Much of the time I'm a fairly confident mom. But I have to confess that in the dark of night I sometimes worry that my daughters, 17 and 18, are going to end up feeling the same way about me that I do about my mother. She has always been moody and hypercritical, so when I got to be a teen, I put a lot of emotional distance between us. She's still in my life, but close? Not a chance. Fast-forward to me and my girls. I desperately want a better relationship. So much so that I occasionally find myself bending over backward to please them. Last week, for instance, I drove my daughter's forgotten tennis racket to school, even though doubling back caused me to miss a meeting. This did nothing to improve our relationship, I might add, since I was shamelessly crabby throughout the entire episode. (Not to mention that I squandered a teachable moment. To wit, actions—or in this case, inactions—have consequences.)
I know it is so not right to care this much. But I'm not alone. All around me I see parents struggling with this very issue. On one end are those who act like BFFs—sharing intimate details of their dating lives, dressing out of their daughters' closets. Trouble is, when parents act like part of the gang, it leaves kids feeling unsafe and out of control, says Lisa Damour, Ph.D., director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. "Teenagers actually find it weird and disturbing when no one is in charge," she explains. "They need boundaries."
On the other extreme—rare, but definitely out there—is the mom who's overly rigid and holds on too tightly to her little darlings. But that might only make your adolescent rebel even harder against your authority, says Damour. "A child's job is to assert her independence, and she takes the assignment very seriously," she says. Scarier still, your child may not ask for your guidance and support when she needs it most. You don't want your kids worrying about which scenario is more frightening: getting into a car with a drunk friend or calling you for a ride.
What you need is to be a middle-ground type of parent, one who is accessible but still has her child's best interests at heart. "It's a myth that your relationship with your kids has to suffer as they move through adolescence," says Joanne Stern, Ph.D., author of Parenting Is a Contact Sport."You have the potential to be better friends with your teenagers than their 'real' friends are." All it takes, experts say, is following a few simple rules—and resisting some hardwired mommy reflexes.