I wonder if my daughter is really happy. How do I discuss the recent mood change in my once-lively girl? How can I ask my daughter how she is handling pressures in school? How do I show interest in my daughter's problems without being perceived as intrusive? How can I really get my daughter to open up about her relationship with her boyfriend? How can I know if he is respecting her?
These are just some of the questions so many of you have wondered or worried about. After receiving thousands like these, I thought I would start this journey we are on together in this column with the real question underneath: "How do I get my daughter to talk to me about what's going on in her life?"
So many moms have told me it would bring them peace if they could have a closer relationship with their daughters, with lots of open communication and sharing. Well, I've been hearing you on that and guess what -- your daughters are telling me they want that, too. But as we remember from being teen daughters ourselves, it isn't always easy, right? So whether you already have a good relationship but just want a few more tips, or you feel like the door between you and your daughter is firmly nailed shut (I promise, it's not ... it's never too late to regain your daughter's trust!), let's help you figure out how to make that communication flow happen.
As I shared with you before, I've put together an advisory board of amazing Ask-Elizabeth girls -- ages 14-19, from all across the country -- who offer their stories, insights and from-the-trenches advice. Together, the girls and I are opening up the treasure trove of teenage girl experience and giving you a peek inside, revealing what has worked best to make them feel safe enough to open up to their mothers. They'll also talk about what your daughter will actually be more receptive to, when it comes to the great guidance you have to offer her.
Here's their collection of ideas about what works, what doesn't and why -- and of course some thoughts from yours truly!
First: How To Open The Door Gently
More than anything, girls say they want to know that you care. I know you're starting to feel like eye rolls are becoming second nature for your daughter. But believe it or not, she needs to know that how she feels and what she's challenged by matter to you -- far more than you might think! So yes, reach out to her and ask questions. The trick seems to be starting small and easy, and letting her know you're there for her without pushing.
Here are some specific pointers from the girls:
"Every day when my mom comes home from work, she asks me about my day. If I don't seem talkative, she tells me that she's there to talk to me whenever I'm ready or want to. This gives me space to come to her." -- Sophie, age 15
"I had been holding onto a lot of anger toward my mom after my parents' divorce. To start building trust with me, she just started to casually say, 'Hey, I want you to know you can always come to me with anything and I will keep it between us.' Gradually, I started letting the wall down. Trust me, we hear what you're saying whether we choose to acknowledge it in that moment or not." -- Maya, age 16
"I think it's important we don't feel the expectation to tell our moms everything at first. My mom makes me feel very comfortable. She asks me easy questions to start off with, like about school or a light topic without controversy, and then slowly asks me more personal questions. By that point I don't even realize how personal the questions get." -- Ariel, age 14
"I think that casual mother/daughter activities are a great way to get the communication going in a non-pressured way. Like on a weekend, my mom and I will go for a run and get lunch or mani/pedis -- things like that, that are just for us. That lets me perceive her not only as a parental figure, but also as a friend who can enjoy the same things I do." -- Michaela, age 17
"I think the best thing my mom has done that lets me open up to her is she's not overbearing. Just a 'Is anything bothering you, because I'm here to help?' doesn't get on my back too much. Don't hesitate to ask -- girls don't always like to be the ones to bring up stuff first. I know some of my friends' mothers harass them and make it a big deal that they refuse to talk. But when they do that, girls tend to think that whatever they tell them will become a big deal, as well." -- Emma, age 18
Next: Create A No-Judgment Zone
Shame and blame seem to be the most surefire ways to kill any incentive for your daughters to talk openly with you. But if you can create a no-judgment zone where they feel safe enough to tell the truth, and where they know you'll love and accept them no matter what they share, the girls all agree they are far more likely to open up.
Of course they know this doesn't mean you're not going to have discussions on touchier topics like sex, drinking, friends of hers you have concerns about -- or anything else that's sensitive! Nothing here is about giving your daughter a free pass to get away with setting her own rules in the house or dictating the terms of what is acceptable for her. But from the girls' perspectives, what seems to work best is if you bring up these conversations at a neutral time, and not in a way that will make your daughter afraid to come to you to talk about her feelings or experiences.
