What teen girls really need (more than cellphones). Plus a cry for help parents often miss.
San Francisco Bay Area marriage and family therapist Lorraine Platt specializes in working with adolescent girls. In her practice, Teen Solutions Therapy, she sees both individuals and parents. She’s also a Certified Girls Circle Facilitator, working with groups of middle-schoolers and high-schoolers.
Here, she talks about her specialty: bringing families closer together to help daughters navigate the challenges of adolescence.
Teens are the canary in the coal mine for what’s going on in a family. They’re full-on emotion and intuition. They don’t censor themselves, so they can be great teachers to all of us. Be curious about what they’re saying, even if it comes across in a harsh or dramatic way. For instance, if your daughter says, “You never let me go anywhere. You don’t trust me,” ask yourself, “What’s true about this statement? Why don’t you trust her? Is it her friends? Did she lie to you?” Then figure out how to rebuild the trust. Her feelings usually point to something that needs attention.
Moms often say, “My daughter used to talk to me, and now she doesn’t.” Your daughter still cares, is interested in you, and needs her mother. But girls also need autonomy. She wants help navigating her big transition into adolescence but also wants to do it on her own, so she resists or shuts you out. Parents take this personally and, as a result, lose their power to give teens the guidance they need. Don’t assume you’re not needed.
Try to stay in the “alpha position”—as in, be the leader who takes care of her while being open and curious and giving her some space. Usually she needs some down time to recover from all her interactions at school and doesn’t want to be questioned about her day. Give her time to come to you, so she doesn’t feel pursued but knows you’re available if she wants to talk.
One mistake parents often make is to try to get teens to do things without connecting first. She feels objectified: “You just want me to do things like my homework and perform by getting good grades; you don’t care about how I feel or what I need.” Simple things like giving hugs or doing things together help your teen feel cared for. She knows what’s important to you. Go into her world and find out what’s important to her. This doesn’t mean school isn’t important. It just means she needs to feel engaged and that you understand that she has her own purpose and is moving in a valuable direction. Help her find that purpose and direction.
A big challenge for parents is that they don’t fully grasp the experience of being a teen today. Things were a lot simpler, safer, and more insular when they were growing up. Now the culture is a lot faster and people are busier. The internet and social media are big influencers. It’s hard to appreciate the extent of the stress kids are under, so be curious about their world and how they need help. The internet is an overwhelming and sometimes dangerous place that holds a lot of intrigue for teens. Teach them how to make healthy choices without trying to control them. Explore and learn together, so you can better discover what her needs and interests are while also setting clear boundaries to keep her safe.
Extreme stress is one reason we’re seeing more chronic anxiety in kids today, starting in middle school. At school, they may feel overwhelmed or excluded by being teased or bullied. They’re competing academically and have more commitments. Meanwhile their brains are overtaxed by a whole field of electronic screens, all without the chance to integrate what they see and feel. On top of it, their nervous system has no outlet.
Girls start to shut down their feelings because it’s too much and they’re being exposed to things they can’t handle, like friends cutting themselves. Educate yourself and get comfortable talking about the hard stuff, like sex and drugs, by the time they start 6th grade. If you don’t, they’ll learn it from their peers.
It’s a combustible combination: too much input and not enough ways to ditch the emotional stress. Girls used to have more outlets, like baking cookies, bike riding, and playing. Now they lack downtime. Creativity has been cut out of schools. What’s missing are all the experiences that ground them—the time to put their feet in the dirt or swim in the ocean, to talk to their neighbors, to cultivate a calm internal and external environment filled with relaxed connection. They need time to wander and play without the constant pressure of achieving something for the future.
Net result: This is when a lot of girls start cutting. Most of the girls I see have cut themselves at least once by the time they’re in 7th grade to see what it feels like. It’s becoming what bulimia used to be, something girls hear about from other girls and experiment with because they’re stressed out, curious, and desperate for relief. A little numbness sets in after cutting or scraping their skin, and it eliminates the pain in the moment, like a drink or a drug. They often don’t have anyone they feel comfortable talking to about it because they feel ashamed. That’s why mentors and extended family are so critical in a girl’s life. If she feels alone, she’s more likely to harm herself.
