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12 year old daughter constantly fighting with Mom

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When our daughter was 11, we moved to Chicago. She thought it was the end of the world. She wasn't going, she hated Chicago etc....After one year, we were transferred back. Our house did not sell, so we moved right back in, same friends, same school, same everything. Again, she wasn't moving back home, she hated that city. She misses Chicago (?) and wants to move to a new school system.

It seems like all we do is fight with her. We have a 9 year old son and all they do is fight. She can play/watch movies with him and get along and then boom-get away from me, I don't want you here with me, get away, leave me alone.

I also have hygiene issues with her. She is so pretty and has blackheads all around her nose and pimples on her forehead (she covers with her bangs), doesn't brush her teeth and won't shower on a daily basis. I finally got her to wear a bra/cami top everyday and wear deodorant. That was a very hard battle. I just can't get her to wash her face, I bought the Noxema wash cloths, use and throw would of thought it has acid on the cloth. The teeth problem, we visit the dentist every 6 months, no cavities. I asked the dental assistant to talk to her, she did. Still no cavities and no brushing for days.

She is obsessed with the computer. I grounded her from it yesterday, because she does not get off when I ask her to. That is how everything is, she will later, I'll get off in a few minutes, I'll take a shower tonight, I'll take the dog out in a few minutes.

I'm losing my mind. I never acted this way to my parents. I knew my mom would back hand me across the mouth. I get so angry some days I feel like doing that. I don't, I never have and will never do that. I know what that feels like.

I do yell when I can't take it anymore. That is bad too. My mom yelled and screamed at us. Some days, I think maybe she just needs to talk to someone, should I get a counselor for her? She is an "A" student, so this is not affecting her grades yet.

I just need a little guidance. My husband says I babied her too much...

She will be 13 in June and I feel that I'm losing my daughter. I don't want these problems when she is older and hates me. I want to fix this now. Can you help us? --Mean Mom


Dear Mom,
I'm so glad that you're reaching out to try to heal this situation now, rather than letting it continue to deteriorate.

12 year old girls can be challenging to parents. Their hormones are going crazy and their brains are rewiring, so they are famous for their mood swings. They often don't even know why they're having an angry or tearful outburst. They often are ambivalent about "growing up" and resist the bodily changes and societal expectations that are thrust upon them, so getting them to adopt new grooming habits can be a challenge. They begin experimenting with being sassy, if they haven't done so thus far.

But I also need to point out that the problems you describe with your almost-13 year old are normal problems. I understand that she fights with her brother, is obsessed with the computer, procrastinates when you ask her to do something, does not brush her teeth regularly, does not shower daily, could wash her face more often, resented moving out of state, doubly resented moving again a year later, had to be battled into wearing a bra and deodorant, and probably has mood swings. These are all fairly normal behaviors for a girl her age.

You could be telling me -- as I hear sometimes from moms of other girls this age -- that she is boy-obsessed, that she is failing school, that her friends worry you, and that she is sneaking cigarettes or has tried drinking or drugs. Instead, happily, she is none of these things and is an A student.

Let me reassure you that I also hear your deep frustration with the situation. It sounds like your relationship with your daughter is full of fighting right now, and I hear -- especially in the way you sign your name -- that you are finding it difficult to be the parent you'd like to be.

And fighting all the time, in any parent-child relationship, is not normal. It's an indication that something is wrong in the relationship. Luckily, even though every relationship is made up of two people, the parent can usually change the entire dynamic just by changing the way he or she relates to the child.

My prescription is that you start by strengthening your relationship with your daughter. Many of the problems you describe will melt away once you and your daughter have mostly good will instead of mostly fighting in your relationship. I know that's easier said than done, but you can do it, if that's your clear intention. How?

1. Reconnect. Hug her hello in the morning and when you see her again after school, snuggle with her a little in the evening before bed. Make sure you spend time alone with her every single day. Just use the time to connect with her, find out what's going on in her world, build a relationship that consists of more than fighting. Listen a lot. Do fun things together. Play her favorite games, put on music and dance, take her to brunch on the weekend.

2. Stop criticizing and start appreciating. Bite your tongue if you notice pimples or the need for more deodorant. Consciously remind yourself -- and her -- of all things you love about her. Catch her doing things right as often as possible and tell her about them, as specifically as you can.

I know it might be hard to find her doing things right now that seem worth acknowledging, because she has stopped trying to please you, but give her positive reinforcement for any steps in the right direction: "I saw that you wanted to fight with me about taking a bath, but you went upstairs after only one try to get out of it. I appreciate that!" or "I saw you working hard to be nice to your brother at dinner. That meant a lot to him."

3. Try to see it from her point of view. An important part of rebuilding your relationship with your daughter is cultivating empathy for her. I realize that you may think she is over-reacting or over-dramatizing. Girls this age have big feelings, which they will learn to modulate as those feelings are met with calmness and empathy.

