The Eye-Rolling Olympics

Dear World’s Okayest Mom,

I kind of hate my 12-year-old daughter right now. Everything is overly dramatic and I haven’t heard a civil word from her in months. Last week, for example, we voted as a family on where to get takeout for dinner and she lost. She stomped out of the room and slammed her bedroom door. When I went to tell her that wasn’t acceptable behavior, she told me she hates me. How can I help her get a grip?

— WTF

Dear WTF,
When I was twelve, I was a champion eye-roller. If the county fair had given ribbons, I would have one. I was also a master of the exasperated sigh, the one that communicates, “You have no idea how hard it is for me to put up with the idiocy of a person like you.” I could eye-roll about anything: that it was my turn to empty the dishwasher, that we were having CrockPot stew for dinner, that I couldn’t go camping with my best friend in the nearby state park without adult supervision.

When my obvious disdain for everything was directed near my dad, he would work up a head of steam. “Listen, little girl,” he’d start, and I’d get angry back and we’d huff around each other. It was terrible, yet also satisfying. Partly that was about power, of course, that I could affect his mood, but it also gave me a legitimate excuse for my own mood: “Look! My dad’s being a jerk to me. I have a right to be pissy.”

My mom, however, completely ignored my Sturm und Drang. I could slouch through breakfast, unnecessarily clatter my dishes and emit a vibe of general loathing and she would look at me mildly and say, “I hope you have a good day.” It took the wind out of my black-cloud-of-doom sails and the fun out of moping.

It is also a state of healthy detachment that, as a parent, I rarely achieve. The best I usually achieve is a teeth-gritted-but-calm(ish), “You know you’re being terribly unpleasant right now, right?”

What I remember most about the storm of attitude that bubbled out of me was this: I was embarrassed by it. In the moment, swamped with emotion, I felt justified in the whinging and sighing and slamming, but part of me—the floating-above-and-watching part—was acutely aware that I was being a pain in the ass. But I couldn’t always control it.

So maybe that’s the first question to explore with your little cherub. You could find a moment of calm between the thunder, and ask about a recent example: “When you were upset that we voted for a different dinner choice than you wanted, how did that feel?” Put on your most curious, emotionally-detached hat and explore with her whether she legitimately felt justified in her behavior or whether she was caught in a tidal wave of emotions that she couldn’t control. Her response will help you decide your next steps.

It’s likely that she felt caught in the storm, so try normalizing that. Twelve is a hard age; her growing body is flooded with all sorts of new hormones and her brain hasn’t learned coping mechanisms or grown the frontal lobe connections necessary to stop and evaluate the best response (The Teenage Brain by Frances Jensen is an interesting resource if you want to explore this biological challenge). She is, to some extent, a victim of her biology. However, the sooner she learns some self-management skills, the better for everyone in her general vicinity.

One tool that’s helped in our house is to re-introduce time-outs, but modified for my kids’ size and (mostly) self-directed. My kids brainstormed a few options that might help when they are awash in an emotional storm: listen to loud music on headphones, run around the block, write about how much they hate everything in a journal. When one of them starts mumphing around, muttering how stupid and unfair everything is, I smile at them and say, “Take a time out.” Sometimes that works on the first try, but mostly—particularly in the beginning—I had to take a more directive role and tell them, in my best fake-calm voice, “It seems like you’re having some rough emotional weather right now. Please take a time out. Now. For real.”

One unexpected side effect is that teaching this to my children has helped me better manage my own emotions. Because (no surprise) sometimes I’m the one swamped with melodrama and the whole world sucks and I’m surrounded by idiots and everything is stupid and unfair and no one else closes the cabinets or adds milk to the grocery list. So I model for them: “I need to go walk around the block and then I can help you with your homework/make dinner/be a decent human.”

Right now, twelve sucks, but remember that it doesn’t last forever. It’s a tumultuous time, but someday — maybe in six months, maybe in six years — she’ll come out the other side and be a decent human being. So hang on, WTF, and I’ll be thinking of you.

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