2016-06-30

Some mothers of teenage girls don't believe they have a prayer of understanding their daughters. Celia Straus, on the other hand, has two girls of her own and two books full of prayers, a Web site and a loyal following, all testifying to her ability to embrace teenagers, angst and all.

Six years ago, when her oldest, Julia, was 12, Straus realized that her daughter was beginning to pull away from her. Suspecting that adolescence was a time when girls might need their moms most and confide in them least, Straus searched for indirect but meaningful ways to stay connected with her daughter.

One night Julia surprised her mother by asking her to leave a prayer on her pillow. Theirs was a mixed Christian-Jewish family that did not practice a specific religious tradition. But God was--and is--a reality in their lives, so Straus honored her daughter's request, over and over again.

"The project was my effort to bridge the gulf that was developing between us as she confronted the confusion, the changes and the pressures of growing up, and I confronted the accelerated pace of life that leaves many of us parents with little time for heartfelt conversations with our children," she said.

The nightly prayers became "a way to handle this time in our lives with grace and courage and love," Straus said. "The prayers were indirect expressions that let her know I understood how she was feeling and what she was going through, and they were attempts at finding points of entry into her interior life, which was closed to me."

In time Straus' younger daughter, Emily, then 8, asked for prayers of her own. Again, Straus complied. Eventually, she gathered the best of all those prayers into "Prayers on My Pillow" (Ballantine Books, $18.50, 224 pages). A Web site, www.girlprayers.com, followed, along with a CD of prayers read by celebrity moms and a second book, "More Prayers on My Pillow" (Ballantine, $18.50, 200 pages).

Straus, who answers at least 20 e-mail requests for personal prayers every day, hears often from mothers and daughters who cannot seem to find a starting place for the conversations they say they want to have.

"Here in the Straus house [where Julia is now 18 and Emily 13], there's still plenty of complaining and miscommunication," she said. But she has learned a few things over the years. Here are a few of her suggestions:

  • Try an indirect approach: "Adolescent girls don't necessarily respond best to direct, in-your-face communication," Straus said. She recommends finding nonconfrontational or neutral moments to talk and then building on them, "so that life doesn't become a series of issues to grapple with--the too-tight tank top, not doing homework, too much time on the phone."
    "It's picking your battles, of course," she said, "but it's also waging them in ways that are win-win for both you and your daughter."

  • Show, don't tell: It's old advice, but still the best, Straus said. If you want your daughter to live with integrity, honesty, courage, the strength of her convictions and consistency, look to your own life and be sure you are modeling those values.

  • Share the sacred: "Girls are always building sacred places," Straus said. Often moms need look no further than their daughters' rooms to find out what is most sacred to their girls. Straus suggests that moms find places where they can share their own sense of spirituality with their daughters, beyond the usual places of churches, synagogues and mosques. If nature nurtures your spirit, invite your daughter to spend time with you in nature, to experience the solace that you find there.
    "Spending time together at a mall is a great experience," Straus said, but it doesn't inspire conversation about emotions, values or goals in life.

  • Share a journal: When mothers ask Straus for specific ideas on how to begin more meaningful conversations with their daughters, she often suggests writing instead of talking. If your daughter is willing to give it a shot, choose a notebook and decide where the two of you will keep it. One of you begins by writing something--just a thought, an idea, a reaction to something that's happened, even just a line or two.
    Leave the journal in the designated spot, where the other writer can pick it up and respond to what you've written or record something of her own. Don't get hung up on whose turn it is to write, or whether she responded to what you wrote. "Think of it as an indirect sharing, a shared diary, a chance to communicate indirectly about your feelings," Straus said.

  • Encourage solitude: Peace and quiet are hard to come by for both mothers and daughters, Straus said. Don't assume because your daughter shuts herself into her room that she's alone with her thoughts. Chances are she's got a CD player, the Internet and a telephone to keep her company.
    "I didn't have any of that growing up," Straus said. Girls today have a harder time finding solitude. "I do believe there is less time for them to reflect on themselves. We overestimate their self-absorption."
    Teenagers need some time alone to attend to their inner lives, Straus said, just as adults do. A parent who makes her own inner life a priority sets a good example for a teenager to do the same.

  • Seek balance: "All we really want whatever age we are is balance," Straus said. Spend too much time on our inner life and the life we share with others suffers. "Only when one is in balance is one able to see the face of God reflected all around," Straus said.

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