Dear Dr. Wes and Samantha: I’d like to be closer to my teen daughter, 13, who is suddenly pulling away in favor of friends. I realize this is part of the natural independence process, but here is my dilemma. We have two children, the daughter and a 10-year-old son. He is happy, friendly, emotionally attentive and considerate. He is outgoing and pleasant and enjoys time with mom. He physically resembles his dad, but his personality is similar to mine, so it’s an easy relationship. My daughter is more independent and willful, physically resembling me but different personality-wise. I am concerned about treating them equally. I love them both, but he is easier to be around, and I worry about favoring him. My daughter is shy by nature but is suddenly a bit more irritable toward us. I want to treat them both equally, but I struggle with her attitude. How do I reconcile these feelings? I fear caring for one more than the other.
Samantha: First, I want to commend you for being so in touch with your feelings about your children. Not all parents realize when they’re choosing favorites, and it sounds like you know you should resist the temptation to do so as much as possible.
It’s totally natural to feel closer to one of your children when the other is going through a difficult phase. The key word here is phase. Your teen daughter is not going to ignore you to spend time with her friends forever, and, unfortunately, your son won’t stay a mom-adoring, 10-year-old delight either. Right now, your son is the one with whom you connect. He wants to be around you, and he makes you feel needed. Your daughter, on the other hand, is experimenting with independence, and that’s OK.
You and your daughter will naturally disagree more during this phase of her life, but it is my prediction that you’ll end up good friends. Sometimes having opposite personalities makes for a great relationship in the long run. If your daughter is similar to your husband and you like your husband, you’ll eventually like her.
Remember: you don’t have to like your daughter through every minute of this phase; you just have to love her. And it’s not that you love your son more right now, you just like him better because your personalities match. She may drive you crazy, but she’ll always be your daughter. That being said, it’s important to pick your battles. A little more eyeliner than you approve of? Let it go. Gobs of eyeliner, a mini-skirt and fishnet tights? Take a stand.
During this phase, fights will be abundant, so you’ll want some positive interactions to balance the negative ones. Find something you like to do together. It may involve some compromise on your end. Bear with her through a dumb reality TV show, offer to straighten her hair, or laugh with her at YouTube videos. Make it clear that you want to spend time with her whenever she’s interested.
I know this is a frustrating time, but you and your daughter can get through this phase with a happy ending if you stay positive and find ways to connect with her. Best of luck!
Wes: As the year progresses, it gets harder and harder to match Samantha’s advice. Thankfully, she only has a couple of weeks left to show me up, then off to college where she belongs. I agree with everything she suggests, and I’d add the following. Parenting is by far the most selfless act we do as modern Americans. In previous generations, this was not so. We raised kids for labor on the farm, to take care of us in our old age and to provide grandchildren to do more of the same. Today the act of raising a child has mostly spiritual and emotional benefits, which is why I’m such an advocate of planned pregnancy. We each need to be as ready as possible, before we take on this important role. Our little way to change the world.
Unfortunately the higher ideals of parenting fade into the fog of adolescence as kids reach the age of 13, regardless of how well things started out. So this may not get any better until your daughter is out of the home. That’s actually one of the reasons I love working with this age group and writing about them — because they are so interesting, complex and unpredictable. But in the end the rewards are tremendous.
The best thing you can do over the next few years is to transcend your ego. Think first about your daughter’s needs (and I don’t mean an iPod Touch). Try not to take her distancing personally, but always be personally ready to support her through it. Demand that she (and your son, just a few years behind) be ethical and moral people, and hold them to reasonable standards, no matter how they may resist or hate you for it. At the same time, accept graciously the fact that they will rarely be respectful during that process. Real respect doesn’t gel in adults until the mid-20s when, if you do your job correctly, your daughter will awaken one day and gasp, “Oh my God, mom was so right about [fill in the blank].” And that is as it should be. Be patient. Nobody I know is interested in raising a good teenager. We are instead interested in raising good adults. The path from here to there lies unavoidably along the stressful years of adolescence. It is up to you to manage how that relationship works, even if your daughter has all the power to engage in it.
I’ll leave you with my favorite quote about parenting from Garrison Keillor, oft cited in this column over the years. “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted. They seem not to notice us, hovering, averting our eyes, and they seldom offer thanks, but what we do for them is never wasted.”