Helping Girls Transition into Adulthood

A few short years ago, you and your daughter had an unbreakable bond. You hung out in your jammies watching the latest Disney Channel movie. You snuggled under the covers on Sunday mornings, giggling about nothing. You painted her nails and she painted yours, even though the nail polish ended up all over your skin (and some on the carpet)!

And then, as soon as she blew out the candles on her 12th birthday cake, that changed. Now, she can’t stand being in the same room with you and demands that you “get out of her life” if you make an innocent inquiry about her day. Her constant complaining, addiction to taking selfies and emotional temper tantrums are reminiscent of her toddler days, making it difficult to have a relationship with her.

Rebellion is a teen’s job

Don’t worry. She’s perfectly normal. In fact, this type of pulling away is necessary as she grows into adulthood, says Dr. Lisa Damour, psychologist and best-selling author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood.” Through her research and clinical experience, Damour has identified seven stages that teenage girls go through as they mature. These transitional stages occur in a specific sequence and several of them happen simultaneously, making the adolescent years even more tumultuous. Here’s a brief description of what to expect during each transition:

Parting with Childhood

Teens begin pulling away from their parents and start leaving childlike behaviors behind. Rather than playing with Barbies or cuddling with their stuffed animals, girls begin to try out more mature behavior. They may start to experiment with swearing, dress more proactively and explore their feelings by talking (or texting) with friends for long periods of time. While some of these behaviors might seem alarming, it’s all part of healthy development. Girls are learning to be independent while having a safety net at home to help them when they ask for guidance or make a mistake.

Joining a New Tribe

As girls move into the teenage years, they begin to replace their relationships with Mom and Dad (and possibly siblings) with relationships with a group of peers. A girl’s social life is imperative to her navigation of adolescence and she wants to be part of a social group of which she can feel proud. Most of the time, social groups are shaped by interests, academic achievement, social status, personal worth and risk-taking. Being popular may become more important to your teenager as she navigates her way into a suitable peer group. This can be a smooth transition or one fraught with doubts, fears and an abundance of stress.

Harnessing Emotions

Young girls’ emotions are in constant flux and they erupt quickly and intensely. Much of what is going on is physiological. As the limbic system of the brain grows during this time, it heightens the brain’s emotional reactivity. Parents, especially moms, become their daughter’s emotional stomping ground. Girls dump their most uncomfortable feelings on their parents, often complaining bitterly and showing the worst sides of themselves so that they can give their best at school and in other social environments.

The best thing a parent can do during these emotional times is to listen. Don’t try to fix things, just listen. When you’re not sure how to respond, ask your daughter, “Do you need my help with this or do you just need to vent?” Usually, they just want to be heard and will close their ears to guidance they did not ask for themselves.

Contending with Adult Authority

Around the age of 11, children develop the capacity for abstract thinking. Instead of viewing the world in concrete terms, they begin to have the ability to make inferences and reflect upon their own thinking. This is the time when they start to learn that adults are fallible, can lie and can be unfair. Teenagers begin to ask the question, “If adults aren’t perfect, then why should I listen to their lectures?” and “Why do I have to do whatever adults say when that’s not what’s best for me?” Teens begin to question the warnings and threats of authority figures and this can be misinterpreted as rebellious behavior.

Planning for the Future

Children’s desire for independence starts to kick into high gear when they reach the teenage years. Girls no longer want to do whatever their parents expect of them. In fact they will often do the opposite, just for the sake of rebelling. One mom wanted to support her daughter’s interest in music so she gave her a gift certificate for singing lessons. Shortly after, her daughter suddenly announced that she was no longer interested in music. The gift voucher is still sitting on her desk, unused. For the moment, the instinctive drive to “show her mom who’s the boss” outweighed dreams of getting into Juilliard or the Berklee College of Music one day. Teens want to make their own independent decisions even if they don’t understand the consequences of their actions.

Entering the Romantic World

This is probably the scariest of developmental tasks for parents, but it doesn’t have to be wrought with angst. If you have opened the lines of communication from an early age, the dialogue about relationships is an ongoing discussion. If talking about relationships has been minimal, it’s best to start in a general, non-threatening way before delving into specific questions concerning your daughter. Talk to your teen about her inner compass – her thoughts, values and beliefs – whenever possible and guide her to follow that compass when making decisions about relationships.

Caring for Herself

We want our daughters to make smart decisions about their own health and safety. We’ve spent more than a decade teaching them how to eat nutritiously, exercise daily, manage personal hygiene and stay out of harm’s way. During this final transitional stage, girls take everything we have taught them and become fully responsible for their self-care choices. If she doesn’t shower as often as you’d like or if her diet consists of fast food, those decisions are not something you can control any longer. Lecturing is not an effective tool for changing behavior at this age, so beware when your teen nods and seems to agree. Girls can maintain eye contact and nod their heads for long periods of time, even when they have stopped listening or wholeheartedly disagree with what we are saying.

Recognizing these seven transitional stages can help you cope with teen behavior that is at times baffling or even infuriating. Above all, remember not to take it personally. It’s not about you or your mother/daughter relationship. It’s about your daughter growing up and working through the developmental stages that will equip her for independence as a young adult.