Dr Justin Coulson - author and father of 6 girls
Dr Justin Coulson - author and father of 6 girls

Why your teenager hates you - and what you can do about it

Just leave me alone. Go away. Why can't you be a normal mother? Stop asking me questions. You don't understand. I hate you.

As sure as the sun will rise, teenage girls will say (or scream) these things to their parents in thousands of homes every day. And don't forget the contemptuous eye rolls.

As a parent of a teenage daughter, being on the receiving end of all this angst can be hurtful, infuriating, challenging and mostly just bewildering.

 

Justine Coulson: The lies teen girls tell their parents

 

For parents, adolescence is likely to be one of the hardest parenting stages they will encounter.

It's something Brisbane psychologist Dr Justin Coulson, one of Australia's leading parenting experts, knows a lot about.

Coulson, 44, is a best-selling author on the topic of family life, who consults and teaches about parenting and is also a regular podcaster and TEDx speaker.

He has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland, a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong and is an honorary fellow at the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne.

But impressive qualifications aside, Coulson has perhaps his most valuable experience behind the doors of his family's Brisbane home.

With his wife of 21 years, Kylie, 41, Coulson has six daughters - Chanel, 20, Abbie, 17, Ella, 16, Annie, 12, Lilli, 9, and Emilie, 5 - giving him years of rock solid coalface practical parenting of teenage girls.

 

Dr Justin Coulson with his wife Kylie, 41 and daughters left to right Annie, 12, Ella, 16, Abbie, 17, Chanel, 20, Lilli, 9, and Emilie, 5. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Dr Justin Coulson with his wife Kylie, 41 and daughters left to right Annie, 12, Ella, 16, Abbie, 17, Chanel, 20, Lilli, 9, and Emilie, 5. Picture: Mark Cranitch

So it is surely a relief to parents in the trenches with their teenage girls to know that even Coulson, armed with a stockpile of professional and personal experience, hasn't always found it easy.

His most recent book - the first specifically written about teenage girls - is titled Miss-Connection - Why Your Teenage Daughter 'Hates' You, Expects the World and Needs to Talk.

He admits parenting his girls has, at times, been "exquisitely hard, even soul-destroying''.

He says he and his wife have faced their greatest challenges during the teenage years and experienced "our biggest strains, personally, maritally, and as a family''.

In his opening chapter, Coulson writes: "At times, raising a teenage girl feels like playing the board game Operation. We're constantly bumping into the boundaries and setting off alarms. It's tricky.''

 

Jody and Adam Winstanley are well schooled in those tricky teenage years, raising their three daughters - twins Chloe and Emma, 16, and Erin, 14. Jody, 46, and Adam, 44, of Grange, in Brisbane's inner north, have experienced teen parenting ­challenges to do with social media, friends, parties and managing a healthy school-social-work-life balance.

 

Jody Winstanley with her teenage daughters, and Erin, 14 and twins Chloe and Emma, 16. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Jody Winstanley with her teenage daughters, and Erin, 14 and twins Chloe and Emma, 16. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

Jody Winstanley, a change manager, says she aims for a "firm but fair'' approach.

"Time management is something I think all teenagers struggle with it and I know that we struggle with in our household,'' she says.

"How do we make sure we have a good balance of school, study, social activities with friends, sport, social media, part-time work, downtime and family time?

What I have probably found most challenging is saying yes when I really want to say no - going to parties when I don't know who or how many people are going to be there, is alcohol going to be involved and what does responsible drinking look like?

"I feel like I'm firm but fair. I want them to be happy and I try to be fair, be approachable and reasonable.''

 

THE DIGITAL TEEN

Teenage girls like to be in contact with their friends all the time and Winstanley admits feeling irritation with the girls' need for "constant connection'' and their habit of "forever taking photos of themselves''.

"I'll be driving along in the car and look in the rear-vision mirror and they are taking a photo of themselves and sending it to their friends on (multimedia messaging app) Snapchat,'' she says.

"To me, it's like, 'Why do you need to take a photo?' Why do you have to have that constant connection? That irritates me and probably makes them think I don't understand how their age communicates. And that's probably true.''

Of course, sometimes, there are the inevitable hurtful words that can be heightened at times of high stress, such as around school exams or when the girls simply have too much on their plate.

Winstanley says they have always encouraged their girls to be independent, to question things that don't feel right, to speak up and take responsibility but feels this can also quickly turn into ­disrespect and attitude.

