Dear Ms. Ava,
I have a 14 year old daughter that is heading down the wrong path. I’ve tried everything but nothing seems to work. She is so defiant and rude, and today, she admitted that she wouldn’t be able to pass a drug test. When I try to talk to her calmly about her behavior and her choice of friends, she either gets really rude and defensive or just stops responding altogether. I tried taking away her cell phone, but she threw a tantrum, locked herself in her room and swallowed a bunch of pills. We had to take her to the emergency room and get her stomach pumped. She’s been in therapy and gotten the “proper help” but nothing seems to work. I feel so disrespected and used, she has no respect for authority. Even her father is scared of her. I don’t know where I went wrong. What else can I do?
I’m sorry to hear about your problems with your daughter. I’m sure it’s very difficult to do and sacrifice so much for her, only to have her not only disrespect your efforts, but also completely devalue the fact that you’re only doing it because you want what’s best for her. I want you to know, before I continue, that this response may be difficult to swallow at times, but if you can get through it with an open mind, then you are a truly strong mama with a deep unconditional love for your daughter.
Before we get into what else you can do, let’s first think about why she might be acting out. Nature vs. nurture (or, whether we are born the way we are or our environment makes us who we are) has been an ongoing debate for who knows how long, and you may or may not have formulated an opinion on it, but it’s possible that your actions have. It’s natural for most of us to believe that when someone acts out defiantly against us, it is because it’s in their nature, but take a moment to reflect on a time when someone saw your behavior as defiant. Was it not the case that your defiance was actually a response to something they were doing to you? Of course, it’s possible that you eventually understood their reasoning and maybe even came around to appreciating what they did, but at that time, you weren’t appreciative because your focus was on another emotion that was even stronger — oppression.
Obviously, I don’t think that you’re actually oppressing your daughter, but I do think that’s her impression of what’s going on and that's causing her behavior. The reason she chooses to act out instead of communicating with you may be because she’s also aware of the fact that she basically owes you her life, and if it weren’t for you, she would not have a roof over her head, and so she has to comply to some degree, but she wants you to know she’s not happy about it. Perhaps now you’re thinking that that’s exactly right — she does owe you her life, and that you are the authority. The thing is, that doesn't seem to be working as far as reaching an actual resolution, since it only continues to make her feel oppressed. The problem must be approached from a different angle.
If you think again about that time where you were behaving defiantly, what was it specifically that the other side did that caused you to feel like there was an injustice? And what could they have done differently if they wanted you to know that they weren’t trying to oppress you, and that they had the best intentions for you? I’m going to take a guess that it was caused by their lack of concern for your thoughts, emotions or input, which left you feeling unheard, as if you couldn’t possibly contribute anything of value. What they could have done differently is at least taken you seriously enough to fully listen to your side until you felt understood, and then looked for ways to communicate their perspective better. When someone uses their authority to demand obedience, it can translate as undermining to the other person. The key is to listen and understand her first, the way that you want her to understand you, or the way that you would have wanted the other side to listen to you when you had been defiant. I know it’s a pain and you might feel like she’s saying things you already know, but you seem to have an independent thinker for a daughter. On the plus side, it gets easier to do the more you practice, and it may even improve your communication skills.
I personally believe that everyone is shaped both by their nature and nurture, but that the nature aspect is related to things like how long it takes a person before they start to question the motives of authority, instead of an innate desire to behave badly. Some children start questioning motives very early on, which might just be an indication of their belief in themselves or a high self worth, while other kids choose to never question the authority of their parents, which may indicate their lack of trust in themselves or a greater fear of the consequences if they do.
Hope that helps!