Teenagers tend to get bad press. In the same way that we as parents are told that our toddlers are entering the stage of the ‘terrible two’s’ so too we tend to expect that the teen years are going to be the ‘torrid teens’. Some fathers feel that their daughters become like aliens once their teenage years begin, no longer recognisable as the sweet, compliant, loving, affectionate, adoring daughter that she once was. This perception can lead to some challenges in the relationship.
As an adolescent, your daughter is at a critical stage in which she is forming her identity. She is figuring out who she is, what she is all about, where she belongs in this world and where she is headed. She is constantly trying out new roles and being confronted with adult statuses. Her job is to explore. In itself not an easy process. At the same time she is faced with some tough decisions – what subjects do I choose for matric, what career path do I want to follow, should I have sex with my boyfriend, should I experiment with drugs, should I drink and smoke, should I agree to sending him a photo of myself in my underwear…… Many teenage girls are faced with sexual harassment at school, issues around date rape, AIDS, unwanted pregnancy. Adolescence is also a time of intense physical, emotional, social and psychological change, with huge social pressure to conform to a certain ideal as presented in movies, on TV and in magazines. All in all, adolescence can be quite confusing at times and parents are not always able to keep up with it all, never mind understand it.
Your defence might be something along the lines of “when I was a teenager I didn’t get involved in these sorts of activities”. The reality is that your daughter is growing up in a world that is vastly different from the world in which you grew up in as a teenager. Your teenage daughter is exposed to so much more than you were exposed to as a teenager. She is living in a media-drenched world which doesn’t always reflect an appropriate or even acceptable value system. Movies, TV, magazines, books, cell phones, face book, whatsapp and the internet all play a role here giving her access to information which is not always age appropriate but which is easily accessible. As her dad you probably have your own fears about what information she has access to. Depriving your daughter of this information is a route that you can take, for example, by not allowing her to be on facebook or have internet access. There are difficulties with this however. These days internet access is pretty much a prerequisite when it comes to completing school projects, homework assignments and oral presentations. Similarly, if we remove facebook or whatsapp we remove one of her most significant means of being integrated socially and remaining socially connected. In this regard, perhaps the best you can do as her dad is to express your concerns to her, listen to hers and be available to her. One of the most significant (and difficult) tasks for parents of teenagers is that of starting to let go and, ultimately, allowing her to start making her own decisions.
Certainly as her dad you have the right to say ‘no’ and probably there are times when that is the best and only option. But the ongoing unilaterlal, non-negotiable laying down of the law by parents (you will not go out with that boy, you may not wear that skirt, you are not going to tha party) often has the effect of pushing your teenager underground – she simply does it anyway but behind your back while covering her tracks with lies. When setting boundaries for your teenager perhaps a better outcome is achieved if, as her dad you can sit down with your daughter, listen to her requests, express your opinions and concerns, talk to each other and not at each other and then negotiate a middle ground which is acceptable to both of you. Trust and compromise are critical in this process. So instead of immediately saying ‘no’ , rather say ‘well, maybe, let’s talk….’ And then talk.
Another reality that we are faced with as parents is that our teenage daughters tend to distance themselves from us and to turn more towards their peer group. This is developmentally appropriate. Early adolescence is a time of self-absorption where peer approval and acceptance are of great significance. So whereas before she perhaps loved sharing with you, spending time with you, asking for your advice and help and hugging you, now suddenly you feel excluded. What her behaviour is saying is ‘I need space to be my own person’. As dads this can be experienced as great loss but please know that as much as she is asking for space, she does still need you to be close and available, she needs your ongoing support (although she might not acknowledge this).
Your teenage daughter needs your love and support and presence. She needs friends, values that will empower as well as protect her, physical safety, freedom to move about independently, respect for her uniqueness, and encouragement to develop into the person she believes herself to be. As her dad you play a significant role in this process. Don’t be tempted to give up.
By Bronwen Oberholzer, BA (Ed) BA (Hons) MEd (EdPsych) Sept 15