"As a parent, you do need to have a thick skin and broad shoulders because it is tough,'' she says. "Generally, the girls have pretty good attitudes but on occasion they can be disrespectful … at times moods can change quickly.

"This can then turn into over-sensitivity to something I've said or asked them to do like stopping social media or Netflixing to do a job like clean their room or help fold clothes.

"Or if I ask about what homework they have - if it is done and, if not, why not? - this can turn into grumpiness or rudeness and all of a sudden I'm the worst person in the world.

It can be hurtful because sometimes they say things off the cuff they don't mean.''

But for all the challenging aspects of ­parenting teenage girls, Winstanley says she simply craves more time to "keep the connection between us''.

She finds the best time for this is sitting with her daughters on one of their beds before sleep, talking about their day and what might be happening with their friends.

"Keeping that connection is really important.

They need to know that they can come to me and trust me,'' she says.

"It's just building that connection and giving them confidence and a surety that I'm not going to tell my friends about what they tell me. The confidentiality aspect of what they tell me is really important.''

 

ANXIETY AND LONGING FOR CONNECTION

It is precisely this longing for connection - from both teens and parents - that forms the foundation of Coulson's book.

His research includes anonymous ­online surveys with 369 teenage girls about their wellbeing, covering a wide range of topics such as resilience, depression, anxiety, screen use, ­social media, relationship with friends, intimacy, alcohol and other drugs, pornography, what they keep secret from parents and what they wish they could tell their parents.

 

Dr Justin Coulson with Ella, 16, and Abbie, 17. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Dr Justin Coulson with Ella, 16, and Abbie, 17. Picture: Mark Cranitch

 

Another 30 girls were interviewed via Skype, as well as face-to-face (or video) interviews with school principals, psychologists and other experts. He spent about nine months collecting, analysing and sorting data.

Coulson says every conversation he had was "awash with the theme of connection'' and concludes our girls need connection with their parents and family more than anything. ("I could almost feel them pleading,'' he writes).

The use of Miss-Connection in the title refers to how hard parents try to connect with their teenage girls but "so often it doesn't quite work''.

This, he argues, it is a misconnection rather than a disconnection.

His favourite chapter is the one in which the girls reveal what they wished they could tell their parents. Comments from teens include: "I want to be close to my parents"; "All I want is my parents' love, support and attention"; "Sometimes I just want you to listen to me and not say anything. Just ­listen."

But teen girls are also full of contradiction.

They are "eager to inhale adulthood'' but they still want to stay kids. They want to be close to their parents but they want freedom too.

They live in a modern world that empowers them with opportunities, yet they are still just little girls trying to figure it out.

They are confident but they also have what Coulson describes as "breathtaking frailty''.

And parents, while absorbing hurtful snipes and eye rolls, are often simply desperate to keep a connection alive as they see it slowly but surely slipping from their grasp.

"There was a profound longing for connection,'' Coulson says.

"As parents who are in the thick of raising teenage girls we can often lose sight of that and think, 'My goodness this child is deadset hellbent on destroying her life and mine'.

"But they are not trying to destroy our lives, they are trying to figure themselves out.

Our kids don't actually hate us, even if they say it, even if it feels like they do.

"There's this bizarre duality where they are so confident and yet it takes something so small - like someone saying something on Instagram - to shatter their confidence and raise their ­anxiety.

"So many girls are just delightfully, incredibly, amazingly wonderful but anyone who is a parent of a teenage daughter also knows they can be so hard to deal with.''

Brisbane author, educator and speaker Michelle Mitchell specialises in working with teenage girls and agrees connection is what teenage girls most need.

Mitchell has spent the majority of her career working with them and has written books What Teenage Girls Don't Tell Their Parents and Parenting Teenage Girls in The Age of a New Normal.

 

Michelle Mitchell, former teacher who founded adolescent counselling group Youth Excel, a charity which helps young people make positive life choices.
Michelle Mitchell, former teacher who founded adolescent counselling group Youth Excel, a charity which helps young people make positive life choices.

 

She founded a charity, Youth Excel, which helps young people make positive life choices.

"Connection is very difficult when teens are pushing parents away.

There is a real art in staying connected during the teen years,'' she says.

"The greatest fear that parents have is that they will lose connection with their daughter. Among teenage moods and increased peer pressures, most parents feel like there are moments when they have lost a sense of closeness.

"I think most mums remember back to their teen years and realise that 'I hate you' actually means 'I'm really annoyed at you right now'.

