The parenting advice that changed my relationship with my teenaged daughter
A few weeks ago I picked up my 14-year-old daughter and her friend from dance class. The two girls chatted happily until I reached the friend's house.
"Thanks for the ride!" she called out before shutting the door of my minivan and running up the steps.
I began the drive home and my daughter, who had been talking nonstop a minute before, went completely silent. She was in the back seat and I assumed she was lost in thought. We sat in companionable silence, an Ariane Grande song playing on the radio. I thought about how nice it was to be together in the car, neither of us feeling the need to fill the air with conversation.
Then I came to a stoplight and looked in the rearview mirror. My daughter wasn't looking out the window or staring into space — she was on her phone. The fantasy I'd just constructed was shattered and I felt my anger rise.
"Get off your phone. That's rude. You make me feel like an Uber driver," I snapped.
"But I'm texting friends about biology homework!" she said.
"That can wait," I replied.
The happy silence was gone. I was mad and she was irritated she couldn't finish texting her friends. Neither of us spoke for the rest of the ride.
I stomped into the house and went into the kitchen. She disappeared into her room. As I worked on finishing dinner I realized I was being ridiculous. My daughter is kind and respectful, but she's also a teenager. What teenager wants to make conversation with her mom when she's tired after a long day at school?
I've never been a clingy, helicopter mom. My son and daughter, now 11 and 14, walked home from school at an early age. My husband and I worked hard to instill confidence as the kids moved through elementary school, and every time they reached a new level of independence, like going away to camp or taking a short flight on their own, I felt proud. This new stage is different. I'm not the one in charge of bestowing independence on my daughter. Now she's moving forward at her own pace, and relinquishing control is more difficult than I thought.
I chopped the vegetables for a salad and thought about how I was still trying to take control of my daughter's growing independence, which was fruitless. If I didn't find a better way to cope I risked poisoning the few years she had left at home. I needed a new perspective.
The next day I was thinking about my carpool temper tantrum when a friend in my Facebook feed recommended an episode of the parenting podcast Spawned in which the hosts interviewed Dr. Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician and the author of five parenting books and the co-founder and director of programs at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.
The episode, which was about how to communicate with teens, completely changed my perspective.
Ginsburg said when our kids become teenagers they're deep in the process of figuring out who they are. Part of finding their own identity is seeing themselves as different from their parents, especially if they are similar to us.
The answer to the question "Why is my teen pushing me away?" Ginsburg said, is not what you think. It's not because they hate us — it's because they love us so intensely.
"If you know that and believe that to your inner core, you can get through anything. A slammed door will mean nothing to you. A rolled eye will mean nothing to you. Your daughter being embarrassed by the way you breathe will mean nothing to you other than the compliment it really is," he said.
When I heard this I was walking the dog. It was such a revelation I stopped, pulled out my phone, hit the back button, and listened again.
I lashed out in the car because my feelings were hurt when my daughter ignored me. I was feeling insecure about our relationship, worrying that her desire to spend most of her time with friends meant she didn't care about me. I'd become convinced these small moments were evidence she didn't love me, instead of just that: small moments.
Nagging her to pay attention to me wasn't going to bring her closer. It never does.
"The reason kids push us away is not because they don't like us," Ginsburg said, "it's because they relate to us so intensely and yet they know they have to become independent. So this is a process of figuring out how to push away the things they love the most."
My daughter needs to know that as she tries new things and strikes out on her own she can trust I'll love her for who she is. She doesn't need me to be jealous of her attention or monitor the time she spends with friends.
"It is insanity to fly from a comfortable nest," Ginsburg said, so teens get ready for it by temporarily pushing their parents away.
When parents hover and get angry at perceived — or real — slights, we create more distance. This doesn't mean letting teens live rule-free, but it does mean honoring their independence and giving them space to figure out who they are.
This new insight doesn't mean I let everything slide. I still get irritated when she leaves her wet towel on the floor for days, because how hard is it to hang up a towel? However, focusing mostly on the big issues has created space for both of us to navigate this monumental developmental challenge as teammates, not adversaries.
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