It can be tough being a parent of a 13-year-old daughter. It can be even tougher actually being a 13-year old girl in 2003. So far though I think we are doing okay as parents. As an only child my daughter Rosie has certain advantages, including a lot more parental attention than most kids get. She’s also got two parents who while we are involved in her life, neither of us are obsessed over her life. We try to give her as much freedom as we think appropriate for her age and maturity level. But it’s hard to know where the sliding bar of parental control should be set on a particular day. I find myself sliding it back and forth between wanting to have more control and wanting to be hands off and to trust to her. Sometimes I do it right, sometimes I mess up badly. Part of this parenting business is learning how to deal with my feelings when I screw up. Letting go is new to me too, and it doesn’t come easily, nor is it fun.
While we have it pretty good I’m not naive enough to think it will be smooth sailing through the teenage years. I can watch my daughter’s friends and cringe for their parents. One friend of Rosie’s up the street has tried to commit suicide. She reputedly swallowed most of a bottle of Tylenol. Stomach got pumped, kid was back on the street knocking on our door a day later. We were aghast. If Rosie had done this she would be seeing shrinks and she certainly wouldn’t be allowed out of the house except for school for a very, very long time. This is a sign of a major crisis, not something to be swept under the rug. Here is a girl out of control with perhaps too much freedom who really doesn’t want the freedom she has. But her parents and nonplussed by it all. Somehow I suspect she will try something similar again.
Another of her friends, a very bright and energetic gal, is also subject to violent mood swings, takes a fist full of antidepressants every day and regularly sees a shrink. We hear rumors of long fights with her mother, who is kind and caring. But it doesn’t seem to matter. This girl runs on emotion and mood swings. When in a bad mood words aren’t taken to heart. I guess it doesn’t help that her father appears to be a drunk and is unemployed. I can see this kid in therapy for most of her life, if she is smart enough to stay in therapy.
Both of these two charming young ladies are friends bound together by some sort of complex toxic relationship they can’t get out of. They have run away from home once together already. Fortunately they were found a couple miles away a few hours later. We watched one get felt up by a boy in the park across the street (Terri called her Mom right quick), and have heard rumors of the other hanging out with dangerous boys. Both girls seem to have this notion that if they find a guy who likes them they will love them and be happy. They don’t see that their real anger and struggle is with their parents, and that boys are a balm they think will solve the parental problem, or at least make it easier to deal with. It doesn’t take an abacus to see pregnancy and venereal diseases in their future. Fortunately Rosie is something of a stabilizing influence on both of them. They hang out at our house so often I think just to have a semblance of a normal life. Whatever they want they don’t seem to be getting it at home.
And yet all is not well with my daughter. She’s feeling her oats. Chat room conversations get minimized when we approach the computer. I find links to online dating services in our browser. She has lots of web mail accounts. It would be easy to ban her from the Internet and we certainly could monitor everything she does online. But there are costs to this obsessive parental nosiness too. It can feed resentment and rebellion and make it hard to be heard on other issues. And we can’t keep the real world away from her forever. We can, and do, spend a lot of time talking about the consequences of her choices. She has a good a sex education as I can give her. Not only did she hear it from us (we talk about the emotional consequences of intimate relationships), and from school, but she has taken the official Unitarian Universalist Church sex ed course too. Ignorance will not be an issue for her, but will she have the grounding and good sense to take things slow? It is hard to ignore the call of hormones. And I don’t think they have quite kicked in yet. I expect from 14-16 things will be much wilder.
In the end the choices she makes must be hers to make. She should not be monitored 24/7. Trust must be placed in her, even if the trust is tentative and not wholly earned. She must learn through experience too. All the education in the world will not teach her how to deal with her feelings when a boy expresses affection for her for the first time, or pushes her intimacy buttons. We think we laid a good groundwork for her during her childhood by being open, communicative, discussing hard issues. Hopefully her failures will be few and she will learn her lessons quickly and move on. But fail she must because it is only through failure that the complexities of the real world are fully understood and properly processed.