Moms Need Social Support, And Not Just In The Baby Years
Angie Wang for NPR
Raising children is a task that requires extensive "on-the-job" training, which is why many women rely on new moms groups for parenting support and guidance. Often, however, as the kids get older, the mothers’ friendships fall by the wayside.
Now, new research indicates that social support isn’t just valuable for mothers of young children, it’s beneficial for moms of teens, too.
The study, published this spring in the journal Family Process, suggests that these support networks may help mothers develop closer relationships with their teens.
"Having someone to talk to about your children is essential for maintaining positive parent-child relationships," says Melissa Lippold, an assistant professor of social work at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and lead author of the study. "However, this type of social support impacts parenting behaviors for mothers and fathers differently."
The study includes data from 636 rural, two-parent families who completed a series of questionnaires and in-person interviews with the researchers. They found that for moms only, social support plays a significant role in how they parent their teens, especially when they feel overwhelmed and out of control in their lives.
"When these women lean on others, such as friends and co-workers, they are more likely to maintain warm relationships with their kids," says Lippold. "I think mothers are more socialized than fathers to seek emotional support from relationships when they struggle. It’s possible that when moms confide in others, they feel calmer, which helps them maintain closeness with their children."
While the early years of parenting are physically demanding, the teen years can be emotionally taxing. Mothers often find themselves in a tug-of-war, because as children start letting go, they want to hold on. Teens often believe they’re more capable of making adult-like decisions than they actually are, and often aren’t keen when parents point out their limitations.
Julie Burton, 50, a mother of four children in Minnetonka, Minn., grappled to raise her two eldest, now ages 22 and 20.
"Journeying through the teen years with my older two children felt like riding a road bike down a rocky terrain," she says. "I often felt ill-equipped to cope with their moodiness and requests for greater autonomy. As hard as we tried, my husband and I were not always on the same page about how much freedom to give our kids."
Jodi J. De Luca, a clinical psychologist in Erie, Colo., believes that mothers and fathers transition through the teen years differently.
"Mothers often fear rejection from their kids, which can make setting limits challenging," she says. "As moms, we want respect from our children, but we also strive to please them. This combination is very tricky and can trigger feelings of insecurity. Fathers don’t always understand how emotional this can be."
De Luca thinks we need more open conversations, normalizing the hardships that arise during the adolescent part of the parenting cycle.
"Our culture expects new moms to struggle, but we forget that these stressors don’t disappear as children grow older. Too often we see motherhood as a linear process when it’s not," she says.
While having trustworthy friends to talk with can help, finding these networks can be tricky. During early motherhood, women disclose their parenting problems with ease, but it’s often harder to discuss the difficulties of raising teens.
During her kids’ teenage years, Burton felt even more isolated than she did when they were younger. Longing to connect with other moms and curious about their parenting trials, she interviewed 400 mothers, summarizing their stories in her book, The Self-Care Solution: A Modern Mother’s Must-Have Guide to Health and Well-Being.
Through the interviews, Burton learned personal details about other moms’ conflicts with helicopter parenting, prioritizing self-care and boundary setting. Women shared how they scrutinized their own parenting decisions, worrying that the wrong choices might scar their children for life.
"I also found that many moms feel ashamed to talk about their ‘imperfect’ adolescents because they assume that other parents have perfect kids," she says.
When Cindy Goodman, 52, a mother of three in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Raquel Alderman, 49, a mother of two in Coral Springs, Fla., were faced with their children hitting the teen years, they found minimal resources to help them through the transition.
"There are so many mommy blogs and parenting magazines for parents of young children, but not as much information for mothers of teens," says Goodman.
So Goodman and Alderman started their own blog, "Raising Teens," with the aim of expanding their support network and becoming "’virtual girlfriends’ that other women could learn from, too," says Goodman.
The blog addresses topics such as smartphone addiction, curfew setting and cyberbullying, and Goodman and Alderman invite readers to share in their parenting challenges along with their triumphs.
"We receive a lot of feedback from parents and, surprisingly, from teens, too. They chime in, sharing their feelings about moms who snoop and their reasons for sneaking out of the house," she says.
Burton advises mothers of teens to develop closer relationships by trying new activities, such as community volunteering, joining a local exercise class or connecting with other moms online. She offers writing classes in her community where women can gather and share their narratives in a safe and supportive space.
"Finding supportive networks where mothers feel safe to talk about their parenting concerns is crucial," says Lippold, the study’s author. "Teens who have close relationships with their parents are more likely to ask them for advice and seek comfort from them when they’re in stressful situations."
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga.