Welcome to the wonderful world of your daughter’s adolescence. Ten seconds ago she was a sweet, confident, world-beating little girl who looked up to you. Now she’s changing before your very eyes—she’s confused, insecure, often surly, lashing out. On a good day, she’s teary and threatening to run away. On a bad day, you’re ready to help her pack her suitcase. She’s facing the toughest pressures of adolescent life—test-driving her new body, figuring out the social whirl, toughing it out in school—and intuitively you know that even though she’s sometimes totally obnoxious, she needs you more than ever. Yet it’s the very time when she’s pulling away from you.
Why do teenage and preteen girls so often reject their parents and turn to their girlfriends instead—even when those friends often treat them so cruelly?
Every girl I know has been hurt by her girlfriends. One day your daughter comes to school and her friends suddenly decide she no longer belongs. Or she’s teased mercilessly for wearing the wrong outfit or having the wrong friend. Maybe she’s branded with a reputation she can’t shake. Or trapped, feeling she has to conform to what her friends expect from her so she won’t be kicked out of the group. No matter what they do to her, she still feels that her friends know her best and want what is best for her. In comparison, she believes that you, previously a reliable source of information, don’t have a clue. For parents, being rejected by your daughter is an excruciating experience. Especially when you’re immediately replaced by a group of girls with all the tact, sense of fairness, and social graces of a pack of marauding hyenas.
Whatever you feel as your daughter goes through this process, you can be sure that she’ll go through her share of humiliating experiences and constant insecurity—that’s normal for teens. Most people believe a girl’s task is to get through it, grow up, and put those experiences behind her. But your daughter’s relationships with other girls have much deeper and farther-reaching implications beyond her turbulent teen years.
Your daughter’s friendships with other girls are a double-edged sword—they’re key to surviving adolescence, yet they can be the biggest threat to her survival as well. The friendships with the girls in her clique are a template for many relationships she’ll have as an adult. Many girls will make it through their teen years precisely because they have the support and care of a few good friends. These are the friendships where a girl truly feels unconditionally accepted and understood—and they can last into adulthood and support her search for adult relationships.
On the other hand, girls can be each other’s worst enemies. Girls’ friendships in adolescence are often intense, confusing, frustrating, and humiliating, the joy and security of “best friends” shattered by devastating breakups and betrayals. Girls’ reactions to the ups and downs of these friendships are as intense as they’ll later feel in intimate relationships.
These early relationships can propel girls into making dangerous decisions and shape how they mature into young women. But your daughter is too close to it all to realize the good and bad influence of her friends. She needs guidance from you.
This book will examine cliques, reputations, gossiping, rebellion, bullying, crushes, and boyfriends. It will show you how your daughter is conditioned to remain silent when intimidated by more powerful girls—and the lessons she learns from this experience. It will teach you how to recognize which friends will support her and which could lead her toward situations that threaten her emotional health and sometimes even her physical safety. It’ll show you how your daughter’s place in her social pecking order can affect whether she’ll be a perpetrator, bystander, or victim of violence when she’s older. This book will also reveal how these dynamics contribute to the disconnection and struggle between the two of you.
I’ll also describe and explain the key rites of passage your daughter is likely to experience: getting an invitation to an exclusive party in sixth grade . . . or getting left off the guest list; her first breakup with a friend; the first time she dresses up for a party in the latest style; and so on. These are all critical milestones for her, but they’re rites of passage for you, too. Just as they can be exhilarating or traumatizing for her, they can be equally challenging for you as her parent, and not just in terms of the extent to which they try your patience; mishandling them can threaten your relationship with her. I’ll help you navigate them together.
Moreover, this book will show you how constantly changing cultural ideals of femininity impact your daughter’s self-esteem, friendships, and social status and can combine to make her more likely to have sex at an early age and be vulnerable to violence at the hands of some men and boys. It will also explain what you can do to help your daughter avoid these pitfalls.
Understanding your teen or preteen daughter’s friendships and social life can be difficult and frustrating. Parents often tell me they feel totally shut out from this part of their daughter’s life, incapable of exerting any influence.
