The Oldest Story In The Book: Mother & Daughter Tension

By Debby Shulman

I think I embarrass my daughter.

Not on purpose of course, but by simply breathing; taking in air and blinking. You know, things I have absolute control over.  At first, I was miffed. (Apparently pain has no memory, because I know my own mother embarrassed me). And then, as she began to pick apart everything from my jeans to my hair, I decided I no longer gave a damn about how embarrassing I was.

Her wanting to control my behavior in public (“Do NOT kiss me goodbye right now” and “Do NOT dance in the car like that”) was pretty much what I wanted to do to her.

I wanted to be able to control what she did OUT of my presence more so than in it, but I still wanted her to know what was okay and what was not.

So much for that.

I cannot control what she does out of my house, in school or at parties. Neither could my mother – and in a bad case of teenage rebellion as a freshman, I fought her controlling ways by getting a D in photography. Yes, a D. Grades were a big thing (duh) and I had just about enough of the strict parenting because at the age of 15, I had it going on … yup, I was one together girl.  So, I blew off the final and checked out six library books from the high school library during finals. They ranged in topics from “Gettysburg” to “Guam” to “Guinea Pigs’ because I really just ran in, grabbed some books in G and checked them out. Once home, I hid them in the back of closet, packed my duffel and went off to camp for eight weeks. Brilliant. I was IN CONTROL.

You can’t get a report card if you have not returned your library books, and in the days before email, the high school didn’t notify you, they just didn’t send your report card home. Who’s in control, now, MOM?  I was backpacking somewhere up in Maine when I finally found a payphone and called home to check in.

Yes, the “tennis ladies” asked poor Linda how Little Debby did on her report card. Busted. No longer in control, I can only imagine my mother in her Laura Biagotti sunglasses, Fila tennis skirt and big hair flying down the hallway of my high school with an array of random library books she dug out from underneath my old Seventeen magazines. She was big on Sergio Tacchini warm-up suits back then, maybe she wore that too.  In any case, she got that report card and I am sure threw her head back in the school parking lot and screamed.

I think I heard it in Maine.

As if I thought things were bad before I left, they were worse when I got home. Purgatory. My room became my prison and I think I was grounded for the first four months of sophomore year.  We know that accomplishes nothing – but in my case, it just made me angrier and more resentful, which resulted in a couple of tumultuous years at home.

We so want to control our kids but I have begun to discover with my own daughter that it’s not fair and not always possible.  I may not like her outfit, but I am not the one wearing it.  I may not like her attitude, but I won’t change it by yelling at her about it either. And, I have discovered, it is perfectly normal to feel that your parents are humiliating you at every turn; whether I want to snap a picture from my phone (‘MOM! NO!!’) or sing the wrong words to a song I cannot understand but really like (who cares what Macklemore is really saying? It’s got a good beat and I can dance to it).

Everything I do will cause her to lash out because her insecurity is in full throttle. Defcon 5. Overload.

The only way she can grapple with that teenage angst is by getting a little snippy with me. And it’s okay – I can handle it.

The more serious issue however, is what to do when she leaves the house and she is at parties and football games and I want HER to have control over her OWN behavior. Now it gets tricky. Now my urge to make sure she is making good decisions is a tangible force of parental energy that could start fires. She’s little but she’s big.

How hard it must be to deal with the pressures of drinking, getting high and wanting to be ‘IN’ — and I remember them so well. So, I am trying to give a little, demand a little and talk a lot.

Truthfully, I don’t know if it’s working. She can be charming and disarming; manipulative and cunning; wonderful and genuine. And isn’t that what being a teenage girl is all about?  I was exactly the same way and when I wanted something, I turned on Good Debby for my parents and then did exactly what I wanted to behind their backs. My best friend from high school will read this and remember taking her father’s car when we were 15 and joy-riding all over our town late at night. Why should my daughter be any different?

Are our daughters really that much different than we were?  I think not, but I hope so.

Rather than question if there will be booze and pot at the Homecoming Dance, I have simply asked how she will handle  it.  Putting her in a position of lying about the presence of both is a waste of time. When I can approach the subject in a calm, quiet way, then I think I get more candid answers. Offering up no consequences or repercussions should she need to be rescued from a party and continuing to let her feel our presence is where I am hoping to land.  She should hear that voice in her head (if it can get past the hair gel and highlights) that reminds her to be careful, to be wise and to be safe.

Controlling her own behavior is going to be a learned response to spontaneous social situations that put pressure on her. Fingers crossed, I will let her figure that out.

Over the past few months, I have had plenty of opportunity to compare my three kids. How many times have we all commented that it seems impossible that our children all came from the same parents?  They are all so different and so alike – my older two seemed to have an inner-confidence that this one lacks. Is it a girl thing? Maybe … I don’t know that either.

I can’t barge into her room or lock her up.  I do not want her checking out library books to hide things from me and I certainly can’t storm the student activities hallway in search of a lost report card. But I am truly hoping that by not giving in to the desire, the need and the near compulsion to control her, I can let her figure it on her own so that it builds confidence. I know that my ‘embarrassing’ behavior is a cover; a way to deal with her age appropriate self-consciousness. I won’t change my jeans or my hair and I will keep singing the wrong lyrics on purpose to annoy her just a little bit.

But I do hope, in my efforts to be a more compassionate and insistent yet understanding parent that I don’t lose her to the paralysis of insecurity.  There will be a fork in the road soon, and I hope she has the good sense to choose the right path.

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Debby Shulman is a college essay consultant and academic tutor with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois.  She also professionally collaborates with Amy Simon College Consulting in Bannockburn, Illinois.  Debby also blogs about Motherhood/Teen issues for Your Teen magazine (www.yourteenmag.com). Check out her valuable advice. 

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