
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So too can the feeling of guilt. Perhaps you missed a school sports day, or arrived late for your daughter’s violin performance? A new dress might be the solution. Is that so bad? Experts responded with an ‘it depends’. It appears it comes down to our own motivation. ‘Perhaps it’s a case of we do it because we can,’ one expert said. But it’s also possible that we’re doing it because ‘we think we should’.

Alan Ralph raises another issue here that might highlight a difference between our daughters’ lives and those of our grandmothers. Once upon a time, in big families, horizontal relationships developed easily. Siblings would help each other; sisters might end up also being best friends. Now, with fewer children, those horizontal relationships are changing. ‘We’re seeing a vertical relationship between grandmothers and mothers and daughters because there is no-one horizontally,’ Ralph says. The girls point to that, too. Although some of them certainly still rely on their big sisters for advice, many of them are cared for by their grandparents, because their mothers and fathers are at work.

At a big parenting night in Brisbane, put on by local MP Di Farmer, Ralph holds the stage. The audience is made up of parents; probably 90 per cent of them are mothers, and the questions are mostly what Ralph expects. Sibling arguments and social media are both  high on the priority list. But the umbrella issue, Ralph sees, is a concern by parents about how to prepare their children for the future. ‘It used to be the case that you got a good education, you got a good job, you stayed in that job for 20 or 30 years and you worked your way up the ranks . . . that’s gone. What is it that parents need to teach their kids, and where do they get it from?’

"A mother’s investment in the relationship she has with her daughter is the best investment she can make." (Image: iStock)
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He says while evidence has shown that what you do when your child is a toddler is vital, there’s another set of evidence around the ages of 11, 12 and 13 that provides parents with further opportunities. He tells his audiences to be clear about the values they have, and find ways to imbue them in your teens; to have clear expectations and rules (making sure they are reasonable); and to make friends with your teen’s friends’ parents. This latter piece of advice no-one else has offered along the way of my research.

Later, he tells me that often parents become isolated from other parents of kids the same age. ‘At primary school it is easy: you meet in the pick-up line, you probably even live in the same area.’ That’s true. Once our children go to high school, they make their own way to and from schools, and their friends might live, geographically, a  world away. That means the ability to connect with other mothers going through the same parenting period is diminished. And, according to Ralph, that can provide the teens with a winning advantage. ‘That puts you at a disadvantage, because one of the standard mantras that teens adopt when they’re trying to get parents to let them do something is, “All my friends are doing that.”’ Having contact with other parents, with children the same age allows you to check that.

With so much invested in our daughters, sometimes the pull as mothers to be their friends, not their parents, is strong. Everyone I talked to labelled that a bad idea, mainly because it changes the relationship. First, it’s harder to set boundaries and rules. ‘If you’ve got that goal of wanting to be a friend, it can impact quite dramatically on your capacity to act as a parent in setting those boundaries,’ Ralph says.

It can also set up conflict between parents if the father wants to enforce those boundaries. Marise McConaghy tells mothers that the role of being a parent is far more precious than trying to be their friend. ‘You will always be her mother, her first love and her earliest and most important attachment figure, and nothing, not even adolescence, can take that away from you,’ she says.

‘Of course, she has to go through adolescence, just as you did, and you both have to survive it. She has to reject you, quietly or not, and you have to survive that rejection. She has to become separate and independent and so she has to become disillusioned with you as the centre of her world, and you have to allow her to do that. She has to know that you are not perfect, because she certainly knows that she is not, and how can she grow up if she thinks that this necessitates perfection? She has to become critical of you to prove to herself that she is “not you”, and you have to let her.’

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"As mothers, we shouldn’t take our daughters’ 14-year-old interactions with us personally." (Image: iStock)

Caroline Paul, the US author of The Gutsy Girl, Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, says studies show daughters are being parented differently from sons, and that’s something mothers need to be keenly aware of. ‘I think without a doubt that women are transferring caution and fear to their daughters,’ she says. More effort had to be given to providing the girl with the language of bravery. Paul’s comments made me think, immediately, of a terrific TED talk delivered by Reshma Saujani, titled ‘Teach girls bravery, not perfection’.

Reshma talks about her decision to run for the US Congress. ‘For years, I had existed safely behind the scenes in politics as a fundraiser, as an organiser, but in my heart I always wanted to run,’ she says in her talk. ‘My pollsters told me that I was crazy to run, that there was no way that I could win.’ She ran anyway, and ended up feeling humiliated. ‘I only got 19 per cent of the vote, and the same papers that said I was a rising political star now said I wasted $1.3 million on 6321 votes. Don’t do the math. It was humiliating.’

But she says at the age of 33, it was the first time she had done something ‘truly brave’ where her determination was not to be perfect. ‘Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. We’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all As. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off headfirst. And by the time they’re adults, whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they’re habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it. It’s often said in Silicon Valley, no-one even takes you seriously unless you’ve had two failed start-ups.’ In other words, she says, ‘we’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave.’

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So in the same year as her attempt to run for Congress – 2012 – Reshma started a company to teach girls to code, which can be painstaking and challenging, where a full stop can mark the difference between something working and something failing. It requires persistence, determination and patience, and often success only comes after failure. She found that girls wouldn’t show the progress of their work, unless it was right. It was, in her words, ‘perfection or bust’. ‘We have to begin to undo the socialisation of perfection, but we’ve got to combine it with building a sisterhood that lets girls know that they are not alone,’ Reshma says.

Perhaps the most common piece of advice I received in the research for this chapter was that, as mothers, we shouldn’t take our daughters’ 14-year-old interactions with us personally. Sometimes we need to bite our tongue, but keep the communication lines open. Our daughters, on some days, are struggling to know where they are headed next. It’s as confusing for them as it is concerning for us. Perhaps that makes it an adventure? ‘No matter how many daughters you have,’ Marise McConaghy says, ‘you have never had this adolescent girl before, which means you are both in uncharted territory, so try to set up an environment which allows both of you to proceed with caution.’

Madonna King is an accomplished journalist. For Being 14 King interviewed 200 14-year-old girls from across the country as well as leading psychologists, principals, police and neuroscientists to reveal the social, psychological and physical challenges every 14-year-old girl is facing today.

This is an edited extract from Being 14 by Madonna King published by Hachette Australia on 28 March 2017 RRP $32.99.

You can buy the book here.

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