This book will let you in. It’ll show how to help your daughter deal with the nasty things girls do to one another and minimize the negative effects of what’s often an invisible war behind girls’ friendships.
Before I go any further, let me reassure you that I can help you even if you often feel that you’re at war with your daughter.
It’s perfectly natural at this stage that she:
* Stops looking to you for answers.
* Doesn’t respect your opinion as much as she did before.
* Believes that there’s no possible way that you could understand what she’s going through.
* Lies and sneaks behind your back.
* Denies she lied and went behind your back—even in the face of undeniable evidence.
On the other hand, it’s natural that you:
* Feel rejected when she rolls her eyes at everything you say.
* Have moments when you really don’t like her.
* Wonder whose child this is anyway because this person in front of you can’t possibly be your sweet wonderful daughter.
* Feel confused when conversations end in fights.
* Feel misunderstood when she feels you’re intruding and prying when you ask what’s going on in her life.
* Are really worried about the influence of her friends and feel powerless to stop her hanging out with them. (Because, of course, she’ll keep the friends you don’t like if you expressly forbid her from seeing them.)
The Mother/Daughter Maelstrom
Moms and daughters seem to have the hardest time with each other during girls’ adolescence. Your daughter craves privacy, and you directly threaten her sense of privacy. You feel you have so much to offer her—after all, you’ve been through the changes she’s experiencing—and you think your advice will help. Think of your daughter as a beaver; she’s constantly cutting down logs, branches, twigs, anything she can find, dragging them to her den, trying to create a safe haven from the outside world. In her eyes, you’re always stomping on it: asking why the logs are there in the first place when you have this nice one that would look so pretty; rearranging the branches; hovering around the entranceway yelling your suggestions and saying that it would look much better if it was just a little more organized. You’re not just totally disturbing her peace, you’re storming her sacred retreat.
While this privacy war is natural, it creates a big problem. Girls are often so focused on resisting the influence of their parents that they rarely see when their peers are influencing them in the wrong way. Teens often see things in very concrete, either/or ways. You, as the parent, are intrusive and prying, which equals bad; her peers are involved and understanding, which equals good. She pushes you away, making even more space for the bad influences.
Fathers Feel It, Too
This book isn’t only for mothers. Fathers also have struggles with the child who just moments ago was “Daddy’s little girl.” Still, there are many ways your unique perspective can help your daughter. Just because you were never a girl doesn’t mean you can’t help your daughter get through all this mess. In fact, it could be a lot worse. You could be the mother. Even if you’re raising your daughter on your own, you still probably won’t get into the teeth-baring, no-holds-barred battles that mothers and daughters do. I know lots of dads feel rejected and pushed aside when their little girl suddenly turns into a moody teenager. But in reality, this is an opportunity for you to become a genuinely cool dad. I don’t mean you let her get away with stuff, side with her against the mom, or drive her wherever she wants. I’m talking about the dad who patiently waits around until she wants to talk, then listens without being judgmental, isn’t afraid to look foolish or show his emotions, shares the “boy perspective,” and is able to communicate his concerns without coming across as controlling and dogmatic. You’re probably dying to warn your daughter off those hormonally crazed ruffians panting at the door; you were one once and you still remember what it felt like. But if you launch in with “what boys really want” and come across as the crazy-control-freak-doesn’t-have-a-clue father, you’ve lost a golden opportunity. Your job is to present your wisdom in a credible manner so she won’t blow you off and think your opinions are outdated and irrelevant. Through your relationship with her, you can teach her that her relationships with men must be mutually respectful and caring. This book will help you.
Believe It or Not, Your Daughter Still Wants You in Her Life
When I ask girls privately, even those who struggle the most with their parents, they tell me they want their parents to be proud of them. You may look at her in the middle of an argument when she’s screaming that she hates you and think there’s no way you can get through to her, but you can and will if you learn to see the world through her eyes.
You always want attention from your parents. Especially if you’re doing something you aren’t sure about.
Parents don’t realize that their children look up to them. When I know that deep in my mother and father’s heart they really don’t agree with what I’m doing, that really hurts
I want a better relationship with my parents. I know I have to build their trust back, talk to them and listen to them and it will work out fine.