A cry for help parents often don’t suspect is when a teen isolates herself. It’s normal for teens to want to be in their bedroom and have some space. But when they go straight in their rooms and don’t come out, they’re probably feeling scared and disconnected. They need to be encouraged to have family time at dinner or do homework in family spaces if it’s quiet enough.
Teens still need adult guidance and connection on a regular basis, even when they act like they don’t. They’re trying to convince everyone, including themselves, that they’re independent and can go off on their own, which is what they’re preparing to do.
Something parents worry too much about is where their child is going to college. There’s a general overemphasis on grades and performance that makes it too easy for teens to end up on a pressured track that leaves them stressed out and isolated and feeling like their parents don’t care about them. Even though parents are attempting to ensure a successful future for their kids, too much pressure can leave a big chasm between parents and teens. While it’s important for teens to challenge themselves and think about their future and their career, they still need some time to be kids and explore what they care about while having a balanced life. This will actually lead to a future that fits with their own values and beliefs.
One thing parents don’t worry about but should is their child’s internal world. I see a lot of parents who are very future-focused and competitive, placing too much emphasis on things and money. There’s nothing wrong with those things, except it’s often to the neglect of a child’s creative world, her relationships (including with parents), and the help she needs to become her own person. The best way to support her is to spend time with her. I hear from many girls that they wish their parents didn’t work so much, so they’d have more time together. Shocking but true!
Gap years are more common today in part because kids have had it. They’ve done so much to keep up and get into a good college—the extra-curricular activities, the sports, the three or four hours of homework every night—that they just need a break. That’s why balance in high school is important: so they don’t get burned out by the time they graduate.
Parents really have to go out of their way to set up a balanced life for a teen: having family rituals, eating dinner together, doing things on the weekend, paying attention to college requirements but not overdoing it. That requires parents to be balanced. Again, teens are always teaching the invaluable lessons that families need to learn. In order to take care of their daughters, parents need to take care of themselves too.
Three things every teen girl needs: 1) A good sense of herself, to feel she’s worthwhile (and obviously, parental support is key to that). 2) A mentor. It could be a therapist, a teacher, a coach, an aunt or an uncle—some person of influence other than parents. It does take a village, and no one person can fill all of a teen’s needs. It’s about trusting the community around you. 3) Healthy friends. Girls are so relationally focused; it’s how they grow. They look to others for a sense of themselves, so they need people who see their strengths and are trustworthy.
If you don’t think your teen’s friends are healthy for her, don’t automatically cut her off from them to protect her. What’s most helpful is to connect with her friends (unless the situation is dangerous). Don’t just say, “You shouldn’t hang out with them because I heard they use drugs.” Have them over, be curious and involved, be a positive influence on them while finding out what’s really going on. If you try to cut off her connections, she’ll most likely start lying or stop sharing things with you, and you’ll lose the ability to help your teen navigate those relationships. Many teens have questionable relationships but also usually have emotional reasons for being drawn to certain people. It’s also normal for teens to minimize risk, so help her assess the risks and make healthy choices.
The most effective thing you can do is to get to know your teen as a person. Each teen is an individual. Show her curiosity and care, initially without an agenda or expectations, so she trusts you and opens up.
If I could tell parents of teens just one thing, it would be to look at yourself and be open to making any necessary changes. In therapy, the daughter often feels like she’s the identified patient who needs to be fixed. But teens are usually just acting out what isn’t being expressed in the family as a whole. Girls need to feel like they’re important and that they belong. Parents need to listen to their daughters, while setting and enforcing healthy boundaries. It’s worth asking yourself how you can make changes to set an example and lead your child to where you need to go together. Remember that you’re her answer.