Regaining Your Parental Authority

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 12-year-old daughter does well in school but apparently hates us as parents. She never speaks kindly to us, refuses any kind of parental authority, and insists that “no one can tell me what to do.” She is very interested in boys and has been involved in “kissing sessions” on a school outing. We’re just about at the end of our rope. Is there anything we can do?

A: I can certainly see why this situation is upsetting you, and you’re absolutely right to be concerned. Teenagers are notoriously defiant of parental authority, but at twelve, your daughter is still a “tween,” far too young to be engaging in the kind of behavior you describe.
There are a few steps you should take right away, before her behavior becomes even more inappropriate, or starts posing a danger to her health and safety. First on the list is to ask the principal of her school why “kissing sessions” were allowed during a school outing. Where was the supervision? As far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely inexcusable and everyone involved should be held accountable.

Next, talk to her friends’ parents to see whether they too are experiencing similar difficulties with their kids. Chances are, they’re in the same boat as you are, and working together to come up with some strategies you can all use at the same time may be very beneficial to everyone concerned.
There’s no question that today’s kids grow up too fast, and the transition from childhood to teenage-hood is getting frighteningly shorter. Researchers are finding that by the time kids reach middle-school, most have already been exposed to sex, drugs, and peer pressure to conform. With the ubiquitous presence of Internet (including IM, texting, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest) and scores of TV shows targeting tweens, kids are constantly being influenced by role models that aren’t always appropriate for this impressionable age group. And, of course, if your daughter’s friends mimic their TV idols’ actions, she will too. Kids her age tend to act as a pack rather than as individuals, and unfortunately, most of them haven’t yet developed good judgment or strength of character to buck trends.
Now is the time to review the rules and boundaries you’ve set for your daughter and the ways you enforce them. Is she helping around the house? Doing her chores and homework? If you’ve let her slip through the cracks, remind her of the rules and re-establish the consequences for non-compliance—and this time, make sure you enforce them consistently when needed. One particularly effective consequence for kids this age is to take away her cell phone and/or Internet privileges until the behavior improves.
As part of the rules and boundaries discussions, tell her, in no uncertain terms, that you will not tolerate being verbally abused. Tell her how hurt you are to hear her say that she hates you. Yes, you’ll have plenty of disagreements, but it is possible to do so without causing long-term damage.
Now is also a good time to reevaluate the way you communicate with your daughter. It’s important to be as open, non-confrontational, and non-judgmental as possible. Take an interest in her life, friends, and activities. Praise her for doing well in school. And never miss a chance to tell her how much you and her father love her.
Finally, if you don’t see an immediate and ongoing change in your daughter’s behavior, ask a friend or the school (if you feel you can trust them after the whole kissing thing) for the name of a good child therapist.