I know I should listen to my parents, even if they’re wrong.
The danger is that when your daughter opens up enough to let you in, she makes herself vulnerable, and that’s when you can really hurt those fragile feelings:
My mom and dad won’t let me talk about my depression because they think we should keep it in the family. They worry about what everyone else will think. Everyone has problems. Why are we so special that we have to pretend that we’re so different?
When my mom sees me eating chocolate, she sometimes makes comments about watching my weight. But she doesn’t need to say anything. I can tell by her expression.
My older sister has an eating disorder. Last year the doctors wanted to hospitalize her but my parents thought they could take care of it at home. I overheard them discussing it, and saying that they could tell people she had mono.
And you can unwittingly make her turn to people you don’t want her to rely on:
My family is against me so I have to turn to this boy. [I need to] realize what I have done to myself and wake up.
They’ve told me that I’ll never be anything and have compared me to people they don’t like or people who have done wrong in the past. I hate that.
I don’t have great friends and I could see them getting me into trouble. But they accept me for who I am and my parents don’t.
Developing Your Girl Brain
Parents tell me that one of the hardest things they have to accept is that as their daughters get older, they have less control over which people they hang out with. They hate admitting that they won’t be there when their daughters face the difficult decisions that could impact their health and safety. When your daughter was little, she came crying to you when there was a problem and you swept in like a white knight to solve it. Now, you’re lucky if you even have a clue what the problem is, and if you sweep in to save the day instead of teaching your daughter how to handle it, she’ll either be angry with you for intruding or believe she can’t learn to take care of herself. How can you help her? Start by thinking the way she does.
In this book I will teach you to develop a girl brain. It’s like looking at the world through a new pair of glasses. Developing this ability isn’t dependent on using the latest slang (and it’s impossible to keep up anyway). The key to building your relationship with your daughter is understanding why she’s turning away from you and toward her friends, and maintaining a relationship with her anyway. And even though she may be acting as if you aren’t an important influence in her life, you are—she just may not want to admit it. If you can learn how to be her safe harbor when she’s in trouble, your voice will be in her head along with your values and ethics.
The first step is to understand what your daughter’s world—the Girl World—looks like, who has power, who intimidates her, whom she intimidates, where she feels safe, and where she doesn’t. Where and when does she feel comfortable and with whom? Who does she go to for advice? What common things can ruin her day or make her feel on top of the world? An even harder task is to assess her. What is she being teased about? Why are other children mean to her? Or even harder to admit, why would she be cruel to others? What would make her lie or sneak behind your back? Get inside her head, and you’ll understand where she’s coming from.
It helps to remember what it was like to be your daughter’s age. Remember your experiences, the role models (both good and bad), and the lessons learned from your family, your school, and your culture. Suspend the worry, the common sense, and the wisdom you have accumulated over the last years. Think back to what you were like and what was important to you back then.
Remembering the Lunch Tray Moments
Let’s go back to middle school (are you suppressing an involuntary shudder?). Parents, teachers, and other adults are telling you what to do. They’re especially telling you what you can’t do. You have a close group of friends, but for some reason one of your best friends comes up to you between classes and tells you that one of your other friends is spreading rumors about you. Your face feels hot; you can feel everyone looking at you. Thoughts race through your head. What did you do? Why is she mad at you? Are your friends going to back you or side with her? All of a sudden, a question drives an icy stake of fear through your heart as you stand there clutching your orange plastic lunch tray in the cafeteria line: Where are you going to sit at lunch?
Can you remember what it was like? Not too pleasant. As adults, we can laugh at how immense and insurmountable problems like those “Lunch Tray Moments” can feel when you’re young. But in Girl World they’re vital issues, and to dismiss them as trivial is to disrespect your daughter’s reality.
