I’m terrified. My second daughter just turned 13 years old in every sense. I know what to expect. I’ve been through it. My oldest is 21 and can barely tolerate me still. There’s this tragic time when a mother morphs from hilarious to horrifying and all she has to do is…well nothing. It’s some weird neurological ignition that happens in every teen brain. One moment they’re snuggling you and hysterically giggling when you use stupid accents for random pet antics, and the next they’re rolling their eyes and sneering. In between the sneering, they glower silently with ear buds and hoodies. At first it’s kind of funny, but after several blunt-force attempts to oppress your civil liberties it gets old. Very old.
In my daughter’s defense, I am annoying fairly often. And she’s an amazing kid now adult. But it is evident to me after twenty years of helping teens and parents navigate this delicate time, that for most there are challenges. As the teen pumps with estrogen, the family system must shift to make room for adult feelings and opinions.
How does a mom cope with her daughter’s eye rolls and ear buds without being her daughter’s doormat?
Bark and threaten
Although this makes mom feel like she’s demanding respect, the drill sergeant routine rarely does much besides quiet the teen into passive aggressive defiance. Instead of overt behavior, she’ll give you a blank-eyed stare of simmering hostility and incessantly text her friends about how annoying you are. Expect only a short-term gain of quiet respite.
Humiliate and publicly shame
Like threatening, turning the tables by bullying back can be supremely satisfying. Some parents take it even further and change into a chicken suit and cluck at the school bus stop…until they notice that this counter-assault can be emotionally damaging to the child. Obviously the trigger-mortification hormone that seized her emotional system was not her choice and mostly outside of her control. Punching your daughter in her vulnerable spot is like kicking her when she’s down. Bullying is a betrayal, especially from those you look to for love and protection.
An eye roll or a request to oppress your civil liberties may immediately trigger a whiney lecture about how much you do for her. Start with how much you hate your job, but you do it for her. Remind her that you built her inside your now-ruined body. And never forget to mention what your parents would have done if you deigned to disrespect them in the day. Boring her with your martyrdom will teach her a valuable lesson about compassion (not).
Slapping your smart-mouthed teen or feinting a take down will probably end up with a visit from Child Protective Services or you getting your butt kicked, if not today, then tomorrow. Obviously this is the worst of the options. But if we are all honest here, most of us have seriously considered it.
Ignoring contemptuous behavior seems to work in the short-term, but it takes enormous self-discipline on the part of the parent. The ignoring strategy is the gold-standard, but isn’t enough by itself. If you overuse this technique and never push back, she will eventually escalate to entitled monstrosity.
Nothing gets a teen’s attention like whining and crying in immediate shocking response to her eye roll. Your tears may actually disgust her to the point of dry heaving. Show her your weakness, and, in most instances, she’ll escalation in a desperate attempt to coax you into setting appropriate limits. Not a pretty dynamic.
When I was little and my sister bullied me, I would turn my head and whisper terrible insults about her to my imaginary friend. I’m not kidding. I actually did that. It would make her cataplectic with rage and, if I didn’t make it to my parent’s room and lock myself in fast enough, I’d suffer a swift pummeling. Just like old times, I’ve tried this as a desperate measure. But unlike my sister, my daughter failed to be irritated by it. She was more perplexed and dismissive. I’ve also tried copying her word for word, because it is a freakish skill of mine. Unfortunately though, she eventually learned to turn the tables by saying insulting things for me to copy or stringing word salads together at mock 3 speed. My daughter’s too smart for my childish retorts apparently, and it can look suspiciously like mean-spirited mocking. Like the other options, this strategy used too often may just escalate the situation. But used occasionally it can sometimes shock her into a giggle.
Another option is to put on your big jewelry and Birkenstocks and nod a lot and say, “How does that make you feel when I do that?” “You’re magnificent, let’s hug that out.” Simper and smooth out your voice. Of all these options, this is the most likely to get you stabbed in the eye.
Advice from the peanut gallery:
I just asked my 13 year old, “What should a parent do when a kid rolls their eyes at them and says, “Sssttooopppp?” She replied, “Just stop.” “But what if she’s telling you to stop doing something you don’t want to stop?” She said, “Then just yell at her.” Then she rolled her eyes and flounced away.
My 11 year old son, who still thinks I’m hilarious and deserving of love, suggested two strategies. He said, “Punish them. No, maybe ask what’s wrong and why they’re acting like that. Maybe it’s a bad habit and they need help.” How sweet is he still? Swoon.
Finally, I asked my psychiatrist husband the same question. After he looked at me for several awkward seconds until it became evident I wasn’t going to rescue him from what was certainly a trap, he mumbled, “Beat them, ignore them, and promise them ice cream if they stop.” To which I lovingly said, “Oh really? That’s what you do really?” His eye twinkled and he said, “I say, look that’s contemptuous behavior and it’s not OK to talk to me like that. It’s disrespectful behavior and you have privileges. If you…” Then I rolled my eyes and put in my ear buds.
My professional advice (for entertainment purposes only):
As your daughter blossoms into adulthood in front of your denying eyes, expect conflict. And while the testing is playing out, do your best to stay calm, maintain compassionate authority, and be smart. Mix it up. Ignore the eye roll at first. If she continues too many times consecutively, give a firm reprimand. If that doesn’t get through, remind your teen that you serve her at your pleasure. She’ll miss you if you temporarily retire your duties. If the disrespectful dissing still continues, have a sit down talk with authenticity, mutual speaking opportunity, and empathy.
When given the opportunity, teens will tell you this feeling of parent-triggered horror is as much a mystery to them as it is to you. They may agree that parents don’t deserve to be emotionally jailed by teen contempt, it’s just difficult to control when they are overwhelmed by it. Fortunately, teen intolerance for parents is temporary. The best option is to avoid escalating the situation with hurtful strategies. Risk silence rather than abuse. Adult brains have had a lot more driving experience than teen brains. For their sake and yours, it’s best to use and model the same behavior you are asking of them.
After all, it’s not like she’s contemptuous all the time. When you see a flicker of humanity, savor it. When she’s funny, laugh (but invisibly and silently like a cult follower). Most of all, fill your heart with compassion for the both of you. As you say goodbye to your baby and hello to your blossoming adult, there is a grief process. You’re going to make mistakes and often, just as she will. And despite what they she tells you at every opportunity, she needs you now more than ever.
What desperate strategies have your tried to cope, other than lots of red wine and 5k’s? Join me on my GetKidsInternetSafe FaceBook page for a rant. It helps us all to know we are not alone.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty