Q. My 15-year-old daughter and I have a lousy relationship, and I'm to blame. When she was about 12, I realized she had a mind of her own and wasn't going to conform to my lofty expectations. The more I tried to influence her, the more she let me know that she had her own tastes and ways of doing things. I became increasingly angry and disapproving, and she became increasingly defensive and belligerent. Today, our relationship turns around insults, sarcasm and yelling. I know I've made her feel terrible about herself and made it almost impossible for her to please me. Is there anything I can do to salvage this situation?
A. First, I agree wholeheartedly with you; the problem with you and your daughter is your fault.
As she approached adolescence, you began wanting her to be an extension of you, to carry on your hopes and dreams and your choice of clothes and furniture and friends and probably, in the long run, husbands as well. When she didn't let you take over her life, you took out your anger on her. It's an old story, one that fathers and sons act out as often as mothers and daughters.
As you already know, you created the problem, and you have to fix it. And yes, it can be fixed. For starters, I recommend an invention called "An Apology a Week."
The name says it all. Once a week, you apologize to your daughter for one of the many blunders you've made over the past five years. I'm not talking about a tearful, dramatic scene, complete with organ music, but a short, simple statement of fact. You've messed things up, you know it, and you want to clear the air.
Pick a time when you and your daughter are together privately and not likely to be distracted for the next five minutes. Say you're riding along in the car together and out of the blue you start talking.
"You know, Leslie, I've been thinking lately about something I did several years ago that was really dumb. I'm talking about when I persuaded you to take piano lessons, which you hated, and which I finally let you quit, after many battles over practicing. Shortly thereafter, you asked for guitar lessons, but I refused because of the piano incident. You argued that the piano was my idea and that you should not be punished for not liking it, but I wouldn't budge. Well, you were right. I was mad and acted like a child because you wouldn't let me run your life. Things like that have made it very difficult for you to be open with me. I don't know if you'd still like to take guitar lessons, but if you do, I'll provide them with no strings attached. If you don't like them, you can quit with my blessings."
I'm not suggesting that you close each apology by giving her something, but an occasional "peace offering," if it seems to fit the situation, would be helpful.
Once you've delivered the apology, say no more and don't expect anything in return from her, even acknowledgment that she heard you. Initially, she's not going to trust what she hears from you and may think you're trying to trick her into giving you an apology for something she has done. Don't apologize more than once a week, either, lest you begin to sound insincere to her sensitive ears.
At best, it's going to take a few weeks for her to begin trusting you and warming up to you. To begin with, she may reject your attempts to establish positive communication. If so, simply acknowledge her anger by saying something like, "I don't blame you for still being mad about it, even after all this time," and let the matter drop.
I have found that an apology a week can go a long way toward defusing a conflict-ridden parent-child relationship, but it's not going to completely turn the trick. In addition, find ways of spending time with her without seeming to force yourself or your likes upon her. Remember, she is her own person.
A few words of caution: an apology is not the same as begging for forgiveness or putting yourself down. Nor does this mean you should start letting her get away with misbehavior.