Let's take a look at what some of the girls had to say about fear of judgment:
"My boyfriend was doing drugs, which I hid from my mom for awhile because I feared she'd judge me and be angry rather than sympathetic. But finally I got so stressed out that I confided in her. At first she couldn't understand why I would compromise my morals to be with someone of such low character, but when she saw the distress I was in, she put aside her 'mom persona' to comfort me and assure me everything would be all right. What she ended up showing me is that she loves and accepts me, even if I don't always make perfect choices. This led to me knowing I could have other meaningful talks with her about the whole thing." -- Jacquie, age 16
"It definitely closed the door for my friend when her mom put a negative emphasis on things before even knowing what her daughter experienced -- things like, 'Have you heard about that girl in your grade who's slept with three people already by senior year?' Little does this mother know her daughter may have slept with five people, and now she's scared to admit that to her mom." -- Sydney, age 17
"My mother views showing emotion as weakness, while I, on the other hand, am very emotional. I've always felt like an embarrassment to her when I was feeling hurt or scared about something, so of course I don't go to her when I'm feeling any of those things." -- Ann-Marie, age 18
Next: Never Use Her Truth Against Her
A big fear girls have talked about that prevents them from telling their moms the truth is having the information somehow used against them. For instance, a 15-year-old girl named Rebecca shared that when she told her mom she was thinking about becoming sexually active with her boyfriend, her mom then prevented her from seeing him. After that, Rebecca decided to keep her private thoughts to herself.
What the girls say helps lift the fear and enables them to share things with their mothers is having an understanding in place before things occur. For example, 16-year-old Melinda said she called her mom from a party where she felt she was in a compromised position. Melinda had the security of knowing her mom would support her, because she had made a deal in advance that if she ever needed it, her mom would come pick her up, no questions asked (at least, not right then and there), no lecturing her or making her feel ashamed -- or worse, preventing her from going to a party ever again.
Again, the girls are not saying they feel they can just do anything they want without boundaries, and they don't expect their moms not to try to keep them safe -- they know that's a mother's job! They just want to come up with a code with their mothers for those moments when they need help the most.
Here's what a few other girls had to say about truth and consequences:
"I feel like I need my mom to show me that it is safe enough to open up to her. For me, even if I reveal something that is punishable, most times understanding and help has been a more effective course of action for me than consequences." -- Cynthia, age 16
"One of the biggest issues my mom and I have had is after I tell her something about a friend of mine -- especially if it's a friend that was mean to me -- she holds a grudge against that friend. Girls have tons of friendship drama, and I feel like if she wants me to ever tell her anything again, she needs to just let that stuff go. It can't be about making me regret my honesty." -- Emily, age 14
"I feel comfortable telling my mom things like I tell my friends because she takes off the authority hat once in a while. I knew it wasn't going to make her happy, but I was able to tell my mom when I experimented with alcohol because I knew she wouldn't absolutely explode and punish me until the end of time." -- Alyson, age 16
Next: Show Her You're Human, Too
Obviously there are certain things that aren't appropriate for your daughter to know about you, but so many girls have shared that seeing the human side of their mothers comforts them and creates a beautiful intimacy they treasure. Allowing your daughter to know some of your own vulnerabilities, insecurities or challenges doesn't diminish your role as an authority figure. In fact, our girls say it's what allows them to have even more empathy and respect for their mothers and how they've handled situations.
Here's proof, straight from the girls themselves:
"My mom says she understands what I'm going through, but how? If she shared her past stories with me, I'd see the connection." -- Claire, age 18
"My mom admits when she makes mistakes and that she is always working to become a better person. That makes it easy to talk to her. I would advise any mom not to play the 'I'm the parent and I'm all-knowing' card." -- Jillian, age 15
"I think my mom tried so hard to be the perfect role model all the time that the shoes were too big to fill. I thought that I'd disappoint her if I made mistakes, so I showed her the best version of my life, not necessarily the accurate picture. In recent years, my mom has become more comfortable showing me the real side of her, and I, in turn, have too. We bonded the most by being honest." -- Bethany, age 16
Next: Stay Calm
So many girls say their moms tell them they can share anything with them, but when the girls actually reveal something that might be upsetting or even shocking, their moms fly off the handle.
It goes like this: Fear of your reaction equals them shutting down.
I know it's probably so hard to stay calm if your daughter is telling you something that's hard to hear, especially if it's something that's hurtful or harmful to her, but she only feels safe enough to reveal what's on her mind and in her heart if it will be received in a calm way. Yes, in those moments when everything in you wants to flip out but instead you take contrary action, you will deserve an Oscar® for your performance! But we want you to get the relationship you are craving, right?