In saying that, it is really hard for mums not to take harsh words personally.

Girls can have vicious tongues and little empathy when it comes to those closest to them.''

Raising all teenagers - boys and girls - comes with challenging times.

But some issues are far more particular to girls.

A Mission Australia and Black Dog Institute report released in October last year found almost one in four young people say they are experiencing mental health challenges, with young females twice as likely as males to face this issue.

The report examines the responses from 27,000 participants aged 15-19 in the 2018 Youth Survey , which also found stigma and embarrassment, fear, and lack of support were the three most commonly cited barriers that prevent young people from seeking help.

Coulson's book also address these higher rates of anxiety disorders and depression among girls.

 

 

He writes that most researchers agree the higher prevalence of girls with anxiety is related to "environmental stressors'' - friends, body image, identity and screens.

"The number of times I read the word anxiety in my survey was simply appalling and devastating,'' Coulson says.

"It seems there are some unique challenges that teenage girls experience and face that boys don't experience so much.

"I would suggest body image is a bigger challenge for girls. All these things are challenges for boys too - I'm at pains to point that out - but boys just tend to be not as affected by it.

"Our girls look to the media (TV and online sources) to learn how to act.

It literally shapes their identities. If left unfettered, social media all too often offers our daughters a toxic mix of materialism, sexuality and superficiality''.

During interviews with girls, Coulson found it "quite astounding'' when it came to their comments on sex, sexuality and intimacy.

Girls talked about the way they are objectified, sexualised, the way they are sexual actors themselves, the experiences they are having and the ways boys treat them.

He writes: "I am astounded by the sexual power imbalance.

The corporate world is having a #metoo moment but the #metoo experiences in the schoolyard are breathtaking. Audacious. It's certainly worse among teenagers then it is among adults.''

He was also struck by how "unremarkable this predatory, toxic behaviour is to them''.

And then there are friends.

 

Teenage girls live for and love their friends with an all-absorbing intensity.

Coulson's research found friends are a teen girl's greatest source of joy but they're also their greatest source of pain and worry.

Michelle Mitchell agrees teenage boy friendships are far less complex as the genders process conflict differently - boys are likely to "erupt'', while girls can be "very strategic'' and more ­manipulative.

She says teen girls can round up support from other girls to "get their own back", harbour grudges for far longer, create teams and "highly thought-out strategies'' that give any dramas an extended lifetime.

In close friend relationships, Mitchell says girls are often "emotionally dependent'' on each other.

"They can't get enough of each other which has its pros and cons,'' she says.

"They feel seen, heard and loved but they are involved with each other's lives 24/7 especially with technology.

"When they go through something, they all go through it together and no one is able to ­completely switch off. They are always in 'crisis' or 'helper' mode and I think this has a big impact on anxiety.

"They get involved in each other's issues even more than their own.

"Teenage boys usually get along if they have something in common. If they can do something together, they consider themselves mates.

Teenage girls can have all the common interests in the world and still be enemies.''

If you are a parent of a teenage daughter, this will make you feel better.

Coulson has ­written many other books: What Your Child Needs From You; 21 Days to a Happier Family; 9 Ways to a Resilient Child; 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know; and Relationship Rules. But he still struggles raising his girls.

There is no magic bullet. It is hard to be a parent and it is especially hard to be a parent of an adolescent.

 

 

As a "fairly typical family'', he and Kylie have experienced "standard dramas'' with some extra challenges thrown in - sleepless nights, fussy eating, sibling rivalry, meanness, speech deficits, learning difficulties and temper tantrums.

In fact, he goes so far to say that his children have "literally tried us within an inch of our ­marriage''.

"I'm crazy about them and I love them no matter what but it has not been all roses. It's hard, it's just so hard. For us, we have absolutely had our challenges,'' he says.

"We have had some extraordinarily difficult times when it has been anything but a joy, in fact at times it's been the hardest experience of our lives.

In our home, there have been times our children have said things that we have all been sorry to hear.

"Every parent of a teenager would have heard hurtful words at some point. That is inescapable, even for a parenting expert.''

Coulson has come out the other end with one of his girls, his eldest daughter ("this girl who will have my heart - just like her sisters will - forever'') married during the finishing stages of writing his book.

His "biggest little girl'' is on her way. He only has five more to go.

Miss-Connection - Why Your Teenage Daughter 'Hates' You, Expects the World and Needs to Talk, $33, HarperCollins, out Monday


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