Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Susie Shellenberger and Kathy Gowler's new book, Here for You: Creating a Mother-Daughter Bond that Lasts a Lifetime, (Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2007).
You long to enjoy a close relationship with your daughter, but sometimes it's hard even to get her to talk to you. Despite your best intentions, a strong mother-daughter bond won't just happen. You have to work to build the relationship you desire with her.
The effort is vitally important, because you're the most influential teacher your daughter will have. A close bond with you will change her whole life for the better.
Here's how you can create a close bond with your daughter:
Lighten your load. Realize that if you're calm, your daughter will be more likely to relax around you. Manage your schedule to reduce unnecessary stress that can leave you exhausted and grouchy, harming your relationship with your daughter. Before committing your time or energy to something, think and pray about whether or not it's truly important to you. Don't be afraid to say "no" to new endeavors, and to cut back on your current activities to free you to enjoy time with your daughter more. At least once a week, make time to spend at least an hour doing something that refreshes you personally (reading a book, going to lunch with a friend, etc.).
Tune in to what's going on in your daughter's world. Understand that the better you know your daughter's world, the better you can connect to her. Get to know what's important to her, and why. Know her friends well. Familiarize yourself with what's currently considered cool in teen culture. Realize that many of the other teens she knows are likely facing troubling issues such as divorced parents, alcohol or drug use, eating disorders premarital sex, gender confusion, self-mutilation like cutting, abuse, pornography, or suicide. Acknowledge all your teen is dealing with every day, and determine to be a safe person she can run to whenever she's overwhelmed.
Walk your daughter through the doors from childhood to womanhood. As your daughter's body changes during puberty, talk with her about it. Give her straight answers to all of her questions. Help her resist society's pressure to grow up too fast; encourage her to enjoy the beauty of her innocence and act her true age. Set clear rules about issues such as entertainment choices, clothing styles, makeup, boy-girl parties, and dating.
Help your daughter gradually move toward independence. Give your daughter more responsibility in stages as she grows – and when she proves that she can handle what you've given her well, give her some more. Allow her to make some mistakes so she can learn from the consequences, but be careful to teach, guide, and correct her in the process. Be willing to forgive her no matter what, and offer her chances to prove that she's learned her lessons and can handle more independence. Don't try to shelter your daughter from the world's harsh realities. Instead, talk with her openly and honestly about them to help her develop the critical thinking skills she'll need as an adult to make faithful decisions on her own.
Handle conflict wisely. Expect that you and your daughter will definitely experience conflict, since it's a normal part of every relationship. Instead of fearing conflict, decide to use it to help your relationship with your daughter grow. Be clear about the fact that you're your daughter's parent, not her best friend. Understand that she needs you to provide leadership as a teen; it gives her the security that will help her develop confidence. Don't hesitate to set clear boundaries, explain the reasons behind them, and enforce them. Choose your battles carefully. Agree to disagree on topics that aren't moral issues, but just matters of personal taste.
Listen well. Every time your daughter talks about what's going on in her life, give her your full attention. Be willing to drop what you're doing whenever possible so you can listen without distractions. Make eye contact with her. Ask her thoughtful questions about what she's shared to show your genuine interest in her life. Don't push her to open up about anything when she's not ready, but let her know that you're always available whenever she does want to talk. Give her the emotional space she needs to deal with issues and sometimes figure things out on her own, trusting that she'll come to you when she needs you. If she says something that shocks you, don't criticize her or argue with her. Let her be honest so she'll feel safe talking to you about anything. Make sure she knows that no topic of conversation is off limits between you. Try to spend more time listening than you do talking, but when she asks questions, give her honest answers.
Show your appreciation. Be generous with praise for your daughter. Whenever you notice her doing something right, let her know you're proud of her. Encourage her through your words and actions as often as you can.
Help your daughter discover God's unique plans for her. Don't try to make your daughter into a copy of you or push your agenda for her life on her. Instead, accept the ways in which she differs from you and seek God's plans for her life rather than your own. Help your daughter discover her true interests and talents, and encourage her to develop and use them to the fullest. Give her the freedom she needs to pursue the passions God has placed in her heart.