Everyone knows that girls are under tremendous pressure to fit in; this is one of the reasons why they suffer from a decrease in self-esteem as they enter adolescence. This decrease is usually attributed to teen magazines, MTV, and other aspects of popular culture that give negative and conflicting messages to girls. While there’s some truth in this, it doesn’t explain the whole story. Girls have strict social hierarchies based on what our culture tells us about what constitutes ideal femininity. At no time in your daughter’s life is it more important to her to fit these elusive girl standards than adolescence. But who is the prime enforcer of these standards? The movies? The teen magazines? Nope, it’s the girls themselves. They police each other, conducting surveillance on who’s breaking the laws of appearance, clothes, interest in boys, and personality—all of which have a profound influence on the women they become. Your daughter gets daily lessons about what’s sexy (read “in”) from her friends. She isn’t watching MTV or reading quizzes in teen magazines by herself. She processes this information with and through her friends.
We can’t just point the finger at the media for the things girls do to each other. We also have to point to ourselves for not challenging the culture that creates these problems, and we must, as must our daughters. Girls will only reach their full potential if they’re taught to be the agents of their own social change. As we guide girls through adolescence, we have to acknowledge it, name it, and act to change the effect of Girl World on girls.
So Why Listen to Me?
For the last ten years I’ve been learning from and teaching girls. As the cofounder and president of the Empower Program, I have spent thousands of hours talking to girls between the ages of ten and twenty-one about everything from gossip and cliques to rape and abusive relationships. Our motto is “Violence should not be a rite of passage,” but for far too many girls, it is.
Along with Empower’s staff educators, we developed a curriculum called “Owning Up”™* that teaches young people between the ages of twelve and twenty-one the skills to understand and proactively address the impact of Girl World (and Boy World, too). Today, through Empower and “Owning Up,”™ we teach over four thousand boys and girls each year in the Washington, D.C., area and reach thousands more through our professional training programs throughout the country. Under the direction of professionals at Mount Sinai Adolescent Hospital and Rutgers University, our program evaluations show significant decreases in verbal and physical aggression in our students after the program’s completion. In conjunction with Liz Claiborne, Inc., I have developed educational materials about abusive relationships and created specific tools to help parents reach out to their daughters.
In PTA meetings and with other groups, I talk to parents who feel overwhelmed by the challenges of parenting a teen, whether they’re trying to rescue a daughter in an abusive relationship or helping one cope with the tribulations of being passed over for the prom.
I teach girls today in a variety of settings—from weekly health classes to speeches in front of high schools, universities, and youth organizations. Whether I’m teaching in the most exclusive private school or the largest public school, the girls all bring the same concerns and fears. No matter what their income, religion, or ethnicity, they’re struggling with the same issues about the pleasures and perils of friendships and how they act as a portal to the larger world.
I’m frequently asked why I started Empower. The easy answer is that I was in an abusive relationship in high school. My “therapy” was self-defense, which I taught, in turn, to high school girls as soon as I graduated from college. While martial arts did start me on a path that ended with my cofounding Empower, it isn’t the only reason. When I first developed the “Owning Up”™ curricula, I looked back to my adolescence for initial answers. How did I, a “normal” girl, become vulnerable to violence?
Until fifth grade I’d grown up in a close community inside Washington, D.C., and attended a small public neighborhood elementary school. I had many friends of different races, nationalities, and economic backgrounds. I was part of a clique but I was friends with lots of students. The summer after fifth grade my family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I attended a well-respected, private all-girls school. My experience there was extremely difficult. I had my first miserable tray moment when girls wouldn’t let me sit at their tables. The popular girls were catty and mean-spirited. I returned to Washington the next year and enrolled in another private but coed school and the girls were just as bad. Very quickly I lost any remaining sense of self-confidence and became terrified of becoming a social liability. As a result, I became a keen observer of what would keep me in the group and what would get me tossed out.
My experience is hardly unique. Was it so bad that it contributed to my getting into an abusive relationship in high school? I believe it did. I craved validation from other girls; I had looked around and realized that I had to have an insurance policy that would keep my social status secure—and the easiest way to do that was to have the right boyfriend. He was “right” to the outside world, but behind closed doors he was mean and abusive. I had no idea what to do.
