Is there a family dynamic more littered with landmines than the relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter?
Now a Rutgers academic is launching a study to determine not only how this dynamic plays out, but also what potential toll it takes on society as a whole and how best to navigate its uneven terrain.
“Moms have more influence than they realize,” says Donna Cill, assistant dean for student affairs and director of the Center for Lifelong Learning in the School of Nursing at the Rutgers Health Sciences Campus at Newark/Stratford.
She cites research showing that good communication between mothers and daughters helps decrease dangerous adolescent behavior such as unhealthy eating, sexual activity and alcohol use.
But how to achieve that communication when the daughter rolls her eyes or, worse, storms out of the room when her mother begins yet another sentence with, “When I was your age …”?
The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey, a statewide organization of female philanthropists, has given Cill a $10,000 grant to look into ways mothers and their teens can keep those lines of communication open when it comes to such incendiary topics as drinking, dating and curfews, as well as clothing and food choices.
“At a certain point, girls will cut their moms off and turn to their friends,” says Cill, the mother of two daughters. But the danger, she notes, is that the adolescent brain is still developing; it often lacks the ability to plan ahead, and to correlate cause and effect – especially when it comes to a girl’s behavior.
Thus a middle school girl’s BFF is usually not the best source of sound advice, the Maplewood resident warns.
“That’s where mom comes in,” says Cill, who was a member of the first class to receive a doctorate in nursing practice from the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, now Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences. “As the more mature person, the mom has the experience and the perspective her daughter’s friends may lack.”
Cill is recruiting mother-daughter pairs through two middle schools in Newark. Participants will take part in focus groups designed to help her identify common themes and areas of conflict. Cill hopes to enlist seven pairs from a vocational school in the city and seven from an alternative school serving at-risk students.
From their taped interactions, she will create educational videos to post on YouTube and other social media outlets. She also plans to develop a seminar, tentatively scheduled for next June, aimed at healthcare professionals, teachers and foster care parents, among others.
A single mom when she was still a teenager, Cill brings to her project years of firsthand experience in the perils of cross-generation communication. She recalls battles royal with her daughter, Alleea, who recently graduated from Rutgers with a degree in journalism/media studies and who is now a master’s degree student at Columbia University.
“I so vividly remember all the times of butting heads, of not being on the same page,” says Cill, who came away from these encounters convinced that there is both a time and a way for mothers to best broach a sensitive topic. And that time is not in the heat of anger, the nursing dean stresses.
“Don’t start any conversation when you’re angry – that’s a recipe for disaster,” Cill notes. “Try to balance emotional and rational response. Be aware of the things you say that trigger her hot buttons.”
What’s at stake is more than peace in the home, she says. Risky teenage habits exact a monetary price on a society dealing with teen pregnancies, violence, school truancy and the diseases linked with obesity.
“Adolescent risk behaviors are a multimillion dollar problem,” says Cill, whose job at the nursing school includes overseeing student recruitment, student services and alumni affairs, and creating programs for continuing education.
The Jewish Women’s Foundation, which is underwriting her research, educates women about the power of philanthropy by pooling funds and collaboratively and strategically awarding grants. “We’re committed to supporting programs that provide women and girls with the tools to lead empowered and effective lives,” says foundation director Susan Friedman.