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Growing Pains

How to nurture a healthy relationship with your teenaged daughter

my fifteen-year-old daughter, Alison, stood in the middle of her room, surrounded by piles of T-shirts, shorts, tennis shoes, still-dirty laundry, and toiletries we'd just purchased.

"Don't you think you ought to take a rain poncho since you'll be camping out? What about tucking in the stuff we bought?" I asked, a bit time-pressured since she needed to leave from the church in an hour.

"I don't need your help packing, and I'm not taking any of that stuff, especially the poncho," Alison answered, irritated at my interference. Within a few minutes, our conversation escalated into anger, and an uncomfortable silence accompanied us as I drove her to catch the church van headed for camp.

What happened to that good relationship Ali and I used to have, Lord? I asked on the way home, my heart sinking. Snapshots of the after-school conversations we'd shared over hot chocolate and freshly baked donuts drifted across my memory. Maybe that's why the tensions of mid-adolescence came as such a big surprise. Suddenly, my suggestions on homework (or just about anything) were met with an argument. When her room looked like nuclear fallout, she resented my reminders to clean it. All I had to do was say "Mom things," and Alison found me irritating.

The mother-daughter relationship can be one of the most intense, loving, and strained—especially during adolescence. As moms, we try to prepare our daughters for what's ahead, hoping they'll accept at least some of our advice. All the while they're trying to spread their wings. So what can we do when mother-daughter conflicts erupt? For me, the first step toward a better relationship was on my knees. As I spent time talking with God about what he wanted for Ali and me, God revealed some "majors" to focus on: the need to listen and accept our differences, and the need to stop exerting control in areas he pointed out were "minors."

It's amazing how a little thing can cause big conflict, but Alison's hair had become a power struggle. She wanted to be creative—to try a shorter style dyed burgundy. I envisioned a horrid red hue spoiling her lovely blond hair, and since I was paying for beauty-shop expenses, I thought I ought to have a little input. She disagreed. Tension grew over the hair issue.

Strangely, tension grew between the Lord and me. Frustrated, I prayed, Lord, what do you want me to do? You know what she'll look like with those colors!

"Release her," he said.

Finally, one afternoon when Alison was in the kitchen, I turned to her and said, "Alison, your hair is yours to do with whatever you want. Your room is, too—we'd prefer you keep it clean, but no more nagging, or going in and picking up."

With a smile, Ali agreed. While I wasn't thrilled with her messy room or all the creative hairdos and colors she paraded to the breakfast table each morning, transferring responsibility to Alison provided one less opportunity for conflict.

I was comforted one day when I heard Dr. James Dobson say, "I'm convinced the pulling away of adolescents from their parents is divinely inspired." With relief, I realized Alison's attempts to be more independent were entirely normal. It meant I needed to let go—and entrust her to her heavenly Father.

loving … and letting go

Sometimes that "letting go" happens prematurely, as in my friend Diane's case. When Diane's daughter Megan was seventeen, she became negative about school and hostile toward her parents. Although they tried counseling, it didn't help the conflict. At the end of her junior year, Megan asked to go to Colorado with a girlfriend to work for the summer. She'd already run away once; forcing Megan to stay didn't look promising, so taking a big leap of faith, her parents let her go with their blessing and some financial help.

Megan landed a job with a landscape company. The work was hard but Megan loved the mountains, the freedom, and her new-found friends and activities. Over the phone she began warming up to her parents, yet insisted on staying in Colorado to finish her senior year. That was the biggest step of all.

As Diane and her husband released Megan to God's care, they saw him working. Through every difficulty their daughter experienced, her heart began to soften toward them. She went through a string of jobs, which caused her to be evicted from her housing. Diane tried not to lecture her daughter when she called and instead let the experiences teach her. After being arrested for an unpaid traffic violation she couldn't afford to pay and spending a few nights in jail, Megan contacted her family and finally, after a year away, decided to come home.

The mother-daughter relationship can be one of our most intense, loving, and strained.

Megan left the hostile attitude behind, and her relationship with her mom is being restored day by day. Where she once took everything for granted, today Megan's grateful to have a room of her own and "free food." After some more work experiences, she decided to attend college, and her parents are praying and trusting God will draw her into a right relationship with him.

Turning our daughter over to God opens the door for him to work and for us to enjoy each other more. We do it, accepting that we were never really in control in the first place, that our daughter isn't really ours but God's.

dare to be different

My friend Pam and her daughter Jennifer experienced some conflict over their differences and Pam's expectations.

