Some days I feel like a priest at confessional as parents come to me "confessing" how uncertain they feel about their own skill set and ability to nurture and support their growing girls. I see the doubt in their faces, the concern, and I also see the fatigue. I know how they long for the days when their little girl entered the kitchen with a bright smile or snuggled close with them to watch a movie together. Suddenly their bundle of joy has been replaced by an imposter — their preteen — bearing her midriff, standing in the doorway with one hand on her hip, and giving attitude that can last for days.
After years of experience journeying alongside preteen girls and their parents, I can clearly see the frustrations and despair parents experience as they try to be close and connected with their daughters, yet often end up derailing. I want to offer ideas for getting parents back on track.
Reasons for derailing
Not enough listening
It's all too easy to be half-listening or multitasking while she reports the "hot topics" of her day. It common to become distracted by our own thoughts and "to do" lists. Yet, when she is talking, we need to try to give her our full attention — with our responses and our body language. Girls have this "sixth sense" and know exactly when we lose focus. Not only do they feel it, but also they often conclude their parents "don't really care about them," often resulting in a meltdown or a shutdown.
When girls express their feelings, parents can dismiss or minimize feelings by saying, "You can't feel sad about that" or "Don't be afraid, there is nothing to fear." The problem with these kinds of responses is that she won't feel heard or validated. She may become agitated and irritable. Instead, try, "That does seem sad" or "I completely understand your fear." Empathy is the optimal point of entry to help her feel calm and safe enough to open up to us as she explores her emotional self.
Girls disconnect when they feel judged, criticized, and not heard. They will pull away with our phrases such as, "Enough with your complaining" or "You are planning on wearing that outfit," "How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your clothes off the floor." Try curiosity and care first. Ask her how she is doing, how her day played out, and what's on her mind first — a chance to share her story. The teachable moments around her language, clothing, and household responsibilities can come second.
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Taking her changing moods personally
When her moods go up and down like a roller coaster, from ecstasy to devastation, don't panic. This is somewhat normal. She is growing. This means there are so many changes all at once and inevitable stressors. Her moods are really her responses to what she is experiencing in often unchartered, unpredictable territory. Instead of reacting to her moods or thinking her moods are about you, learn to ride the coaster by assuring her you will give her what she needs — whether that is space or a listening ear.
How to get back on track
Be available and look for opportunities to connect
This means no multitasking and no distractions. She needs you to be present and provide quality attention. Some of the best conversations happen naturally and spontaneously: on the ride home, while cooking dinner, walking by her bedroom in the evening, or when she flops on your bed. Be ready for comments she makes in passing — they have more weight than you may first realize. She may not want to talk but she needs to know we are fully available. This takes practice but as you become more aware and attuned, you will improve at capturing and relishing these moments.
Practice tone of voice and ask open-ended questions
Be calm, warm and friendly when you speak to her — never critical or harsh. This will make all the difference in how she responds to you and this also helps her to feel calm and safe in the conversation. Come from a place of curiosity, not criticism. Try, "What was the best part of your day today?" instead of, "Did you have a good day?" Also, be creative with your questions to surprise her and get her thinking. Ask her what was most challenging or stressful about at school or what she is most proud of accomplishing, what she is posting and what she is viewing online. These kinds of questions become an invitation for meaningful conversation.
It's naturally to launch into the "to do" list of chores and check-ins and we can be very task focused. After school, where she has had to "hold it all together" all day, it's important to allow her time to unburden and release. Try to listen patiently and focus on her day before conveying what's on your agenda.
As girls get to know themselves, it's important that we reflect back how we see them changing and growing. Offer her compliments, observations, insights and affirmations. There is no greater gift than noticing her and how she is learning to speak positively about herself, to take risks, and to be brave and bold.
When you feel it's challenging to connect with your preteen, know that sometimes, it is! Preteen girls are hyper sensitive and will sense any and all subtle nuances in communication and feel misunderstood and rejected. Despite your best, most loving intentions, some days you will feel off track with her. Know this: they want to connect and they do need you but they may not always know how to show you. Don't conclude you are doing it wrong (and don't feel you need to confess). Instead, try these ideas for getting back on track.
Lindsay Sealey is the author of "Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years," now available on Amazon. She is also the founder and CEO of Bold New Girls and lives in Vancouver.
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