Here’s a little known fact: totally normal teenagers, especially ones who are bright and talented, can have the same Rorschach test profiles as psychotic adults. As a psychologist who cares for adolescent girls, I spend a lot of time reassuring anxious parents that their daughters aren’t crazy. Mercurial moods and irrational whims just come with the territory when raising teenagers. Once we’ve addressed those concerns, I sometimes hear others. Parents worry that their girl complains too much, or only has a few friends. And often, adults agonize over talking with their teenage daughter about food. They want to encourage healthy eating, but are fearful of saying anything that might trigger an eating disorder.
Parents of adolescent girls everywhere, there’s great news for you. Your emotionally erratic daughter isn’t psychotic, and you can spend less time fretting about her griping, friendships, and food habits too. Here’s why.
Complaining can be a good thing. I spend part of each week consulting at an all-girls’ school where I get to observe hundreds of students as they navigate the currents of normal development. Though most of the girls stride the halls in a good mood, I know from conversations with their parents that by fifth grade, many of them go home to complain about their classmates, teachers, locker location, and so on.
And teenagers are right. School can be taxing, even under the best conditions. Imagine if we asked an adult to spend eight hours a day, nine months a year, in close quarters with a group of randomly selected peers. That adult would certainly have plenty to complain about over dinner each night.
Read MORE: Understanding the Social Angst of Teenagers
I’ve come to appreciate that most students, both boys and girls, manage to stay charming at school precisely because they know they can grouse to their parents when they get home. Once unburdened, teenagers can usually go back in and face another frustrating day. Knowing this, you can put less energy into offering useful, and usually unwelcome, solutions when your daughter complains. Instead, you might say, “Do you want my help with this, or do you just need to vent?” If she wants your help, she’ll tell you. But usually, she just needs, and deserves, to blow off steam.
Popularity can be a bad thing. Teenagers put popularity on a pedestal and can draw adults into doing the same. But when we look at the research on what it means for a teenager to have a lot of social connections, we learn that being popular is a surprisingly fraught position.
From the research several significant findings emerge. First, when adolescents say that a girl is popular, they sometimes mean that she is powerful—that she has gained status through her willingness to be unkind. Peers often fear “popular” girls more than they like them, and may want to be their friends so as not to become their targets. Second, popularity is stressful, even for girls who become popular because they are genuinely likable. Maintaining a large number of social connections is draining, especially if it means juggling competing loyalties and having to figure out whom to disappoint each weekend. Accordingly, the happiest girls tend to be the ones with a few solid friendships.
If your daughter talks about a popular classmate, capitalize on the opportunity to help her deconstruct the term. Consider asking, “Is she popular, or is she powerful?” And take comfort if your daughter is inclined to nestle into a small but steady group of friends. Should she branch out, be mindful that her stress may increase with her social connections.
Food can be a neutral thing. Food and weight are often tricky topics for parents raising adolescent girls, but they don’t have to be. We can dodge the landmines of size, shape, and body image and stick to neutral terms when talking with girls: our bodies require sufficient nourishment and exercise in order to work well. Research backs up this approach by showing that girls enjoy higher levels of body satisfaction when adults focus on nutrition and fitness rather than on dieting or weight control.
Read MORE: American Teenagers Are Eating Better: Study
Even parents who emphasize health can find themselves engaged in losing battles with their daughter about how, or how much, she eats and exercises. When girls fall down on the job of caring for themselves, parents can stay out of a dangerous power struggle by asking, “Do you have a feel for what’s getting in the way of you taking better care of your body?” This approach supports the drive for autonomy that all but defines adolescence and keeps the emphasis where it belongs: on the neutral biological realities that apply to everyone.
With their constant digital connection and penchant for risky behavior, teenagers give adults plenty of reasons to worry. Thankfully, they also give us plenty of reasons not to.
Lisa Damour is a psychologist in private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a clinical instructor at Case Western Reserve University and the director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. She is the author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood.
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