Adolescent girls—like boys—get wrapped up in the work of parting from childhood and moving toward adulthood. This is good, important, even necessary work. But for parents and other caring adults, it can feel painful, especially when it comes to communicating with girls. Your once open, easy conversation partner can transform overnight into a closed door of silence.
The good news is that we don’t need to accept these transitions as relational dead ends. Girls need us more than ever in these years; they just need us in different ways and on different terms—their terms.
Psychologist Lisa Damour works daily with adolescent girls in both private practice and school-based settings. She has compiled her years of wisdom, experience, and research into a volume titled Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. This manual serves as a valuable resource for parents, leaders, teachers, and anyone else who is helping a young woman through the journey from childhood to adulthood.
When it comes to our conversations with teenage girls, here are a handful of helpful tips you can use in your next few interactions.
6 tips for talking with teenage girls
1. Practice your timing.
Girls often feel like their parents pummel them with annoying questions. What makes them so annoying? Timing, for one thing. “A girl will bristle when her parents ask questions at the wrong time—when she’s deeply engaged in her work, already halfway out the door, or closing her eyes to catch a little extra rest on the couch on a quiet afternoon,” Damour suggests. Pick your moments rather than making every discussion a battle; the pushback may only be because the conversation is based on your timing and your turf. If you pitch a fastball question and miss, be willing to let it go and try again later. Maybe much later. Similar to adolescent boys, be prepared for girls’ openness to deeper conversations to shift later and later into the evening.
2. Let her answers shape the conversation.
Girls despise conversations that start with preplanned direction, right answers, and adult agendas. Instead, they want questions fueled by our genuine interest in their lives and their thoughts. Let them put a topic on the table they’re open to exploring. Pick up a lead they’ve left you recently (even if it was in the form of a complaint—e.g., about a teacher, coach, or friend). And hold your idea or probe for later. Great tools for these kinds of conversations include phrases like, “I wonder what that’s been like,” “Tell me more about that,” as well as other responses that mirror back something she just said (“So you’re getting excited about the overnighter with your friends next weekend.”)
3. Be the emotional dumping ground sometimes.
One conversational tactic of adolescent girls involves unloading their own uncomfortable feelings and complaints onto their parents so they don’t have to carry them alone. Damour helpfully reframes this practice: “Complaining to you allows your daughter to bring the best of herself to school.” Most often the teenager who is blowing off intense steam about incredulous teachers, annoying boys, and an unfair homework load is the same teenager who carries herself with relative cool and friendliness through the school day. She’s learning the adult skill of managing her emotions and responses, holding them until she’s in the presence of a trusted adult who can handle a day’s worth of pent up irritation and anger. Research shows we all have a finite amount of willpower, and it turns out that teenage girls’ willpower tends to run out right about the time they close our car door or drop on our couch after a full day at school.
In these moments, we often need not do anything, fix anything, or even say anything helpful. Instead we serve the important function of a nonjudgmental, listening ear. If you must respond, Damour suggests offering a question like, “Do you want my help with what you’re describing, or do you just need to vent?”
4. Help her distract herself from ruminating on problems.
One typical difference between adolescent girls and boys is that while boys tend to look for distraction when they’re dealing with emotional distress, girls turn to talk. They’re more likely to talk about feelings, and while that can be generally helpful, at times over-focusing on a problem can lead down roads of anxiety and depression—whether that problem is their own or one they’ve internalized from a friend. As a caring adult, one skill we can teach girls is to utilize distraction to cope with intense feelings. We might offer to do something together, change up her environment, pull her into fun or even goofy conversations, or serve together in some way that shifts the focus off the current problem.
5. Move beyond her “veil of obedience.”
Damour highlights teenage girls’ ability to keep nodding and smiling while utterly blocking out everything an adult is saying. Though guys can do this too, they’re more likely to verbally disagree or at least look away. Girls, on the other hand, become masters at giving us what we want—compliance—while internally stuffing their own thoughts and feelings. Part of our work as parents and caring adults is to help girls put down these “veils of obedience” and engage with us when they disagree. While this is far less pleasant for us in the moment, in the long term it does girls a big favor because they will learn to advocate for themselves and their ideas. Next time a girl in your life seems to quietly agree with your assessment, instruction, or (let’s be honest) lecture, pause and say, “I see you nodding, but I wonder what you really think?” or, “I’ve just said a lot. I’d like to hear your thoughts and feelings about this, too.” Or perhaps, “What feels right about what I’ve just said? What feels maybe not right?”
6. Teach her to work toward repair—by modeling it.
Conflict, struggles, and relationship ruptures are bound to happen with teenage girls, in particular as they work toward gaining autonomy from their parents. We can help girls grow in emotional intelligence in the midst of these strained relational moments by helping them learn to step outside themselves and take the perspective of the other person. This is a brain-growth task of adolescence, and our part in this work comes by modeling perspective-taking.
For example, after a heated conflict cools down, we may be able to offer a window into our response (“When you said those words, I felt this way, and responded by saying some harsh things in return. Looking back, I see where you were coming from, and here’s where I was coming from. I’m sorry that my response hurt you. Let’s figure out a way to move on.”) Learning to repair relationships through building empathy must first happen in relationships supported by deep trust, meaning parents often bear the brunt of this work. However, the dividends of investing in emotional intelligence pay off in girls’ relationships with peers and, eventually, families of their own.
These six strategies are just a starting point, but hopefully they can take you a few steps deeper in your conversations with girls who are growing into young women.
Growing up doesn't have to mean growing apart.
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 Lisa Damour, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood (New York: Ballantine, 2016).
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