The birth of each of our three daughters brought playful warnings about the trouble ahead. It was a fairly reflexive prediction: tiny female people are on a collision course with their teen years. Of course, we expected we could raise our girls in just such a way that we’d manage to avoid the predicted and dreaded teenage girl experience. Don’t laugh.
We embraced the attachment theory of parenting doing our best to provide a loving, stable and secure environment for our children. We ‘wore them’ in slings as infants, nursed each for more than a year, we kept them close at night, listened compassionately to their tales about the "owie" on their knees and stayed connected with extended family to provide that village of loving people in their lives.
Fast forward 16 years
Despite our new and hard-won grasp of parents’ powerlessness to avoid the girl teen experience, I actually have no regrets about this style of parenting. I believe it did provide our daughters with grounding and balance to help them navigate the disorienting journey from child self to young adult.
In this age of hookup culture, misogynistic music lyrics and videos, social media bullying and the ongoing cultural pressure to achieve an impossible standard of beauty, girls need every support.
It’s fairly well known that before adolescence, girls tend to be unapologetically themselves. Whatever their talents and interests, haters be damned. Then, something happens. That necessary transition from dependence to independence requires a heartbreaking and often demoralizing fracture of the child-parent connection (eye-rolls generously included). Simultaneously, the girls plug into a teen world fraught with a desperate desire to belong, eyes fully on their peers and taking plenty of cues from savvy advertisers. Parents shudder with powerlessness partly in remembrance of their own teen experiences, partly concerned for their daughters’ fragile ability to handle the opportunistic vultures circling, and partly grieving the loss of connection.
Lisa Damour, ‘teen whisperer’, psychotherapist and best-selling author, has a wonderful analogy to sooth fretting parents. The teenage girl is a swimmer, the pool walls are the parents, and the water is the world. Swimmers want to be out in the water swimming, but they occasionally want to hold onto the wall to catch their breath or get their bearings. Parents are familiar with the experience of toddlers sliding off their laps to explore a room, but looking over to check we are still near. It’s the same now, but their range is wider.
Damour recommends our best strategy is to be supportive and predictable.
What I believe
We are here to do the job of raising girls who can successfully fly away from our nest one day. They need to have the skills and self-knowledge to live a fulfilling and useful life. This means they need to be able to find balance, to question ideas, to discern values, and to make choices all to enhance their trajectory through life.
For optimal results, we provide the edge to their pool, while modelling our own balanced and discerned life. Every teen needs a stable edge upon which to rely.
Jill Cunningham grew up in St. Albert, has a Bachelor of Education from University of Alberta and is passionate about nature, the environment, and building community.