Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Mother-Daughter Relationship Problems

My husband and I could use some advice regarding a situation with our 15-year-old daughter Cara. It started when she was not doing well in school. Her teachers assured us she is capable and that she was doing poorly due to a lack of effort.

Rather than study, she was always on her cell phone talking with her friends. We hired a tutor hoping that would motivate her, but that hasn’t helped. Then we found out that she has been lying to us, saying she was studying when she was actually on her phone.

To punish her for her lies and also to stop her phone being a constant distraction, we confiscated it. Rather than this giving her the jolt she needs to try harder, she has become very angry and nasty, particularly towards me.

I have explained to her that her destiny is in her hands and she has a choice: she can either do what I’m asking regarding her schoolwork, as it’s for her benefit, or she can continue to speak terribly to me and not receive her phone back.  She said her choice is the latter! I’ve broached the subject of her speaking to a therapist, but she doesn’t want to do this.

Your thoughts?

You and your daughter are locked into positions and actions that you admit are not working for either of you. I assume this means you are open to trying something different in hopes of breaking this relationship logjam.

It’s Not Really About the Cell Phone

It may feel to you that what is going between the two of you is about Cara’s mobile phone, but I want to suggest that the tension between you is not really about her phone. Rather, the phone is symbolic of different layers in your mother-daughter relationship. Cara is young and immature and sees you as the main source of all that is not going well in her life, and to a certain extent, you are an obstacle for her as you do the things a caring mom does, including, setting expectations and boundaries and calling her out for unacceptable behavior, such as lying and being rude.

Although part of her probably gets that you’re doing your mom thing, as well you should, there is much about her emotions and fears that she is having difficulty dealing with. As you well know, it is not unusual for teens to dump their fears and confusion on a parent for a period of time.

Having said all this, my suggestion is that you, without Cara, immediately find a family therapist to help you sort through some issues. I urge you seek out professional help because to try to get Cara to see someone will, no doubt, lead her to the conclusion that she alone has the problem, that she alone needs help.

The truth of the matter is that the mother-daughter relationship you and Cara share has problems — problems that you both need to own and work on. Sorry mom, but it falls on you to move this relationship off dead center and get it headed in more desirable directions.

After you have established your relationship with a professional, he/she will guide you with suggestions for reaching out to Cara so that she will be more open to “listening” to issues and suggested remedies, as well as help Cara feel that her “side of the story” is respectfully being heard.

As you can see I am suggesting that Cara’s mobile phone becomes a bit player.

Focus on Your Mother-Daughter Relationship

Your family relations professional can help you appreciate that taking Cara’s phone away until she meets some long-term goals — that is, gets certain grades — has too long a time frame and actually serves as a de-motivator, rather than as a motivator, the result being the complete opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish.

At the outset, you can tell Cara that you are seeking some professional help because you realize that the current situation is not working for either of you. You want some guidance in making changes to help move your relationship from one that feels adversarial to one that finds the right balance between giving Cara the space she needs to be her own person and lets you be the good and loving mom she deserves.

You can use phrases that Cara will hopefully find empathetic and hopeful: “I want to work with a family relations professional because I feel I am not fully appreciating how important your phone is to you.” Or, “You and I are in our relationship together. It makes sense that both of us need to make some changes to make our relationship work, and I need some help in figuring out what changes I might make.”

I will close by saying again that Cara is having a hard time and she needs to know in concrete ways that you are on her team, even though it may not always feel that way to her. I think positioning yourself as willing to better understand your role in the relationship and you wanting to find alternatives to what you’re currently doing is an important first step: it models the way and sets the right tone.

Update, Several Months Later

Cara’s mom informs me that the situation has changed for the better. A doctor was consulted and it emerged that the recent death of Cara’s grandmother, with whom she was very close, was causing Cara extreme grief.

The doctor was successful in helping Cara rethink her attitudes and behavior toward her mother, as well as her responsibilities with her schoolwork. Happily, Cara passed her exams and was accepted into the program of her choice. Grief counseling was also made available to Cara; she does not think she needs this kind of help, but she knows it is available.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected].

Karen L. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts.

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