Parenting Tween and Teen Girls: The impact of social media, brain development, and the quest for independence

For many parents, the tween and teen years are the most complex. In addition to wading through the impacts of hormones on the developing brain and body, we’re navigating the uncharted territory of raising “digital natives” through this crucial developmental stage. Adolescence has been changed by access to smartphones, social media, and free porn, not to mention a variety of communication apps, like the uber popular Snapchat (complete with self-destructing Snaps and Chats). Factor in that constant access to technology often brings unhealthy comparison to others, fear of missing out (FOMO), cyberbullying, and the risk of sharing photos, videos, or messages that can be used against you and it’s no wonder our teens are facing an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. To say the least, parenting tween and teen girls can be challenging.

To help parents better understand the unique challenges of guiding their daughters through these challenging years, we’re sharing some tips from a recent Brainy Moms podcast guest. Dr. Kim Palmiotto isn’t just an educational psychologist and licensed therapist, but also the mother of four girls. She founded Nurturing Girls to help moms and daughters navigate adolescence together through workshops, coaching, and educational videos and material. Dr. Palmiotto joined us to offer useful insights into parenting during the transition between childhood and adulthood. Here are some of the highlights from her episode.

1. How are things different for tweens and teens compared to their parents’ experiences at the same age?

“I’m actually very proud to be part of Gen X, because we went our own generation, which was kind of a big sh*t show sometimes anyway,” said Dr. Palmiotto. “But I think the difference between that and now is enormous and it’s not just the internet. Social media has changed the game for adolescents. It’s just completely changed the way they experience life and social interactions and we can’t truly understand because they’re now going through all these developmental pieces of their puberty and their adolescence with social media and internet. That’s a very different experience than what we had, which was ‘real life.’

You didn’t have everything documented; you didn’t have to worry about people taking videos of you without you knowing and posting them. You didn’t have to worry about people taking pictures of something you sent them and sending it to other people. So when we say things like, ‘Well, when I was teen,’ or ‘I used to,” trying to compare, you can’t. There’s no comparison because what they are experiencing right now is a completely different mindset. They have to be aware not only of what they’re doing now, but also of how what they’re doing now can impact them in the future because everything is documented.” 

2. What are the primary struggles that you see in this transitional phase for girls?

“I think there’s a couple of different things that are usually pretty significantly normal that we see,” explained Dr. Palmiotto. “The first one is communication. I think we go from being the parent that is kind of dictating and setting all the rules to now a parent who is getting challenged a bit more with some of those rules. And it’s hard to understand how to make that switch over to allow our girls to be more independent without losing the relationship. So how do we communicate with our daughter, who is kind of stopping some of the communication with us?”

“The other one is helping. I hear a lot about helping our girls manage the social aspect of their lives because it gets very complicated very quickly for them. And sometimes, as moms or as parents, it’s hard for us to figure out when to step in, when to back off, and kind of how to help with that advice.”

“Then there’s conflict at home, which becomes pretty significant in the teen years. And I think what people forget is that it’s actually really normal. We often forget that because we’re trying to make it this non-conflict environment, but really that’s part of what adolescence is as they’re moving through it into adulthood. Because they’re really just trying to achieve their own identity and figure out who they are. They can’t do that by just always following the rules. They have to challenge them sometimes. So we need to give them the latitude and room to do that without throwing in the towel on respect. And that’s where that balance is really hard to achieve without some help.”

3. How can parents support this phase of our daughters testing limits and exploring their identities?

“That’s kind of the $25,000 question, right?” jokes Dr. Palmiotto. “I think a lot of it has to do with understanding the brain development itself and what’s happening in your daughter’s brain as she moves into adolescence. And there’s the physical component of understanding what she’s going through physically, from hormones to periods. For example, understanding her own menstrual cycle is something that we don’t talk about enough and understanding how that impacts her behavior, emotions, and mood. There’s a really small window during the menstrual cycle where she’s going to be really open to having conversations. That’s when you see your girls coming to you wanting to talk more, opening up more. You have this little glimpse of what they were like when they were maybe a little younger.”

“The other piece with brain development is that our girls are going through an entire reconstruction in their brains right now, similar to when they were toddlers. Their brains are literally pruning off the things they don’t need and keeping the things they do.” 

4. How might parents address something like late-night technology usage or missing curfew in a way that comes from love and not enforced obedience?

“I think we have to help them understand the reason behind the rule,” said Dr. Palmiotto. “I’ll give you an example that I use with my own kids. We’ve had multiple conversations about the brain in our household. They understand that you have to get a certain amount of sleep in order to function at your best, especially in your teen years.” She suggests helping your tween understand that the boundary or rule isn’t just for the parents’ benefit, but rather to help them establish a framework for themselves as well. “It’s really just about having those conversations to help them understand your thought process as a parent, because you’re really acting as that frontal lobe for them in those circumstances.” 

To hear the full Brainy Moms podcast episode on parenting tween and teen girls with Dr. Kim Palmiotto, click here!