In my most recent podcast episode, I talked to a mum about how she feared she might be repeating the mother- daughter trauma from her own teenage years with her teenage daughter, despite her best efforts to do quite the opposite. Emma Campbell told me how she tries so hard to get teenage parenting right, yet she constantly feels like she’s failing. And I sighed a big sigh of relief. It’s not just me. In fact, I suspect it’s all of us, so as well as the validation you’ll get from listening to Emma’s episode, I’m going to list mine and Emma’s best tips for living with a teenage daughter. You’ve got this!
Listen to the podcast
Who is Emma Campbell?
Emma Campbell is an author, speaker, and podcast host. She’s also an all-round lovely human being who happily puts all her flaws out in the open for us to see, so that we can all feel less alone with our own struggles. As a mother of teenagers, if Emma’s Instagram posts struck any more chords with me, they’d be a symphony orchestra. On a recent post she says “I’m hugely out of my depth with teenage emotions and seem to be successfully repeating the mother daughter conflict I was SO intent on avoiding. Trying to articulate unconditional love, but it comes out as the opposite. Miscommunication spitting and spinning like a Catherine Wheel.” Emma writes so beautifully of failure as a mother, of the pride we all have for our kids, and of the deep, deep longing to get motherhood ‘right’.
Emma is the mother of triplet teenagers and a young man who has seen her go through long-term cancer treatment. A single mum, she’s had more than her fair share of difficult times, and yet she’s an inspiration to everyone who knows her. I wanted to find out how she really feels about parenting teens, and we had a joyous chat which left me feeling seen, and hopeful. Emma’s new podcast, Open, is another lovely collection of conversations on authentic, messy living – you’ll like it!
Tips for living with a teenage daughter
There are rules for living with a teenage daughter. Rule number one is this: don’t take anything personally. Under any circumstance. Ever. Follow that, and you won’t go too far wrong. That said, there are practical reasons for making sure you take care of your own emotional health. With every tongue in cheek ‘rule’ I talk about here comes a more serious point, and hopefully some practical ideas on how you can both get through the next few years with your relationship intact.
Rule number 1 – Don’t take it personally
In all seriousness, the most important thing you can do when you’re living with a teenage daughter look after yourself. And by that I mean stop beating yourself up mentally every time something goes wrong. Yes, you’re her parent, and yes, in an ideal world you’d get everything right; but you’re human and you’ve never done this before. You’re going to get things wrong, just as you did when she was a newborn, and that’s okay. It’s normal.
As parents, we want everything to be perfect for our children, but it never can be. You’re learning, and so is she. It’s going to get messy. Try to remember that. Whatever you do, try not to sit in bed every night berating yourself for getting it wrong. Chalk it up to experience, learn from it, and try again tomorrow – and the day after that. Practice progress, not perfection.
Rule number 2 – Remember it’s her fault too
It’s tempting to think that everything that goes wrong in our relationships with our children is our fault. There are plenty of parenting books out there, so obviously we just haven’t read enough, or tried enough. Wrong. What I’ve been forced to learn in 18 years of parenting is that not everything is my fault. Not that it’s theirs either, really. It’s just that they are who they are, and we are who we are, and despite all the hard work, sometimes we will clash. Our children are born with their own personalities, and are influenced by factors other than ourselves – so basically it’s their friends and their teachers’ fault. I’m kidding, but we do have to remember that we are only one person, and it takes two (plus all of our baggage) to make a relationship.
Rule number 3 – Say you’re sorry
With that in mind, the value of saying sorry to our teenage daughters can’t be underestimated. I find this difficult, when we’re both in our most defensive mindsets, but when I have managed it, it’s diffused tension immediately. Noticing where we could have done something differently, or when our usual approach isn’t working for our daughters is really important, and lets them know that they matter. Accepting that we’ve got it wrong also models healthy behaviour in a relationship to her, and hopefully she will carry that into her future relationships – even if she doesn’t quite manage the same grace with you!
Communication is so important that I’ve written another post with strategies for communicating with your teenage daughter, which you might like to read next.
Rule number 4 – Wear colour
By this, I don’t mean wear colour, I mean do whatever is right for you, irrespective of how mortified your teenager is by it. Emma is a fellow lover of bright clothes, and recalls an episode where her children insisted she go home and change before going to their parents evening at school. Our kids will be mortified by something we do, and then they will grow up and realise their mum is living authentically, and be glad of the example. So if you like to sing in the shower (something else I’ve been told off for) singing is what you should do, irrespective.
Rule number 5 – Let that shit go
She will never be who you want her to be, and not should she. In fact, if we’re honest, isn’t who we want her to be just a fantasy of who we thought we should be, but didn’t become? That’s a double standard from us. As parents, we have to do some growing up too. Having a teenage daughter taught me more about myself than I’d learned in the preceding 50 years! Not least, I can have a tendency to be a bit controlling when I’m scared. And teenagers are scary sometimes. It’s enough to turn Will Ferrell into Monica from Friends. Children are designed to want to break the rules; it’s what makes them independent enough to eventually leave us and live their own lives. Which is what we want, even though it hurts to let them go.
