When your teenage daughter has an eating disorder, you want to do everything you can to support her through healing. But, let’s be honest. Nobody gives you a cape and an award for the hard work involved. In fact, most of the time being with your daughter is pretty crappy.
Almost nothing is more upsetting than a raging, rude and disrespectful teenage girl. She can fly into an emotional rage that completely takes all rationality out of the room in an instant, and can flatten your hopes and dreams to build connection and love in your home. It can be devastating for even the strongest moms.
But don’t despair! There is hope.
Hope comes not in trying to make your daughter change. It might seem like the answer is to get her “under control.” But handling a raging teenage daughter requires changing your own perspective so that you are not damaged by her behavior when it inevitably happens (and it will – sorry!). Let go of the idea that she should stop yelling, or that you can rationally talk to her when she is shrieking and screaming, and instead learn to accept this behavior as normal and even acceptable in teenage girls.
“Perhaps the greatest skill for a parent today is learning not to be hurt, truly understanding that what teenagers say and scream means nothing other than that they are teenagers,” says Anthony E. Wolf, author of Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager.
Accepting that teenage girls are typically emotionally volatile and use their vocal chords to express all feelings as they come does not mean that you condone what they do, but you can understand it and also learn to not take it personally. Your daughter’s behavior towards you “in no way diminishes who you are and what you do,” says Wolf.
The thing to understand about teenagers is that they are in between their “baby selves” and their “adult selves.” This transition is critical, and also very confusing. While their baby selves really want your care and attention, their adult selves are desperate to separate from you and become grown-ups who don’t need you anymore. This tension can feel unbearably uncomfortable.
The ways girls typically handle this transition is by fighting with you. It sounds really strange, but fighting allows them to continue a relationship with their parents that meet their baby needs while also making them feel as if they are not babies. They actually think that “using their words” to fight with you shows how grown up and independent they are, while also fulfilling their needs for parental engagement.
This is why we often shake our heads in wonder, trying to figure out what we’re even arguing about and why we are arguing about it. In fact, the completely nonsensical arguments are our daughters’ most obvious (though misguided) attempts to connect with us.
The bottom line is that our girls desperately need us during the adolescent stage of their lives, but they have a really uncomfortable way of showing their need. By yelling and engaging in debates with us over pointless topics, they are making sure that we are still paying attention to them. And to them, attention – even if it is negative attention – is love.
When we are able to recognize their volatility for what it is – an attempt to gain our love – we are able to separate ourselves from their yelling and focus on what they really need. The key is to change the way we communicate during a controversial conversation. Here are the rules of engagement:
Listen to what she says, calmly and without reaction to the way she says it (i.e. yelling).
She may say: “I can’t believe you won’t let me go to the party! You know how badly I want to go! Everybody else is going, and it’s so annoying! You won’t let me grow up! You treat me like a baby! I can’t stand it anymore!”
Respond with a reflection that you heard what she said and a statement of your boundaries on the issue.
You may say: “I hear what you’re saying. You’re really upset about this, and I’m sorry about that. Nonetheless, you may not go to the party.”
She will likely respond with another angry tirade. This is her attempt to engage you in a fight. Do not fall for it.
Once she is finished with her tirade (don’t interrupt her – just let it flow), repeat what you said in #2. Remember, this shows that you are giving her attention by listening without interrupting. You are also holding steady and not reacting negatively to her request for attention.
Repeat this process as often as necessary to let her know that you both hear her concerns and will remain firm in your parenting.
This approach to controversial conversations with your teenage daughters will, instead of escalating and then devolving into despair, prove to your daughter that you both hear her and are still keeping her safe in the world. She may not like how you choose to keep her safe, but she will respect you for it (but don’t expect her to tell you that!).
This applies to any controversy you encounter with your teenage daughter. Whether she is fighting you about eating or not eating, wearing a teeny tiny skirt, going to a party, painting her room black, staying in her room all day, or going to therapy appointments, the approach is the same: listen, acknowledge, and state your decision clearly and consistently.
“You need confidence and not confidence that you are always making the right decision,” says Wolf. “Nobody can do that – or that you are always in control of the kid – nobody can even come close to doing that. Rather, you need the confidence that you are the right person for the job and that your efforts are definitely not in vain.”
So – it’s OK – in fact, it’s totally normal and would be weird if you didn’t – if sometimes you feel deep anger, rage and even hate when your teenage daughter is raging rudely at you. Take a breath, and remember that her baby self is trying to get the attention it needs. Rather than engaging with the very unreasonable baby self, stay compassionate and firm in the face of what may feel very much like insanity. Trust us, it works!
We love this book – it provides a helpful and engaging look at the teenage brain, and lets us all know that we’re doing all right. Just because our kids yell at us or act like monsters sometimes does not mean we are failing as parents – it just means they are teenagers. Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager, Revised and Updated, by Anthony E. Wolf.