I was no one’s idea of a likely target for assault and abuse. I was a competitive athlete. I had a supportive and loving family. I didn’t abuse alcohol or drugs. So what was going on? There are three answers. One, like so many girls, I was amazingly good at fooling myself. I’d convinced myself that I was smart, could take care of myself, and could handle any situation. I denied that I could get into situations that were over my head, even when I had clear evidence to the contrary (like being abused by my boyfriend). I was so confident, I’d walk into incredibly dangerous situations because I wouldn’t admit I was in danger. Two, like a lot of girls, I felt powerless when threatened. I now know that even highly articulate girls become voiceless when faced with the threat of sexual harassment or violence. These are the girls who won’t tell someone to leave them alone because they’re afraid they’ll be labeled as uptight, a bitch, or because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Three, once I was in the relationship, my assumption that having a boyfriend would increase and secure my social status was correct. The relationship made me feel mature, confident, and assured of my place in the social hierarchy of the school.
When I first conducted surveys of the girls I was teaching in Washing-ton, D.C.’s, private schools, 23 percent reported experiencing sexual violence, including abusive relationships. Like me, these girls attended excellent schools and were given every opportunity to be confident young women—yet they were vulnerable to the same kinds of violence. (A national survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August 2001 confirmed the same one-in-five figure.)
After hearing so many girls say the same things, I began to wonder: Where did they learn to be silent? Where did they learn to deny the danger staring them in the face? When I asked them, a common theme came out immediately. Our culture teaches girls a very dangerous and confusing code of behavior about what constitutes “appropriate” feminine behavior (i.e., you should be sexy, but not slutty; you should be independent, but you’re no one without a boyfriend). We like to blame the media and boys for enforcing this code, but we overlook the girls themselves as the enforcers.
Clearly, girls are safer and happier when they look out for each other. Paradoxically, during their period of greatest vulnerability, girls’ competition with and judgment of each other weakens their friendships and effectively isolates all of them. This is what the power of the clique is all about, and why it matters so much to your daughter’s safety and self-esteem.
Once I figured this out, I got busy. I created the Empower curriculum to address the connection between girls’ friendships and vulnerability. I love what I do. I love the feeling when I first walk into a classroom with a group of girls and tell them that all we’re going to talk about is their friendships, enemies, reputations, and popularity. They look at each other in disbelief. There’s an immediate buzz in the room—we’re going to talk about a juicy secret. Are they really going to get to talk about this stuff? Once we get going, it’s hard to stop.
As I enter Girl World, talking with girls in school hallways, cafeterias, and teaching in their schools, Girl Scout troops, athletic teams, and church groups, something becomes clear. In trying to prepare girls for adolescence, adults are failing. We refuse to see what’s really going on in their lives. We trivialize and dismiss these experiences as teen drama. Adolescence is a time when social hierarchies are powerfully and painfully reinforced every moment of every day. Girls can be each other’s pillars of support and saviors, but they can also do horrible things to each other—and the lessons they learn from one another set all of them up for worse experiences in the future.
Almost as often as I talk to girls, I talk to their parents. I often feel like a translator between girls and parents; an ambassador who shuttles between Girl World and Planet Parent, two fiefdoms with different languages and rules. Why is the communication between these two worlds so lousy? For many parents, the need to deny that their little girl is growing up so fast can make it difficult to listen to what their daughter is really saying. The first hint that their daughter is sexually maturing can fill parents with an anxiety that only widens the communication gap with their daughter—at the very time when the daughter needs guidance the most. The other reason is parents don’t like to admit to themselves that their daughters could be mean, exclusive, and catty—or, on the other end of the spectrum, isolated and teased. Parents so often see their daughter’s behaviors as a reflection of the success or failure of their parenting that they refuse to look at their daughters for who they really are. On the other hand, girls are renegotiating their relationship with their parents at a time of maximum change and confusion. One moment they can be impossibly distant and sneaky, wanting and demanding to be treated as adults; two seconds later they’re clingy and scared, insisting that their parents psychically divine that now they want to be treated like little girls again.
This book will ask you to see the world through your daughter’s eyes. It’ll ask you to acknowledge and respect the environment she interacts with every day. You may not want to know everything about Girl World, but if you want your daughter to realize her full potential, have a sure sense of herself, and be happy and safe, knowing her world is paramount.
