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.
A true friend doesn't badmouth or blab about her buddies, including her teens. We all need to vent on occasion, but proceed with caution: Should your kid find out you talked about him behind his back, he's not going to share with you again. Lauren*, a New Jersey mom of three, learned the hard way. "When my son was 17, he got a job at a store where my friend was the manager. I told her how nervous he was, hoping she could put him at ease," she recalls. "He found out—and felt betrayed and demoralized. It took a long time to regain his trust." If you must talk about your kid with someone else, stick to your own feelings and fears (versus embarrassing details about him). That makes you a lot less likely to violate his privacy, says Stern.
Don't criticize your teen's friends either, unless there's a serious issue like drug abuse or depression involved. "That will only force them closer together," says Mike Riera, Ph.D., author of Staying Connected to Your Teenager. Kids are so tight with their peers that when you dump on a friend, it feels as if you're badmouthing them, he explains, plus 99 times out of 100 a troublesome friendship will fizzle on its own.
Seize the Moment
Engaging a moody teenager and getting her to talk is all in the timing. So if one of my kids slides mutely into the car at the end of the school day, tired and grumpy, I hold off before I start fishing for that update. With my girls it's right before bed when they're relaxed and off guard. I know of one mom who sets an alarm on the weekends, so she is alert and available to talk when her 17-year-old son gets home at midnight. (She tells him that she couldn't sleep, so he doesn't think she's waiting up for him.)
To strike up a conversation, make sure not to pry or ask intrusive questions, advises family psychiatrist Charles Sophy, D.O., author of Side by Side."When I want to know how my children feel about a particular topic, I'm more successful if I ask them to analyze someone else's actions," says Kelly, a mother of three from Fort Worth, Texas. "One recent conversation went like this. Me: 'Jeez, Tiger Woods is dating Lindsey Vonn now? His cheating on his wife still bothers me.' Son: 'Why do you care? It's no big deal.' Me: 'He's a role model, and people will think it's okay to treat women that way.' And miracle of miracles, it worked. He had a little 'aha' moment and agreed with me."
Be a Benevolent Boss
Sometimes acting more like a friend and less like a dictator frees you from having to guilt your teens into making smart choices. "I used to argue with my son when he balked at visiting his grandparents for the weekend," says Jane, a mother of two in Arlington, Virginia. "Now I sympathize with him instead. I might say, 'I get that you want to hang with your friends.' Often I leave it at that and he comes around on his own." No one—particularly a teenager—likes to be told what to do, says Stern. If you take a less adversarial stance, your adolescent will be more inclined to do the right thing.
On occasions when you do have to pull rank, it's easier when you've developed a loving rapport."Parents who are the right kind of friends with their teens actually have more control over them than those who are super strict," says Stern. "Essentially, teens have to give you permission to discipline them, and if they like and respect you they're a lot less likely to rebel." So while your son may sulk the next time you tell him he can't go to an unchaperoned party, he probably won't sneak out of the house. "And don't expect him to say, 'Gee, Mom, thanks for being so wise,'" says Dr. Sophy. "But on some level he'll get that you're looking out for him."
I've been putting these principles to work, and slowly but surely, I'm learning to hold the line. Instead of making a decision based on what my daughters will say or feel about me, I stop and think, What would an honest, supportive ally do in this situation? Last week when my daughter wanted to buy tickets to a school-night concert, I resisted the urge to give her the go-ahead. Instead, I validated her feelings, saying it sure sounded more fun than homework. This led to us talking about the rigors of her AP course load, which may have made my "no" a smidge more palatable. Even if she still wasn't happy about the decision, I knew I was forging a friendship—and setting the stage for an unbreakable bond as she goes off to college and beyond.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.