Here are a few girls' words on why staying calm serves both mother and daughter:
"In middle school, my 'friends' turned against me without warning -- one day when my mom asked me how my day was, I exploded and told her everything that had really been going on. She just listened with tears in her eyes, and I spilled my heart out, and she gave me a huge hug and some advice. Because she didn't overreact, I never again hesitated to come to her with things going on in my life." -- Delia, age 16
"The one basic rule that has worked in my relationship with my mom is no flipping out -- even if in the moment I am telling my mom something she doesn't particularly agree with or approve of. Mothers: This means no widening eyes, sudden gasps or wrinkling of the brow. Ha! This type of behavior has been proven to prevent future instances of opening up!" -- Kimberly, age 18
Next: Don't Rush To Fix The Problem
A lot of moms have told me the hardest thing is to watch their babies in pain (I know from my own mom how true that is). It's understandable that the first thing you want to do is make it all okay and solve the problem, but the girls want you to know that, sometimes, just being heard by their loving mom is the strength your daughter needs to find her way.
The pressure you put on yourself can indeed be lifted -- you don't always have to have the perfect answer or magical remedy. Just feeling your belief in her lets her know it is all going to be okay; deep down that's what makes her feel safe.
Ultimately, what the girls want is for moms to listen to them. Just listen like no one else on the planet would, without necessarily jumping right in and trying to fix their problems for them. Listen in a way that lets your daughter know there is nowhere you would rather be and no one you would rather be with.
"I remember when my first real boyfriend and I had a huge fight and broke up. I was throwing stuff in my room and going absolutely insane. Most moms would flip out if they saw their daughters act this way, but my mom calmly came into my room and sat on my bed waiting until I was done. Once the screams stopped and the tears came pouring out, she said let's go on a drive. She put me in the car (midnight on a school night), and we went for a quiet drive through a beautiful canyon -- it was like the heavens opened. That was the best help she could have given me." -- Suzanna, age 18
"Right now I am freaking out about my grades. Even though I'm in ninth grade, the pressure starts so early for college. I honestly get overwhelmed with too much advice from my mom, though. When my mom does this, it makes me feel incompetent -- or even spoken down to. I feel so loved and respected when my mom talks to me like I'm just as brilliant as she is." -- Laurie, age 14
"Many times I will call my mom and tell her I am feeling insecure, unsure, scared or nervous. She will willingly listen to me until I have exhausted my point. She will provide her perspective, but will not state that it is the best opinion. She might share a personal experience or story that relates, but she will make the conversation about my needs and my feelings." -- Cathy, age 16
"When I get totally stressed, it doesn't help me when my mom tells me things I could do to help right away. I've always found that my mom does best when she just listens and works with me to find a solution. She points me in the right direction while watching my back, in case I lose my way again." -- Tanisha, age 19
In a way, it kind of comes down to finding that delicate balance between being a mom and being a friend, doesn't it? Every mom/daughter dynamic is different, but from what I've observed with thousands of girls and moms (and experience with my own mom), the relationships that strike that harmonious chord are the ones where the moms treat their daughters with the same love, respect and openness they are wanting in return.
Yes, this is the time when they are individuating and need to fly, but at the same time, the girls say deep down they need their mothers now more than ever -- the ways just might be different than when they were little. Sydney, a wise 16-year-old girl I work with, has this jewel to share with you: "You know your daughters better than anyone else, and your daughters know you better than you think. They want to give you that opportunity to take them under their wing again. I promise, they'll surprise you."
Hopefully this guide straight from the girls themselves gives you hope and ideas on how to make it safe for your daughter to open up and let you into her life a little more. You're already an Ask-Elizabeth mom, so I know you're on board to start putting some of these tips into practice. I'm excited for you to create amazing opportunities for a stronger connection between you and your daughter!
Love, light and magic,
Follow me on Twitter @ElizBerkley
Recognized by the London Times as a "fearless and committed actress," Elizabeth Berkley has demonstrated the versatility of her talent from comedy to drama in a host of successful film, television and stage performances. She is also the founder of Ask-Elizabeth, created as a safe forum for adolescent girls (ages 11 to 18) to ask the questions they have been afraid to and empower them with answers. When Berkley works with the girls, she creates a big sister relationship in a safe setting that allows them to open up and start talking and sharing. In these two-hour, interactive workshops, Berkley discusses themes like body image, fitness, beauty, family, goal-setting, friendship, dating, etc. -- all important aspects in the emotional life of a teenage girl. Berkley has touched the lives of more than 30,000 teenage girls so far through her nonprofit organization.
Her book, Ask Elizabeth was just published.