A smart and beautiful eleven-year-old girl calls me mom. While relatively new to the Land of the Preteen, I have been taking copious mental notes. So now, I share with you my A to Z thoughts on what it means to be parenting preteen girls through these very tricky years.
ALL — You will find this word used most frequently in the context of exclamations such as “But, Mom! ALL of my friends have their own phones!” and “ALL of the other kids in my class are allowed to have Instagram.” Two thoughts on this: First, it doesn’t matter to me what ALL of the other kids have or do. Second, a quick talk with other parents will quickly reveal that your child may have exaggerated a bit.
BREATHE — There are moments when my beloved daughter is testing my patience, and I internally remind myself, “You are the parent. Take a deep breath and collect yourself.” After this, I’m not quite as tempted to scream. There are also moments when my daughter comes to me crying (or angry or sad) and she has no idea why she is feeling this way. And that scares her. At these times, I hold her tight and just say “breathe.” Then we take deep breaths together for as long as she needs it.
COMFORT — Your daughter will be wounded by the words of other girls who are supposed to be her friends. Or get excluded from a party or a team. Or not understand what is happening to her body. Cherish those moments when your shoulder or your lap are still places that she feels safe. Stroke her hair or rub her back whenever she asks.
DIARY — Give her one. Let her write about her frustrations with you, what happened at school that day, her feelings about her latest crush. My daughter has a diary, and I’ve promised her that I will not read it unless I have reason to believe she is engaging in behavior harmful to herself or others.
EXIT — There are times when my daughter and I need space from one another. I will tell her to spend a few minutes in her room until she can figure out how to speak to me in a more respectful and kinder tone. Or, I will take it upon myself to head outside for a minute and reap the benefits of some fresh air. Conversations after a bit of time to cool off are always more productive for both of us.
FRIENDS — Others will disagree with me here. But I don’t place many restrictions on who my daughter chooses as her friends. In middle school, I had friends with dads who treated them like princesses and who had no dad at all, who lived in trailers and in large and beautifully decorated homes, who were devout Catholics and atheists, who had no interest in boys and who already had sex. I learned from all of these relationships. Encourage your daughter to spend time with a diverse group of people, but also talk to her about the people she knows and makes sure she is safe. Make sure your expectations for HER behavior are clear. And make sure you have your own solid group of girlfriends who can support you through parenting a preteen. You need a strong village to get through it!
GRATEFUL — When I lean over my kids’ beds to kiss them good night, I always say, “I am so grateful that I was chosen to be your mom.” This is a great gift we all have been given and one that comes with great responsibility. It does me good to remember that when I’m ready to run to my bedroom closet and lock the door.
HONESTY — I have talked with my daughter about my insecurities in middle school – how I worried about what I wore and how I walked and who my friends were. Share a couple of stories with her from this time in your life. It will help her to know we all walk through the stage of life. And just maybe she will be more willing to confide in you with her own struggles.
INDEPENDENCE — I try to give my daughter as many opportunities to succeed or fail as possible. I also want her to learn responsibility and the confidence that comes with completing a task on her own. And, I do my best to respect the fact that she is growing into a young woman with her own thoughts and priorities and interests that may not always align with my own.
JAZZ — In my case, I’m referring to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Whenever my daughter is sad or sick, I rap “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and she feels better. When out of town for a work conference last year, she called me on FaceTime, told me she missed me, and then rapped all the lyrics to the first verse before I joined her for the second. Find your silly, little connections because those ordinary moments make great memories.
KID — She is still one of these. And there will be moments, however quickly veiled by adolescent indifference, that the wonder and silliness of childhood still shines through your girl.
LOVE — Love her. Every moment of every day. Do it fiercely. Even when—maybe particularly when—you don’t like how she is acting. She needs your unconditional and strong love more than she will admit.
MOM — Be one. This is not the time to be BFFs with your daughter. Laugh and be silly with her. Be willing to talk to her about anything. But also keep those parent-child lines clear. When the world with her peers is chaotic and shifting, she will appreciate the comfort that comes with boundaries. Even if she won’t tell you that. (She won’t.)
