Drama Down – Five Tips to Deescalate Mom/Daughter Drama
Angela Patton, MA, LPC is a therapist with Kevin Elliott Counseling. In addition to providing therapy for teens and families she facilitates the Butterfly Therapy Group for teen girls. We all know that teen girls can generate some big drama. While it can be frustrating and even painful to watch them navigate the rocky years as they individuate and stretch their wings, it is even more difficult if you find yourself going head to head with them, instead of being the ally you long to be. Therapists tell us that as parents we are supposed to “pick our battles” so that we don’t get into negative interactions over things that in the big picture don’t really matter, but at the end of the day, you may find yourself shaking your head wondering, “How in the world did we end up arguing about peanut butter?” Yep, peanut butter. Creamy or crunchy? That was the story Amiee brought to therapy as she told me how her Mom tried to control everything in her life, even whether she should eat creamy or crunchy peanut butter. Carol, Amiee’s Mom had a little different version. “Amiee was late getting out the door for school. No big surprise there. I yelled up at her to ask if she wanted me to make her a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and as I was just getting the words out, she flew down the stairs screaming that she didn’t have time to wait. I told her that I could have it done in two minutes and to just hold on. She proceeded to tell me that she didn’t want one because she hated the creamy peanut butter that I’d bought. I know I should have just dropped it right there, but instead I engaged in a back-and-forth rant about how she’d always loved the creamy peanut butter before and that this was the first I knew of her crunchy preference. Apparently this was the last straw to prove that I never paid attention to what she said which of course ticked me off because I felt I was just trying to do her a favor to begin with. It’s not like I’m obligated to make sandwiches for a teenager who oversleeps.” With a sad voice, Carol proceeded to tell me how, even though this incident when described out loud felt almost laughable, that it wasn’t laughable when it was happening day in day out … over how much cleavage to show, when she could be texting, how to get her math grade up, … and the list goes on. “I’m getting worn down, which it seems like might be exactly what Aimee wants. Aimee, is basically a good kid, and she can still be as sweet as pie on occasions, but those occasions are getting fewer and farther between. Now she’s starting to actually disobey rules and I’m afraid where it is going. I see it as a direct result of what feels like a total breakdown in our communication.” GIRLS As a therapist, teacher, and mother of a teenager daughter myself I can attest to the fact that you have to be strategic in managing communication with the hormonally challenge teen girls. In therapy I see that even mother/daughter relationships that have a healthy foundation can go astray when girls hit the tweens and teens. I know that boys can be difficult too, but research actually shows that mother/daughters fight more than any other parent-child pair and their fights last twice as long. Whew. Do you and your daughter need therapy or is there another solution? WHAT TO DO I have found these five tips from the excellent book — Getting To Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies For Parenting Tweens And Teens (by Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D. and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D.) to be really valuable in helping me and my clients. Warning: They do take practice. Their suggestions (in bold) are followed by my comments. 1. Listen, empathize, and confirm their feelings. A genuine and sincere tone is critical. If we’re hovering or pandering (“I hear your feelings”), it can set the teen off. Instead, try a heartfelt comment like, “Wow, this sounds like a real struggle.” In Carol and Aimee’s case, the incident happens so fast and the “issue” is so ridiculous it doesn’t seem like there is anything to empathize with. But try making an effort, even if it seems silly. “Wow, I guess, you’re frustrated.” Or, “Oh, I’m getting your message. You don’t like creamy.” Or, “You don’t feel like I listen to you? That’s got to be irritating.” You won’t be perfect at this, and it might (as the authors say) come across as “pandering” that sets her off even more. But it will get easier the more you do it. Your girl, like everyone else, wants to be heard and understood. Over time, this tactic will produce better results than if you just immediately lock horns, even if the immediate results just delays the argument for a couple of minutes. You are sending her the message that you are making an effort to hear and understand. 2. Admit you can’t solve their problem. When someone is very upset, we’re all tempted to try to solve the problem with our good advice. Unfortunately, this can come across as minimizing or patronizing, and can escalate the conflict. Instead, try something that pulls you away from their complaining cycle such as, “I’d love nothing more than to come up with a brilliant solution that satisfies both of us, honey, but I don’t seem to be able to find one.” “Well since you don’t want me to make buy creamy peanut butter, I’m going to assume that you are going to start pulling your weight around here and doing the grocery shopping, or maybe even getting yourself out of bed early enough to make your own damn lunch. Oops, no sarcasm allowed. See #3. 3. Express your faith in their ability to figure it out. Our adolescents look to us as mirrors reflecting our reassurance that they can handle their situation. If we show anxiety, frustration, anger, or resentment, we’re not inspiring confidence in their own ability to work through the upset. Depending on the situation, a parent might say, “Look, I know you want me to fix this, but I guess I’ll have to let you be mad at me. In the meantime, I really do trust that you can come up with a solution.” This may be especially challenging if you are a “fixer” like me. I have found that over time as I have expressed confidence in my daughter’s ability to find solutions when we are not in the middle of a drama — when she is just actually asking my advice — that it doesn’t push her buttons (as much) when I’m using it as a tactic to get her to stop blaming me for situations that I can’t fix and frankly, shouldn’t be expected to, since (IMHO) she is the one creating the drama-rama. Carol could have tried: “Well since you don’t want me to make buy creamy peanut butter, I’m going to assume that you’ll find a way to have a good lunch today.” 4. Move away without being rejecting. In preparation for the exit, make a comment that breaks the spell but still keeps you connected. The phrase “I’ll go make some tea for us” is a metaphor for any nurturing statement that shows support and implies “I’m not abandoning you.” It could be something like “I hope you’re doing OK with this. Let’s talk again in an hour and see where you are.” 5. Check back in to prove that you care and are still with them. After some time has passed, we can offer some kind of nurturance such as a back rub or hot chocolate. Nonetheless, don’t expect the teen to be happy and completely over it, since resentment and frustration are likely to linger. If the tornado has lost high velocity and dwindled into mere blusters, this, in itself, is a major achievement. In reading those last tips of advice, it might seem like you are totally caving and being a puppet to her unreasonable diatribes. You’ll have to make that call yourself, based on your own relationship with your girl and with your moral compass about how much disrespect you feel a parent can and should take. But remember part of what we are doing is trying to pick our battles. Carol felt like Aimee was just trying to wear her down. That may have not been a conscious decision on Aimee’s part, but still Carol needs to be looking for strategies to preserve her energy for the bigger battles and to not make a larger and larger chasm between her and her daughter over things that are not even important. In an interview with NPR, Krastner says: “Let them have the last word,” … A lot of parents may feel they don’t want their kids to think they can get away with something. Parents might be right, she says. But is that strategy effective? “A lot of extended arguments that happen with children are happening because we take the bait,” Kastner says. Parents respond to attacks, get angry when called names and end up co-miserable with their kids who are already generally irritated that their parents are the boss anyway. Co-miserable! Yes, let’s avoid that. (Note: Carol and Aimee’s names have been changed.)
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