My own approach has been to scare myself just enough that I feel the need to follow her and text every few minutes, but can’t be bothered to act on it. When she wanted to walk home alone from a party I said yes, as long as there were some boys to walk with her (I know I’m stereotyping, but she’s a teenage girl, and I forgive myself). When she wanted me to go to sleep and trust her to let herself in at 2am I said no. When she (inevitably) does things I’ve said no to, I try to figure out how likely my fears of future catastrophe are on a scale of 1-5 before deciding whether to raise it, or let her chalk it up to experience.
Because this is how they learn. I can tell her till I’m blue in the face about potential dangers, but until she sees them or experiences them for herself, the lesson won’t be embedded in her way of operating. I do get that how scary that is, but the risk of something terrible happening is much lower than the chance of her encountering some everyday difficulties, figuring out how to deal with them, and learning a lesson for next time. Basically, I pick my battles.
Rule number 6 – Create boundaries
That said, don’t let her trample all over you. It can be easy, in the face of conflict, to move into people-pleasing mode with our teenage children, but that won’t help them or us. My daughter says the thing that most annoys her about me is when I say no to something and then change my mind when she moans. The grumbling is part of the resistance, but she appreciates knowing where she stands more than she wants the freedom to do whatever she wants.
Also, letting kids take advantage of us can lead to feelings of resentment and lack of confidence in our parenting skills, which will ultimately undermine the relationship we have with them.
Rule number 7 – Give her space
Of course, teenage girls need their privacy. I’ve learned never to walk into my daughter’s room unannounced, and I don’t go through her things. Weirdly, one of the hardest things for me was when she started getting her own mail. Usually it’s hospital appointments for her type 1 diabetes, or something from the tax office, but the urge to read her post after she’s left it lying around is strong. I know how much that irritates me though when it happens to me, so I resist.
It’s more than just physical privacy though. I’ve gone from knowing everything about my teenage daughter’s life, to knowing only what she chooses to tell me. And even then, it’s very clear when my questions have gone too far. I desperately want to know the ins and outs of all her friendships and relationships (as well as her health concerns), but I’ve had to accept that it’s none of my business. She’s always made a point of not gossiping with me about her friends, saying it’s not her story to tell, and I’m so proud of her for that. She’s taught me how to be a better person, and I’ve realised that my craving to know about drama is an unhealthy distraction from my own problems. I’m in a better place thanks to what she’s taught me.
Rule number 8 – Forgive yourself
As I’ve already said, you’re human, and you’re going to get things wrong. When you do, your teenage daughter is going to punish you, sometimes mercilessly. Firstly, remind yourself of rules 4 and 5; let some things go when you can, and calmly explain when her behaviour towards you is unacceptable. But when you do find yourself chastising some parenting action that’s backfired, go easy on yourself. She’s not going to, so you need to have your own back. Remind yourself that you’ve never done this before. Just like when she was a newborn, there isn’t a manual, and you’re learning from scratch. She didn’t learn to walk by following the rules; she fell a lot, and hurt herself sometimes. You’re going to do the same. She will forgive you in time, but for now, remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with the knowledge and skills you have in the moment. Then add it to your ever-growing learning bank, carry on, and engage rule 3 when appropriate.
Rule number 9 – Notice the small things
This was Emma’s advice in the podcast. I asked her how she copes on the relentless days with 3 teenagers. She told me that she tries to focus (amongst all the shitty stuff) on the small moments when there is ordinary joy. When her kids are laughing together in another room; when her son gives her a glimpse of what his brother is like in school; or when her daughter tells her “I love you, but…” She says:
Our skin gets thinner the more shit we take. Kids are brutal. Notice when they’re being lovely. It does happen, it’s just hard to see amongst the sometimes brutal onslaught. Notice the small child in them, and the soon to be adult.
Saving those moments to “put in the tank” helps her focus on what is good, and hold onto hope on the harder days.
Rule number 10 – Trust yourself
This is my overriding advice to anyone wobbling over their ability to cope with a teenage daughter (or any teenager, for that matter). You’ve raised your child this far with no instruction and no experience. You’ve done a good job – they’re alive, they probably have friends and are doing ok in school (and if they’re not, you’re doing all the right things to resolve that), and they still talk to you (a bit). Now is the time to trust that what you’ve given them so far will stand them in good stead. While they may feel alien to you at times, they are a product of years of nurturing from you. Trust that the lessons, love and groundwork you’ve given them will serve them as they figure out how to adapt them to who they are.
Like I said -you’ve got this.