NO — Don’t be afraid of this word. Use it. Even when she tries to wear you down by asking twenty times. Or tells you that you aren’t a cool mom and none of her friends like you because you won’t let her do or have whatever it may be. But also say “yes” sometimes. Let her go to that slumber party or buy that overpriced shirt or stay up too late once in a while.
OUCH — Your preteen girl may say things that hurt your feelings. Things like “I wish you weren’t my mom” or “You’ve ruined my life” or “Why can’t you be cool like ______’s mom?” Don’t take it personally. She doesn’t mean it. Usually.
PERIODS — If you have a daughter who is ten or eleven years old and you have yet to discuss what it means to get your period, please do so. I’ve heard stories of girls who show up sobbing in the school nurse’s office in the fifth grade because they are bleeding and think something is horribly wrong. Talk to them and let them keep a pad in their backpacks in case their period starts at school. As with all things, (good and correct) information is power.
QUESTIONS — Ask lots of them. Who did you hang out with at lunch today? What do you like about that book you are reading? What were you just looking at on the Internet? How did you feel when that boy told you he liked you? Don’t smother her . . . she needs room to think, and she needs the freedom to have hushed conversations with her friends. But make sure you always know enough.
ROLLER COASTER — You will ride along with your preteen daughter through a variety of emotions, which can change rapidly and may cause nausea for those who do not have a strong constitution. Buckle up, and be prepared to hear “You don’t understand my life, and I hate living here” followed by “Will you sit with me and cuddle?” five minutes later. Set boundaries on how your daughter can speak to you, but please be patient with her. Just think about all of the confusing hormones that are surging through her for the first time as she fights with forces that are turning her into a young woman while part of her just wants to stay a little girl.
SEX — Just as with her soon-to-be arriving period, your preteen girl needs to have these conversations with you. And it shouldn’t be just one evening during which you have “the talk.” Instead, have an ongoing conversation about bodies and respect and emotions, as well as the physical mechanics of it all. Even if they haven’t heard anything from YOU about sex yet, by the time they get to middle school, they have heard something somewhere.
TELEVISION — As a child, I had Mallory Keaton, Denise Huxtable, Blair and Jo under the watchful eye of Mrs. Garrett, and whoever Ricky’s latest love interest was on Silver Spoons as my fictitious examples of how teenage life would be. These girls looked and acted like the high school kids I knew in real life. I worry that the girls on today’s television, who always seem to have perfectly accessorized outfits and professionally done make up and who often talk like they are forty, do not offer my daughter the same examples. Remind your girls often that what they see on TV and in movies and in magazines is not real and that it promotes standards they should not try to attain.
UTERUS — You may find yourself looking down at your belly and whispering to your uterus, “When you were housing my beautiful daughter and providing her a warm and safe space to grow, never did I imagine the baby who exited you would become so adept at rolling her eyes.” Also, be sure that your daughter knows that she has one (see “PERIOD” and “SEX”).
VEGETARIAN — Your preteen may decide that she is going to be an animal rights’ activist and no longer eat meat. Or she may wear all black to protest the government. Maybe she will start a recycling program at her school or collect hats and gloves for the homeless or ask if she can march at a rally. Encourage all of this as she works to negotiate her role in the bigger world around her.
EXAMPLE — OK, I’m cheating here with a word that sounds like it starts with “X.” Provide her with a role model that demonstrates how to walk with confidence in her own body, how to be strong, and how to be kind. Show her that women have voices and opinions worth hearing and never to shrink away from hers. Also, show her that it’s OK to be goofy and scared and frustrated. And that’s there is nothing wrong with changing your mind.
YELL — You may find yourself doing this once in a while. Or daily. And then you get angry at yourself because you are the adult and shouldn’t lose control of your emotions. It happens. (See “BREATHE” and “EXIT”) When you do lose your cool, don’t be afraid to tell your daughter that you are sorry.
ZZZ — Sleep. You need it to face the preteen ups and downs that will come at you in the morning. Your daughter needs it for the same reason.