For instance, your daughter obviously had a lot of resentment and anger about being dragged through two moves. Maybe those were unavoidable and important for the family. But she doesn't have to like them. In fact, it would be a rare child who would cheerfully agree, at the age of 11, to move. And once she had weathered that move, and made it work for her, and made new friends, and found a bigger self-identity, it would be pretty hard to go back to her old house and peers and a river that had moved on without her, especially at the age when all the peer shifts create in and out crowds.

Now, do you have to agree with her views? Of course not. You may think she is making a mountain out of a molehill. But if you saw it from her perspective, you would realize that to her it is a mountain. The great thing about empathy is that it helps her over the mountain, because once she feels understood she doesn't need to dramatize quite as much (although it will undoubtedly seem plenty to you!) The other great thing about empathy is that once she feels understood, she feels closer to you, which has all kinds of benefits (like she becomes more cooperative). Finally, your empathy allows her to mature and learn to manage herself emotionally, which is a big relief for the parents of teens.

I guarantee that a lot of the difficulties with your daughter will vanish once your relationship consists mostly of loving connection rather than fighting.

But of course she won't become perfect. She will still procrastinate, and not want to brush her teeth. So you will need to cultivate the patience of a saint. Is that fair? No. But since when has parenthood been fair? Parents do the work because they want their children to develop well, and because they love them. Despite the emotional rewards, parenthood is always a form of sainthood, precisely because it takes such patience and self-sacrifice. That doesn't mean you don't set limits. It means you do it in a patient, respectful, calm way, so your kids internalize calmness and respect and the ability to set limits for themselves.

While you are rebuilding your relationship with her, try to discipline as little as possible. Focus on what really matters -- how people in your home treat each other -- rather than surface things like her procrastination. When she does something you don't like, try to breathe, and point it out to her with a sense of humor -- but only if you really have to. For instance, she can go a couple more weeks being dirty and smelly. But if she is mean to her brother, you will need to intervene to establish that "In this house, we don't yell at each other, we treat each other respectfully." And if she raises her voice to you, you will have to say calmly "I don't talk to you like that, and I don't expect you to talk to me like that."

Of course, that means you can't yell at her either. I know you have been, and that you want to stop. I hope this will give you some incentive. I hear that you remember what it felt like as a teenager when your mother yelled at you, and how much you want a different kind of relationship with your daughter. Yelling undermines your daughter's self esteem and your relationship with her. I encourage you to do whatever you need to so that you can avoid yelling at your child. I encourage you to check out "How Parents can Control Their Own AngerPeaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.

Tweens are difficult and often emotionally out of control. That means our job as parents is to stay in control ourselves, to give them a "holding environment" for their feelings. If we refuse to escalate, but simply offer calmness, we model how feelings can be tolerated, accepted, and managed. Without minimizing their concerns, our calmness gives them the message that while it may feel like the end of the world right now, it really isn't. If we respond to their upset by getting more upset ourselves, it's like throwing a match on kindling. If you can stay calm when your daughter loses it, she will be deeply grateful. She is unlikely to show it at the time, of course, but it will quickly change the entire tenor of your relationship with her.

I want to acknowledge that this is not easy. Not one of us is a perfect parent. When my daughter was this age and I thought she was being unreasonable, I certainly felt like raising my voice to her. But we made breakthroughs when I could stop, breathe, and remember not to take it personally: "You are so upset about this. But please don't scream at me. We don't treat each other that way. Do you want some time to yourself to calm down before we talk about this?"

The trick is to use that breathing room NOT to rehash why we're right and she's an ungrateful brat, but to remind ourselves that what we want is a close relationship and an emotionally healthy child. Then when we do sit down to talk, we're more able to be the understanding mother we want for our child. Once she feels understood, she becomes more cooperative. And you'll notice her controlling herself more.

Again, this isn't easy. It calls on us, as parents, to use this opportunity to become better people, with bigger hearts. Sometimes we find we need to seek counseling ourselves, to learn to manage our own anger. But I have seen over and over the positive difference it makes with our kids.

Finally, let's talk about what's wearing you down on a daily basis: grooming. Many girls this age are so conscious of peer pressure to be attractive to boys that they become meticulous with these grooming tasks. But most tweens need help developing good grooming habits. They need daily gentle reminders about what their new bodies need: daily showers, deodorant, teeth and face care twice daily, etc. If you can build these habits into the routine for three months -- reminding her nicely every single day -- she will then have developed habits that she will carry into adulthood.

You may well feel that you shouldn't have to remind her. But, speaking from experience in my own home, at this age deodorant was seen as gross, those Noxema face wash cloths "hurt my skin," a shower is a waste of time, and a bra was an unwanted symbol of losing her childhood. Without reminders, these things don't become habits as fast (although by fifteen, virtually all kids have learned from their peers that they need to develop these habits or be ostracized.) As with teaching our toddlers to use the toilet and brush their teeth, it takes patience for our tweens to develop grooming habits, but they eventually do. And once they master this, they'll be on to the next challenge, and we'll have even less influence on them with that. I personally try to be grateful for the opportunity to be my teenage daughter's mother a little longer. I know how fast she'll be grown and out of the house.

I hope you and your daughter will become much closer over the next few years, which will strengthen your bond for the rest of your life. Enjoy her while you can.

Dr. Laura

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