Twelve Year Old's Backtalk

Dr. Markham,

My daughter has been menstruating for almost a year, she has become a completely different person. She went from a tomboy to a couch potato. All she cares about is being on the computer, which is carefully monitored and she stays on games.

We went from a close relationship where she always wanted to be with me, to now she feels I'm a loser. She will disrespect me with backtalk, which I call her on every time. Her dad supports me, and I him when she sasses, but she is a daddy's girl, only child living an upper class lifestyle. Private schools, country clubs. Her father and I do not believe material things are the end all, and are on the conservative end compared to others in our 'world'.

My question is, how do I handle her backtalk? Right now I take away electronics since that is the most important thing in her life right now. I swear she is becoming addicted to the computer. I explained to her addictive behavior but she doesn't agree, of course. Mean, cranky when not on the computer, can't wait to get home to get back on. I swear she is not on chat rooms, my space, or you tube.

How do I respond to her sass? or her noncompliance in doing family activities? when we do, she has a puss on her face. Yes the drama with injuries are there, aches and pains, and I listen, make appropriate noises but don't indulge in the drama. She finds me cold & mean because I don't play into the act like dad.

I'm the bad guy. I do find opportunities to connect in a loving way in between the drama. How do I keep communication open when she is so bothered by me?

-- Liz

Dear Liz,
I hear how hurt you are by your daughter's rejection. I too have a 12 year old daughter, and I sympathize. It's a shock to have your sweet little girl start screaming at you. Twelve year old girls can be moody, over-dramatizing, self-centered, focused almost solely on friends, surly, backtalking and condescending to parents. They can, of course, also be mature and delightful, but at their worst they're a cross between the most challenging aspects of toddlers and teens.

The bad news is that you have to play the hand you've been dealt, and it isn't the hand you would prefer, consisting as it does of a daughter whose developing body is flooded by hormones, who feels too vulnerable to acknowledge how much she still loves and needs you. The good news is that if you can accept that situation, there are things you can do to make things much better. What's more, 12 is the perfect time to intervene, before she draws further away from you.

Here are my ABCs of parenting a tween girl:

1. Focus on the relationship, not on discipline. You'll get no respect if she doesn't feel connected to you.

2. Fight like the dickens to stay close to your daughter. Do not let her push you away. She still needs you, she just can't acknowledge it. Find every opportunity to connect. Hug her hello every morning, and when you see her again later in the day. Hug her goodbye when she leaves for school.

She may not "need" tucking in at night, but that shouldn't stop you from lying down next to her to discuss her day and having a few minutes of quiet connection. I find that time just before bed to be the time my daughter is least distracted by other things, and most willing to open her heart to me.

Create regular times, at least once a week, when you go together for brunch or a manicure or a walk, and make the most of those opportunities to connect. For ideas on conversations to have with your preteen, check out 100 Family Conversation Starters and the other articles in the "Talking with your kids" section of this website.

3. Don't take anything she says or does personally. Teenage girls are famous for feeling like their moms "Just don't understand!" Try not to feel hurt by that. In fact, try not to feel hurt by anything she does. Most of it is not about you at all, but about her tumultuous hormones and emotions, her huge fears and insecurities, her urgent need to shape an identity as a separate, independent person. So just breathe through any "tantrums" and stay calm. The minute you get triggered, you're pushing her away.

4. Cultivate empathy for your daughter. As you listen, remind yourself that the upset of the moment may not seem like a big deal to you, but to her it feels like the end of the world. Having your body start changing so dramatically is worrisome at best and painful at worst, as in growing pains and menstrual cramps. That means that when she over-dramatizes, you sympathize. True, that stubbed toe didn't warrant all that fuss, but something does hurt and she does want you to kiss it and make it better, even if she isn't exactly sure what is bothering her and how to put it into words. Don't worry, this too shall pass.

5. Be aware that tween girls usually harbor great anxiety about adolescence. One study found that tween boys looked forward to adolescence and the strength, power, independence and prestige they would develop. Tween girls, on the other hand, dreaded adolescence, fearing menstruation, their new vulnerability to men, and the pressure to be “sexy” and attractive. Most girls don't know how to put these anxieties into words, but they feel them, even as they beg to wear skimpy outfits so they'll be “cool.”

