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In your health today, do girls have to become estranged and even hostile to their mothers when they hit their teenage years in order to develop their own identity? No, says psychiatrist and mother SuEllen Hamkins.
Ten years ago Dr. Hamkins and a colleague created a mother-daughter group, which they say helped their teenagers grow into confident and still connected daughters.
NPR's Patty Neighmond reports on the mother-daughter project.
PATRICIA NEIGHMOND: Tiama Hamkins-Indik is 17 years old. This fall she'll be a freshman at Olin College of Engineering in Boston. She's an enthusiastic, articulate young woman, who as she says has a wonderful relationship with her mother. But her mother, psychiatrist SuEllen Hamkins, says that it wasn't always that way. Take five years ago.
Dr. SUELLEN HAMKINS (Author: "The Mother-Daughter Project: How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds, and Thrive Through Adolescence"): I had taken her a book about your changing body during puberty. I had put the book up in her room. She went upstairs. And then suddenly I heard this big noise. Thwack. She had thrown the book down the stairs, over the banister.
NEIGHMOND: Daughter Tiama...
Ms. TIAMA HAMKINS-INDIK (Daughter): I hated having those one-on-one conversations. It was just something that I just really, really did not like to do, and I just got really awkward about it. And I wouldn't like let my mom talks to me, I would like plug my ears. I would run out of the room. Like it was just bad.
NEIGHMOND: But these interactions were softened and better understood, says Hamskins, through the meetings of the mother-daughter group. The group was started when Tiama was seven, at a time Hamkins and some other mothers were beginning to worry about potential estrangement from their daughters.
Dr. HAMKINS: In our group, all of the mothers kind of asked ourselves what was our relationship like with our mothers when went through adolescence. And at the time we thought we wanted our mothers to leave us alone. But looking back, we realized we really missed our moms. We wanted our mothers to understand us better. So that really galvanized us.
NEIGHMOND: When the girls were seven, the goal was to show them they could have fun just being with their mothers. So there were games, including outdoor games like kick the can. But after that first year, the focus became more serious. Each monthly meeting anticipated a developmental hurdle the girls would soon face. So for example, at eight the theme was friendship, because a year or two later, girls can get clicky and drop friendships for no apparent reason. At age nine the focus was puberty, before the girls got very self-conscious. Then at 12, the topic: desire, knowing what you want. Hamkins...
Ms. HAMKINS: The way we take on the whole topic of sexuality is to create a curriculum based on desire - what do girls want - starting by asking what would a day you would love be like? What do you like? So that they can know what they want. Because if you know what you want, you also can know what you don't want.
NEIGHMOND: As years went on, the girls and their mothers continue to take on challenging topics. For example, learning how to have freedom and still be safe, learning how to tell others what you really think, learning how to manage money, and finally, learning how to move into the future as adults.
But now it's Franny's turn. Franny is Tiama's younger sister. She's 12, the year that focuses on desire. Today three women and their daughters, including Hamkins and Franny, sit on pillows in a circle on the floor in Hamkins' house. One of the girls opens a large manila envelope and out splash dozens of tiny purple pieces of paper. On each piece of paper there's a word, a place, a food, a person, an experience. Then everyone, girls and mothers, use those words to describe their perfect day. Franny goes first.
Ms. FRANNY HAMKINS (Daughter): I just woke up. It's 1:00 p.m., like in the afternoon. It's a great summer day. I go downstairs and make myself a huge pile of French toast. After I finish eating, then I grab a book and go up in a tree.
NEIGHMOND: These may sound like minor enjoyments, but over the months, with the support of other girls and adults in the group, these girl learn to have confidence in what they think and want. And that can be really important very soon, as the girls enter their teen years and likely get challenged on many of their values. Seventeen-year-old Tiama.
Ms. HAMSKINS: I do remember that year. I didn't know that that was the theme of the year. It was good. It was a lot of fun, because you know, we did your favorite day, like what would the best day that you could ever do. And then we also, we did massages, which was wonderful. And then of course it all ended with the sex talk, which, you know, is of course going to be appropriately awkward and - but you know, we're young enough so that, you know, we can have it without being awkward, really, all about it.
NEIGHMOND: And as the group tackled touchy, difficult topics, it wasn't only the girls' confidence that grew; it was also their relationship with their mothers.
Ms. HAMSKINS: When I'm younger I sort of get into this idea that my mother - as a mother figure, and so like I don't get to see her, you know, in context of other people. And so when I'm in the mother-daughter group, I get to see her sort of just hanging out and being with friends rather than trying to run a household or trying to, you know, clean up or get me to do something. And so I think that that really made me able to see my mom as a person and someone that I can really relate to.
NEIGHMOND: Tiama's mother, SuEllen Hamkins.
Ms. HAMKINS: Every time I see the girls come in and get so engaged in these activities and so interested in what the women are saying, it always surprises me a little bit, even though this is the whole point of the Mother-Daughter Project. It goes so against what we're led to expect, that 12 and 13-year-olds are going to disdain their mother or are going to reject them. And in fact, to see how interested they were and - in each other and in the other women and in their own mother. And how much they wanted there. So there's a kind of surge of joy I get every time that happens.
NEIGHMOND: Hamkins modestly says it doesn't take a psychiatrist like herself to start a group like this. All it takes is at least one other mother and daughter, and a commitment to meet over the years.
Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.
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