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Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is 13 years old. For most of her life, she’s been fairly self-motivated and independent. She doesn’t seem to have cared a whole lot about what other people thought of her. She’s pursued her interests as she’d had them: gymnastics, music, art, whatever. When she was little, we were worried about the difficulties of social pressure, but she seemed to have avoided them—until now. The other day, she had a pimple on her nose and didn’t want to go to school. We thought she was kidding, but she really wanted to stay in her room and skip school, even though she’s been a straight-A student. We were able to convince her to go, finally, but it took almost an hour, and it was such a sudden change from her normal behavior, we wondered if something bigger was going on.
We’ve noticed that she’s following a lot of Instagram models and beauty accounts that seem to be setting unrealistic expectations. She hasn’t said a lot about this stuff, but we notice her looking at them and “liking” their posts and we can’t help wondering if this is contributing to her increased self-consciousness. She’s spending a lot more time getting dressed in the morning, to the point where she’s almost always late for school, and where she used to be interested in books and puzzles, her only interests now seem to be trashy Netflix teen shows and looking at clothes online. Needless to say, we don’t like or support any of this, this is not whom we raised, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that we were a little disappointed in her for going in this direction.
We know some of this is normal teenage stuff, but we worry it’s something beyond that. Should we be worried? What should we do? It feels like our little kid has been replaced by someone else’s vapid and shallow teenager and we’re not ready for it!
—Where’s Our Girl?
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that this is normal. The bad news is also that this is normal. In my experience, part of what makes parenting teenagers so hard is that completely terrible things—like seeing your heretofore free and unburdened child suddenly descend into a quivering, self-conscious mess under the sway of social media models and shows where lip injections and perfect brows are written as admirable personality traits—are both developmentally appropriate and totally outside of your ability to prevent. Most parents think they have a strategy for avoiding such things, as I’m sure you did, but it turns out that, like all parents of teens, whatever you had, it wasn’t enough. The world has come for your kid.
So what can you do? My main advice is that if your kid is feeling afraid of being judged, probably don’t judge her yourself, you know? She is reaching out for new identities, which is perfectly normal. But as parents, you are still far and away the most important influences on her life and sense of self. You must accept the fact that she’s not whom you raised. But that’s for a good reason: She’s her own person. Right now, that person is struggling a bit with the world and its influences. And those influences are, admittedly, awful. But remember her assets. She’s smart. Determined. Curious. And perhaps most importantly, she has the ability to break away from influences. In fact, the very reason you’re writing me is because she’s broken away from yours. What makes you think she won’t do it again?
So support her in feeling loved and accepted. And also support her in thinking critically about what she’s seeing in the world. Ask her about her shows, about her Instagram. Let her talk to you about what she thinks is important. Do not tell her it’s stupid or dumb even if you think it is. Make it your first job to find out what she likes about it and why it’s important to her. Only then should you make it your job to introduce some critical perspectives about what she’s seeing and feeling and experiencing. You want her to feel that you are doing that because it’s helpful, not because you think she’s dumb and can’t figure out the world on her own. And finally, do not be afraid to share with her experiences you’ve had with self-consciousness, with self-doubt. Do not be afraid to tell her how you’ve learned to navigate a world that sometimes wants you to think you are not good enough. Even if she’s not listening, trust me, she’s listening. And at this age, kids are no longer interested in seeing their parents as infallible authorities. What they need much more is to see us as human allies.
Finally, remember that parenting is a long journey, and adolescence is the narrow road. During that time, it is highly unclear how in the hell this half-baked person is going to work out, but if you continue to treat them as though you believe in them, they will almost always, in the end, respond by giving you good reason to.