6. Be sure your daughter is getting nine and a half hours of sleep each night. When kids stay up late, their stress hormones like cortisol kick in, which makes it harder to fall asleep. The problem is that cortisol stays in the system and makes them edgy the next day; it also contributes to depression and anxiety. The famous moodiness of teenagers is partly attributable to late bedtimes.

7. Your daughter is apparently in the grip of a computer addiction, not an uncommon situation in our culture. Game manufacturers spare no expense and use very sophisticated testing to insure that their games are physically addictive, which means that your daughter's body is bathed in adrenalin and other neurotransmitters as soon as she even thinks about playing her games. Computer games actually change our brain chemistry while we're playing them, and we don't know how long the effects last afterwards.

Your effort to help your daughter understand that she is, in fact, addicted to her games is important. Even if she never admits it, you will get more cooperation when you set limits because she will know deep inside that it is for her own good. I assume you do set limits on computer use, in the same way that you wouldn't let her watch TV all day.

In addition to setting limits, you'll need to interest your daughter in other things. Make sure her time off the computer is fun for her. I asked my 12 year old how to break a computer addiction and she said, "You almost have to bribe her to get off the computer, like a little kid, but then after awhile it becomes a habit and things can go back to normal, with only a little computer."

The way we have avoided computer addiction is by setting limits on games -- we literally just don't allow them. Instead, we encouraging every healthy interest she expresses. I know families who nurture dance, art, or other passions. This is where having some financial privilege might help; maybe you can interest your daughter in horseback riding or trapeze, for instance, both of which girls this age often throw themselves into with great passion.

But she will also need something to do at home that isn't screen time. It may mean you'll need to interact with her more at home, play games with her, etc. I have noticed that singleton kids are more likely to become gaming addicts because parents are often busy and the kids spend more time on the computer.

8. You say that your daughter has turned into a couch potato. My daughter also has this inclination, especially since she's a reader. The rule at our house is some form of physical activity every day, whether a bike ride, soccer game, family hike or time on the treadmill. Regular exercise has tremendous benefits, as you know, from getting the metabolism moving to balancing raging hormones.

9. Use all eruptions as opportunities to get closer. Insist on civility, but do it from as calm a place as you can muster and don't overreact when your child raises her voice to you in the middle of hysterics over something. She will be deeply grateful, even if she can't acknowledge it at the moment. I'm not for a minute suggesting that you let your child treat you disrespectfully. I'm suggesting you act out of love and connect with empathy, rather than anger, as you set limits. If you're too angry to get in touch with your love, always wait until you can before you set limits.

That means you keep your own voice calm and warm, even when she doesn't. It means that when she backtalks, you politely remind her that "We don't talk to each other that way in this house."

But I will add that you can probably expect some hysterics, including her raising her voice at you. You could respond by angrily insisting on respect, but you would drive your daughter away. If you can instead stay calm and listen for what's going on underneath her upset, you can use these occasions as opportunities to get closer.

So often kids this age have strong feelings that they need help with. Not knowing what to do with these feelings, they act out towards the people they feel safest with: their parents. (You might want to check out this blog post blog post which describes just such an interaction with my daughter.)

If we get distracted by their disrespect, or react angrily, we miss the real message. They feel wounded, misunderstood, alienated. They get angry and attack us, or build up resentment and distrust. A rift appears in the relationship, and if we don't respond quickly, it widens.

If we can instead empathize with our tweens and teens, look for the upset under the disrespect, and remind them of who they really are ("You don't usually act unkindly"), we create an opening. The inevitable ruptures of daily life become opportunities to teach them so many lessons: how to process their emotions, how to repair an emotional rift, how to problem solve, that they can trust us. Most importantly, we end the interaction with a stronger relationship.

You and your daughter once had a very close relationship. That closeness is still there, under her disrespect. If you can change the way you parent her, you can keep that closeness even as she evolves into an independent person.

I want to end this letter by observing that parenting is a lot of emotional work, and never more so than with tweens and teens. It may seem unfair that you have to do most of the work in your relationship with your daughter, but that's the way parenting is. Our daughters may look like young women, but they've got a lot of growing up to do emotionally. It's still our job to guide their emotional development. And maybe do some growing up ourselves in the process.

Finally, I want to recommend a book that I think may be helpful in parenting your daughter right now. Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate addresses exactly the issues you're struggling with. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Blessings to you and your daughter,
Dr. Laura

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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