As the mother of two teenage daughters, I’ve struggled through a few holiday dinners that began as fun and festive and quickly turned awkward and painful. I’ve watched older family members start off with what they thought was good-natured teasing and seen one teenager or another grow more sullen and unresponsive as the meal went on. It is possible to see them literally shrink in their chairs as other family members pile on because, let’s face it, teens are an easy target. They get defensive, feel misunderstood most of the time, and have relatively little power in the family hierarchy.
Unfortunately, one such meal can set the tone for an entire holiday weekend and virtually ensure that you’ll be met with a cold shoulder or distant politeness or, worse, eye rolls and open hostility. If you want to make a real connection with the teenage girl in your life this holiday, here are a few tips from a mother who has soothed her daughters’ hurt feelings more times than she cares to count.
1. Don’t assume that just because your niece/granddaughter/friend is a teenage girl, she is interested in watching your children for hours on end while you go drink wine with the rest of the family and get a break. She may well enjoy spending time with your toddlers playing games, coloring and watching Frozen for the 437th time, but she also enjoys being part of the adult conversations going on. That’s how she learns to interact with adults—and her opinions are important for the adults in the group to hear as well.
2. Please don’t ask her where she wants to go to college and what she thinks her major will be (or any other questions related to that, including what she wants to be when she grows up). If she wants to talk about those things, she will bring them up on her own. Generally, though, this is a great source of stress for many girls in high school—they spend a lot of time thinking about their future and being told that their high school grades matter a lot when it comes to where they will go to college; they don’t need more pressure during their holiday break.
3. Please don’t ask her if she has a boyfriend, especially if you do it with a certain tone of voice or a wink and a smile. Again, if she wants to talk about her love life, she will bring it up on her own. Intimating that you are truly interested in this aspect of her life will either feel incredibly personal and a little too familiar (even creepy), or it will put her on the defensive and lead her to wonder whether you’ll follow up by telling her she’s too young to be in a serious relationship.
4. Don’t comment on her wardrobe or physical appearance before you ask her how she is or tell her it’s good to see her again. In fact, unless she has a new haircut (or hair color) or a pair of boots you want to try on because they are so awesome, it might be wise to abstain from talking about her physical appearance at all. Girls get plenty of reinforcement from the world at large about the importance of their looks. If you want to connect with her on a personal level, it would be really great to talk about who she is and what her interests are, instead.
5. Don’t comment on her plate. Don’t point out that she is eating mostly carbs or five desserts or avoiding the greens like the plague. Again, teenage girls are so conditioned to think about food that spending a holiday with people who love them ought to be devoid of any of that nonsense. Trust me, anything you say will only make her feel bad about herself.
6. Don’t offer advice unless it is specifically solicited. What she needs more than anything is a compassionate ear, and your comments about “when I was your age…” aren’t tremendously helpful as a general rule. When you begin talking about what you think without being asked, she will feel judged and belittled and it isn’t likely that she will open up to you again. Listening carefully and keenly will endear you to her, I swear.
7. Don’t make back-handed comments about her phone or tablet use. Girls this age are committed to their friends like nothing else and it’s important to feel connected to them. It may make you uncomfortable to see the glow of the screen on her face for most of the day, but unless her parents have an objection, your sarcastic judgments about how much time “kids these days” spend with technology will not help her relate to you.
8. Do not compare her to any other teenage girl, real or fictitious (or you when you were a teenager). There are far too many opportunities for girls to measure themselves against photoshopped, airbrushed celebrities and come up short, or to weigh themselves against the unbalanced information their friends and cohorts post on social media and find their own lives lacking. She is an individual, and just because there might be another “ideal” teenage girl in your life or your mind doesn’t mean she isn’t awesome in her own way. Get to know her, you might be surprised.
9. Don’t, don’t, don’t belittle or make fun of her interest in music or movies or books. PLEASE. I’m begging you. Think back to when you were a teenager and you loved KISS or Sixteen Candles or thought that comic books were the best thing since benzoyl peroxide. She has a right to her own taste and if you want to connect with her on a genuine level, ask her questions (honest, not sarcastic or snarky ones) about why she loves The Fault in Our Stars or has that enormous Justin Bieber poster on the ceiling above her bed.
Here’s what to do instead:
Listen. A lot. Ask open-ended questions about what is going on in her life (not her favorite subject in school—ask her about the most fun she has had in the past week). If she complains about school or friends or the stress of the holidays, just listen without trying to fix it or add your two cents.
Invite her to do something with you that she enjoys doing, even if you couldn’t care less about it. If she senses that you are truly interested in who she is as a person and willing to spend time with her on her terms, she will be grateful and engaged. Better yet, ask her to teach you something—the lyrics to her favorite song, a goofy dance kids her age are doing, or anything else she is particularly knowledgeable about that you are clueless about. She will feel empowered and intelligent and you just might have fun together.
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