"I wanted her to be an outgoing cheerleader-type, to make friends and be involved in lots of campus activities like I'd been," says Pam. But Jennifer's an artsy person who tends to daydream and who picks thrift-shop clothes instead of the perky outfits her mom has in mind for her to wear.

"I don't want to be like you!" Jennifer finally yelled one day. As Pam grew more critical, Jennifer grew more distant. Worst of all, when Jennifer withdrew, Pam saw in her daughter her own unmotivated, withdrawn sister—and that scared her. But the more Pam encouraged her daughter's involvement, the more Jennifer's attitude deteriorated. Angry and unhappy, she shut down and wouldn't talk to her mom.

"I knew my nagging was a problem," says Pam, who then sought God about what to do. He gently told her she needed to change. For the first time, Pam began to ask for prayer in her home group and Bible study. As she did, Pam eventually realized she needed to ask her daughter's forgiveness for her nagging and lack of acceptance.

"I've seen the Lord work in me—helping me learn to let Jennifer be who she is instead of who I want her to be," says Pam. As she has, she and Jennifer have gotten along better than ever.

prayer works

"I have a responsibility to pray for my daughters and correct them, but at the same time I must offer them the respect due Christ because as Christians, the Holy Spirit resides in them," says Carolyn, mother of twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls. That respect was tested recently when her oldest daughter, Jessica, came home and candidly shared that her best friend, Kristen, was having sex with her boyfriend.

What Carolyn wanted to say was, "You're never seeing Kristen again. This friendship is over!" But she realized she'd be penalizing Jessica for being honest and that at this crucial time, alienating intimate conversation with her would be a big mistake. Instead, Carolyn talked to her about God's view on friendship and shared verses from Proverbs about how bad friends can corrupt good morals. Although Jessica felt she needed to continue being Kristen's friend, Carolyn remained calm.

"I'm going to pray God will give you the wisdom to deal with this, that he'll give you another best friend or show you how you can really be a Christian friend to Kristen," she told her daughter. "Would you like us to pray for Kristen to come to know Christ and have the wisdom to make better choices?"

Jessica was willing and they knelt together, interceding on Kristen's behalf. A few weeks later, Jessica invited Kristen to an evangelistic event at her church, where she prayed to accept Christ as her Savior and Lord. Kristen's choices didn't change overnight, but Carolyn knew she needed to step back and trust Jesus to give her daughter discernment about whom she chose to befriend. Since then, they've had many opportunities to minister to Kristen and her mom, and communication is still wide open between Carolyn and Jessica.

girls just want to have fun

While there's no magic formula for resolving mother-daughter conflicts, I've found there's nothing more healing than having fun together. When Alison was young, I started a tradition of taking a mother-daughter trip once a year, even if it was just an overnight jaunt in a nearby city to stay at a motel, where we would swim and play games.

Last summer, we took another trip after she'd been away for two years involved in a youth ministry. I met Alison in Europe and we travelled by train through several countries with plenty of time for conversation. On the last leg of the trip, we were on the Eurostar from Paris to London, having lunch, when Alison looked over at me and said, "You know, Mom—you're really fun! I guess I didn't realize it, because at home you're always working. But you're a blast to travel with and you love to have fun!"

Those words were worth the whole trip! Although we were still quite different and had lots of growing to do in our relationship, we'd come a long way from our spats over hair and messy rooms. And like our previous mother-daughter adventures, we recovered a sense of joy in each other. As I stopped relating to her as my youngest child, I began admiring some new strengths in Alison—she could figure out any big city subway system, exchange different currencies, and speak to French people as though she were a native. We made some wonderful memories and had opportunities to relate to each other as travelling companions and friends before she moved an hour away to start college.

As I look forward to an occasional dinner together and maybe another mother-daughter trip in the future, I'm encouraged by what Brenda Hunter said in her book In the Company of Women: "It's never too late for a mother to go to her daughter and ask that they work together to improve their relationship. If a mother can pack up her pride, dismantle some of her defenses, and reach out to her daughter lovingly, the daughter may respond with forgiveness and grace." We all need a lot of that!

CHERI FULLER is a TCW contributing editor and author of twenty books, including When Mothers Pray (Multnomah) and Trading Your Worry for Wonder (Broadman & Holman).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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