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The Competent Parent: Changing roles for mother and daughter


Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Dear Dr. Debbie,


My loving, creative, free-spirited daughter is turning into a teenager. She’s 13 so I guess I should have expected it. She spends inordinate amounts of time in her room, mostly on the phone with her friends, and seems annoyed if I come in. She is slipping in a couple of subjects at school, and the last report card day she lied and said she hadn’t gotten one. Three days later, I was assured by the school office that indeed they did go out so I went in to get a copy and saw her less than stellar grades. I think I’m more angry about the deception than about the grades.

I have been a devoted single mom, surrounding her with the support of my own family. What gives?

Feeling Lost

Dear Feeling Lost,

Changes are stirring. She has entered the stage called adolescence—morphing into an adult—and the changes are tough on everyone. One major difference is that instead of steadily gaining skills, she starts to slip in areas you though were firmly in place. She used to be so trustworthy! Used to make good decisions and act responsibly! Brain development—the connections of neurons to other neurons—has peaked at age 12 and now starts a “pruning process” such that pathways are unraveling in preparation for the adult pathways that will form over the next several years and decades. So expect some missteps from her. And for yourself, expect some emotional reactions to her blunders.

When you are not confident she can make it without you, your protective instincts take over. Including anger toward the object of your protection. Why would she lie about report card day? Did she actually believe that would prevent you from finding out about the poor grades? Maybe it was suggested by a friend who was trying to help her. Somehow what a friend tells you makes complete sense in the absence of any adults. Or maybe in a moment of hormonal flux she acted impulsively. Monthly hormone swings can cause feelings of anxiety, irritability and depression. Don’t try too hard to make sense of her actions—I’m sure even she would have trouble explaining them.

Your mother-daughter relationship is evolving so she can become her own person and so you can step back from the role you have played so well for the past 13 years. This is going to take about five more years, however, so please be patient.

The earlier years gave her a foundation for standards of behavior, values, family traditions, etc. Now she must reexamine and compare herself with her peers. Mostly, according to adolescent development theory, she will wind up more like you than any of her peers (or their mothers), but for the next few years it will seem as if she is your opposite in many ways. For example, if honesty has been an important factor of your relationship, she may be trying to find out what dishonesty feels like. You should still give out reasonable and predictable consequences for infractions. She needs continued consistency for her mother’s standards for her behavior, especially if the peer group’s alternative standards would put her in jeopardy. However, on less serious differences, let her experiment. She may want to try vegetarianism, or start a yodeling club at school, or wear non-matching socks (actually that’s already becoming mainstream). If you talk with other parents—or former parents—of this age group you will find many examples of “trying out opposites” and poor decision making.

Take comfort in the universality of this perplexing and often vexing age by reading: “Get Out of My Life But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?” By Dr. Anthony Wolf. Or visit Dr. Wolf’s website.

She still needs you,

Dr. Debbie

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