Most chapters will begin with a thorough analysis and description of a different aspect of Girl World. Next, in the “Checking Your Baggage” section, I’ll challenge you to answer a few questions about your experiences when you were your daughter’s age, because understanding your own biases and preconceptions can show you how they’ve affected your behavior toward your daughter. Then I’ll give you specific, step-by-step strategies to help her.
For further assistance, I’ve asked girls to take an active role in the development of this book. I’ve shown multiple drafts of every chapter to girls of different ages, races, cultures, communities, and socioeconomic levels. They’ve helped me fill in missing perspectives, pushed me to delve more deeply into certain issues, and offered their “political commentary,” which you’ll find throughout the book. They’ve anonymously shared personal stories, feelings, and opinions—all to help you know how to reach out to your daughter in the best possible way.
The girls have also taught me about the “landmines” you’ll find throughout the book: things parents do and say that are guaranteed eye-rollers and shut the door to effective communication. They usually seem insignificant (for example, don’t say “boys,” say “guys”), but they can make the difference between your daughter listening to you or tuning out completely because she thinks you’re hopelessly out of touch. (Remem-ber how you winced when your parents asked you if something was “groovy” or “far-out”?) As you read this, you may be thinking that pointing out landmines is a lost cause, since anything you do, including breathing or looking in her direction, makes her roll her eyes, but I promise you that you can decrease the number of embarrassing things you do. (For some reason, the way dads sneeze and moms laugh are landmines, but you can’t change everything about yourself!)
Don’t beat yourself up if you think your relationship with your daughter is terrible. Parenting a teen is really difficult, and the reward is way down the road when she emerges as a cool adult. Allow me to quote my own mother, who said, “When my children were teens, if I liked them for five minutes a day, that was a good day.”
So be honest. You don’t have to like your daughter all the time. You don’t have to like her at adl. (Many parents tell me they’ve never stopped loving their daughters, but they certainly stopped liking them for a while.) One father I know refers to his increasingly distant daughter as “the exchange student.” One mom calls her daughter “TLO,” “The Loathesome One,” when the girl is out of earshot. You’re allowed to wonder why you had kids in the first place. Once you acknowledge these rotten—and believe me, universal—feelings, their power over you tends to decrease and you don’t feel so guilty. And when other parents tell you that they’re so lucky because “their kids don’t drink and do drugs and they always tell them everything,” just nod your head and smile, like I do, and know that the girls are pulling a fast one.
Before You Get into the Heart of the Book
Your task is difficult. Instilling values, respecting your daughter’s growing individuality, influencing her to make good decisions, and protecting her while giving her the freedom to make mistakes is hard, hard work. A lot of the time you’ll feel as if you’re banging your head against a wall.
This book will give you strategies so that your daughter’s adolescence is bearable for both of you. It will teach you to talk to your daughter in a way that doesn’t make her groan and roll her eyes when you speak. She may even walk away from your conversation admitting to herself (not to you, never to you) that you know what you’re talking about.
You can help your daughter develop a strong sense of self. You can teach her personal responsibility, confidence in her abilities, and empathy toward others. You want her to be an authentic person able to realize her full individual potential while being connected to her loved ones and community.
You can build a strong, healthy relationship with your daughter as long as you take a long-term view, focus on the overall goal, and challenge yourself to be as honest as you can.
I also promise to answer the biggest questions of all: Should I read her diary? and When do I know she’s lying to me?
Just Between You and Me
This book may be painful to read. If I hit a nerve, I have only one request. Take a moment to reflect. Ask yourself why what you read bothered you so much. Did it call up memories of your own experience as a victim, bystander, or perpetrator? Did it give you a sinking feeling that your daughter is a target or evildoer? Is it hard to face the fact that your daughter is thinking and acting in ever more adult ways? Acknowledge the pain you feel, but don’t let it stop you from learning all you can about your daughter’s world. Everything in this book comes from what girls have told me over the last ten years I’ve been teaching, and from girls’ comments as they have read drafts of this book. I’m not accusing girls of being bad people, judging parents as incapable, or predicting which daughters will be failures as adults. I’m reaching out to you, as parents, educators, and role models, to show you what I think girls are up against as they struggle to become healthy young women who will make our communities better.
From the Hardcover edition.