Get rid of your baggage. Break free of all the baggage that's weighing you down and preventing you from growing closer to your daughter: low self-esteem, rejection, bitterness, fear, unrealistic expectations of perfection, shame, anger, guilt, etc. Don't assume that your daughter is bound to experience the same heartache you've suffered in your life. Ask God to protect her from the heartache you've known, and trust Him to do so. Make the choice to turn to God to heal your own pain so you can give your daughter the gift of a healthy relationship with you. Do whatever it takes to work through the healing process so you can leave your past issues behind and move into a better future.
Become all you can be in Christ. Instead of getting frustrated about how mundane your life seems to be, decide to respond to ordinary circumstances in extraordinary ways by pursuing a passionate love relationship with Christ every day. If you haven't already begun a relationship with Christ, do it now. Don't settle for just a lukewarm faith; devote yourself to constantly growing a deeper faith. Make the time you spend engaging in spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible reading a top priority. Look beyond the challenges in your life to see the resources God wants to give you to overcome them.
Set an inspiring example. Remember that you need to serve as a role model for the kind of life you'd like your daughter to live. Recognize that your attitudes, words, and actions are a tremendous influence on her. Honestly consider whether or not they're loving, and what you might need to change to improve them. For example, if you tend to yell at your daughter when you're frustrated, apologize and learn how to remain calm in stressful situations. Think about how good you are at living with integrity, handling loss and disappointment well, respecting others, and serving and caring for others. Do all you can to show your daughter through your own life what true faith looks like in action.
Reconcile. If your relationship with your daughter has been broken by something, do whatever you can to reconcile. Acknowledge the mistakes you've made, apologize, and ask your daughter to forgive you. Then turn away from what you've done wrong, and do whatever it takes to make things right, even when it requires large sacrifices (such as cutting back on your job or volunteer hours to have more time with her). Seek to get to the point where you can lay the past aside and begin anew with trust and appreciation for each other.
Get real. Understand the authenticity is a must for a close relationship with your daughter. Don't pretend that everything in either of your lives is fine when it isn't. Ask God to help you be humble and courageous enough to ask for help whenever you need it, and to honestly face your daughter's problems and help her with them.
Speak each other's love language. Figure out how both you and your daughter best interpret, give, and receive love: through words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, acts of service, or gifts. Realize that it's normal to speak several of these "love languages." Then do your best to express your love to each other in the ways that best communicate it.
Write a letter. Write a letter to your daughter that describes parts of the past that you're grateful for or that you'd like to make right, what strong and weak areas you see in your present relationship, and what you'd like your relationship to be like in the future (and what you'd like to do to pursue that goal).
Make a covenant. Promise God and your daughter that you will: be a godly role model, be a safe person she can always turn to when needed, pray for her every day, pray with her consistently whenever possible, and help her unfold the unique personality and gifts with which she's been blessed.
Keep the covenant. Maintain the covenant you've made in various ways, such as: taking turns writing in a mother-daughter journal, dating your daughter (going out together for a special outing just for the two of you), taking a mother-daughter retreat over a weekend, and finding creative ways to communicate (such as by writing affectionate notes to your daughter and leaving them where she'll find them). Be patient through the ups and downs of your relationship, trusting that God will bring you closer, and rejoicing as He answers your prayers.
Adapted from Here for You: Creating a Mother-Daughter Bond that Lasts a Lifetime, copyright 2007 by Susie Shellenberger and Kathy Gowler. Published by Bethany House (a division of Baker Publishing Group), Bloomington, Mn., www.bethanyhouse.com.
Susie Shellenberger created Focus on the Family's Brio magazine for teen girls in 1990 and continues to serve as editor. Before starting Brio, Susie was a youth pastor and a high school teacher. She has written 41 books, is in demand as an international speaker for women's groups and teens, and started the Brio Mother/Daughter Cruise for Focus on the Family. Susie lives in Colorado Springs and, in her spare time, enjoys walking her 150-pound St. Bernard and sometimes eating cereal for dinner.
Kathy Gowler is editorial assistant and event coordinator for Focus on the Family's Brio and Brio and Beyond magazines for teen girls. She has been a contributing writer to both magazines and also a contributing author to Bloom: A Girl's Guide to Growing Up. Kathy has counseled hundreds of teen girls in person and by answering their email questions sent to Brio. Kathy and her husband, Jeff, are the parents of two adult children and live near Colorado Springs.