Mother: “I know you want to go to that party with the high-school kids. But my answer is still no.”
Daughter: “I can’t believe how mean you’re being!”
Mother: “Please try not to be so angry with me.”
Daughter: “Why not? You’re supposed to be my friend.”
Mother: “I do want us to be close, but I—”
Daughter: “We can never be close if you’re determined to make my life miserable!”
Sometimes it’s hard to be the parent. Using your best judgment, you draw the line at something unwise or unsafe. Your daughter rails against your decision, and it takes all your willpower not to cave in. Maybe you worry that she’ll hate you.
As a rule, our parents had no qualms about insisting on good behavior from us, but we modern-day parents tend to have trouble exercising parental authority. One client of mine confided that he has a terrible time setting limits for his daughter because he depends on her approval and adoration. Another client named Debbie desperately wanted her daughter and daughter’s friends to think she was cool. Debbie looked the other way when they downed a six-pack at a slumber party. When the other girls’ parents found out about the drinking, they were outraged, and Debbie felt deeply ashamed. Fortunately, realizing that she had acted more like a peer than a parent, she began making efforts to become the responsible adult her daughter needed her to be.
A Common Mistake
The role of peer can tempt us in lots of ways. As our daughters move into their teens, we relive aspects of our own adolescence. Long-buried insecurities may resurface. If you felt unpopular as a teen, you may find yourself competing with your daughter to be popular with her friends. Or you may feel hurt or jealous that she prefers being with her friends to being with you. Then there’s the terrible sense of loss we sometimes feel as our daughters naturally separate from us. If you don’t have a vital social life of your own, you’re especially vulnerable when your daughter becomes more independent. In hopes of closing a widening gap, you may be tempted to abdicate the parental role and try to become her peer. Besides, our culture encourages the popular myth that children and their parents ought to be best buddies. No wonder we parents get a little lost and wander into peer territory now and then.
Best Parents, Not Best Friends
A young woman I know named Tobey took issue with me when I told her I was working on an article that discouraged friendships between parents and daughters. “My mom and I were always best friends,” she insisted. “I could go to her with my problems and count on her help. I don’t think there was anything wrong with that. I trusted her more than anyone else.” “But did your mom turn to you with her personal problems?” I asked. “Of course not,” she said. “That would have changed everything.” “My point exactly,” I replied. Although Tobey was calling the loving relationship with her mother a friendship, it really wasn’t. By being trustworthy, warm and wise, Tobey’s mom was just being a very good parent—a friendly parent.
Friendship implies reciprocal relationship between equals. It means saying, “I will be there for you, but I also expect you to be there for me.” Parenthood—at least during the years that our children are dependent on us—is a one-sided relationship. It means saying, “I will be there for you, but I don’t expect you to be there for me in the same way. You’re the child and I’m the adult. I won’t burden you with my woes.”
Like Tobey, your daughter may describe you as her friend. If what she means is that you’re loving and that she can count on your emotional availability, that wonderful. If she means that the two of you are equals, I suggest you reestablish a healthy imbalance of power between you. Don’t mistake the fun you have together for friendship between equals. She needs you to be her parent—an adult who laughs with her and enjoys her company, but also sets limits. Your daughter’s friends are likely to give in to her when that’s not in her best interest. As her parent, you are her anchor her mentor and her guide. No peer can do that for her.
A Friendly Parent
Try these suggestions for being a friendly parent:
Respect the generation gap. Even if it’s hard for you to realize that you’re decidedly on the adult side of the gap now—and even if you’re tempted to believe the myth that younger is better—give your age and experience the respect they deserve. Be willing to listen to your daughter’s friends if they want to tell you about their lives (sometimes girls desperately need adults who will listen), but don’t ever think of yourself as part of your daughter’s crowd.
Cultivate your own friendships. You may feel abandoned as your daughter distances from you during her normal separation process. This is the time to enrich your own friendships and social life.
Expect some conflicts. If your daughter blows up at you, ask yourself, “Is her anger evidence that I’m setting safe limits for her?” If so, don’t give in just so she’ll be your friend again. Find ways to soothe yourself—have a cup of tea, take a walk or call a friend and talk.
Trust that she will come back to you. Your daughter needs you very much. Trust her to come to you with her problems and concerns. If the going is rough between you when she’s around 13, expect happier times in a year or two. At 15 or 16, girls who have made a great show of rejecting our guidance often find ways to reach out to us again.
These words may help you claim your role as a parent:
Mother: “I know you’re angry, but I have to use my best judgment on this.”
Mother: “Of course I wish we could always get along, but I’m the adult and you’re my child. I make the rules that keep you safe.”
Mother: “I’m your parent, not your peer. Even though you’re growing up, we’re still not equals.”
Mothers and Daughters: Loving and Letting Go by Evelyn Bassoff. A guide for all mothers—including adoptive mothers, single mothers and stepmothers—through the separation process.
Mothering Ourselves: Help and Healing for Adult Daughters by Evelyn Bassoff. A guide to understanding how we were mothered and, as a result, how to better mother our own daughters.
About the author: Evelyn Bassoff is the author of Mothering Ourselves: Help and Healing for Adult Daughters and Mothers and Daughters: Loving and Letting Go (Plume).