How to head off the toll of the terrible tweens on mothers' self-esteem

The dip in mothers’ self-esteem and wellbeing coincides with onset of her children’s puberty.
The dip in mothers’ self-esteem and wellbeing coincides with onset of her children’s puberty. Photo: Stocksy

Given motherhood is still portrayed as being pretty much guaranteed to bring with it feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment it may come as a surprise that a recent book, Enough As She Is, by Rachel Simmons found the reverse can be true as children hit adolescence.

Simmons, an American author and educator specialising in girls' issues, writes that just as children's self-esteem may start to slide when they become tweens – before dropping further as they hit the teen years – there is often a corresponding reduction in their mother’s sense of wellbeing.

“[Adolescent] girls aren’t the only ones battling blows to their self-worth. Despite all the hours we sink into parenting … our confidence as parents has bottomed out [as girls hit their teens],” Simmons writes.

“Out of any stage of parenting, from infancy to adulthood, it is during middle school and the teen years that mothers bottom out on measures of wellbeing and satisfaction.”

Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University Dr Suniya Luthar, who has conducted numerous studies into the wellbeing of mothers, says that the dip in mothers’ self-esteem and wellbeing coincides with the onset of their children’s puberty hormones and mood swings, the beginnings of experimentation, kids’ worries about popularity and whether they're accepted or not by their peers.”

“All of this happens at the same time as their increased desire for separation from parents. So what happens is the child who was relatively predictable, and often adoring of, mum is pulling away and is distant, sometimes resentful, and angry and sullen,” Dr Luthar says.

She describes parents as "first responders" to the feeling of adolescent children, saying: "It's not surprising that this is a time that is enormously stressful."

Despite all the horror stories of teenage girls being at war with their mothers, Dr Luthar’s research found that the gender of the child was not a factor in the deterioration of their mother’s wellbeing. “It is no less painful when your son looks at you with scorn then when your daughter does it,” she says.

Happily for those parents who are struggling through the teenage years, there are plenty of support strategies. The first step in safeguarding a mother’s wellbeing, say the experts, is for her to be doing what she wants to be doing.

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“The happiest mums are those who are either working and wanting to be working or at home and wanting to be at home," says Dr Luthar. “The most unhappy mothers were the ones who are at home but wanting to be working.”

Of course it’s not always possible to for mothers get their work/homelife balance as they would like it. Melbourne psychologist Sabina Read says that it is extremely common for mothers to struggle through the teen years and recommends parents look for meaning and validation in areas outside parenting.

“One way to reduce the sense of grief and impotence mothers may feel as their kids pull away is to maintain a focus on passions, work, hobbies and social pursuits that fill up your cup away from parenting,” says Read. “Try to depersonalise some of the negative interactions with your teen and find ways to celebrate their appropriate independence and growth.”

Dr Luthar says other protective factors for mothers' sense of wellbeing have to do with the quality of relationships outside the immediate family: ideally, these should provide a sense of feeling  seen and loved unconditionally, the ability to trust that others will help in times of distress, a feeling authenticity in the relationships, as well as the opportunity spend time with friends as often as you would like or feel you need.

“It’s about having women friends who are in your life,” says Dr Luthar. But she cautions that you should try to develop your friendships and other interests before things start to get tough.

“One of my big take-home messages [from her research] is be proactive, and when your kids are little start cultivating the sisterhood of other mums who are going to be supportive of you and be with you through all of this,” says Dr Luthar.