May 2010

Trying Eyes…
...Make peace with the eye-roll, a tween girl’s rite of passage that can feel oh so wrong.

By Rachel Simpson

Lucky me.  Just in time for Mother’s Day, my 11-year-old daughter has mastered a new skill:  the eye-roll.  I suspect this “gift” will be one that keeps on giving.  When she wonders what’s for dinner and I innocently answer “hamburgers,” she rolls her eyes.  I ask her to put her laundry away and this time I get a sigh to go with the eye-roll.  No matter how vividly I can recall doing this to my own mother, my feelings are still hurt.  (And my own mom just shakes her head and valiantly refrains from telling me “I told you so.”)


The classic adolescent eye-roll, says Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, is one of the ways that a child can show you she has complete disdain for what you’ve just said, how you run your home, who you are—the complete adult-ness of you.  And no matter how many of your friends are experiencing the same thing, it’s always a tough pill to swallow, she adds.  “It’s incredibly important not to take it personally,” she says.  “Nearly all mothers of girls go through this.”

These ocular expressions of contempt usually begin at about age 11 and occur more frequently with girls than boys, says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard psychologist specializing in girls’ issues.  Anything can set them off.  And while it’s some comfort to know that it’s not you, it’s her, there are some strategies for dealing with this stop on the adolescent express.

Don’t react in the moment, Steiner-Adair advises, especially if the eye-rolling happens in front of her peers.  Wait until later, and then say, “You seemed mad.  Is there something I should know?”  Sometimes that’s all that’s needed to open the door to a conversation the child wants to have but doesn’t know how to start.  Another tip:  Make sure you aren’t answering too fast.  She may feel as if you’ve made up your mind before she even finished.

Knowing how to handle the eye-roll is one thing, but what about the hurt it causes?  There’s only so miuch you can do, Steiner-Adair cautions.  “If it’s really starting to hurt you a lot, call another mom, commiserate, and get some support.”  In other words, get used to it.  And be comforted by the knowledge that, to some extent, the girls really can’t help it.

“Part of it is just hormonal,” says Mogel.  Changing levels of hormones and the uncomfortable processes of brain development make adolescents anxious and irritable.  And girls, in general, are closer to—and interact more with—their mothers than anyone else, whch is why we get the brunt of it.  “They are worst to their mothers.  They’re lovely in school, good with friends, nice to their dads, and just hideous with their moms,” Mogel says.  Perversely, that hideousness is a sign of your good parenting, the goal of which is to produce a healthy, strong individual adult.  Eye-rolling is a lead indicator that that’s happening.  Really.

It’s an adolescent’s job to be this way—to ridicule her parents—because it’s such a long process of breaking away and becoming an independent adult,” says Trisha Thompson, mother of two teenage girls (14 and 17) and a frequent blogger on her life with them at

While those rotating eyes might look a lot like disdain or embarrassment to you, “It’s the way girls punctuate their transition from little girlhood to adulthood,” Steiner-Adair says.  It’s just another perfectly appropriate developmental stage behavior.  “When they were little they would get upset and cry,” she explains.  “But now, instead of doing that, they doubt you and question your not letting them be as grown-up as they think they are.”

Until then, however, we parents have to negotiate their job with ours:  setting limits, instilling respect, growing decent adults.  Which also means not doing what Thompson says she’s always tempted to do—roll her own eyes back at her daughters in an even more dramatic fashion.  “That doesn’t make anything better,” she says.


Boys share with girls the same need to separate from their parents, but manifest it with a different optical tic:  Avoidance.  “Mainly what boys do is try to hide,” says psychologist Wendy Mogel.  Avoiding all eye contact with parents (and other adults) is typical.  One technique they use, she adds, is to spend a lot of time with their eyes glued to a screen “so they don’t have to look at that awful parent.”  Another is pretending to get a text when you’re talking, just so they can divert attention to the phone and away from you.

Tween boys are desperate for privacy.  “Puberty bathes their brains in hormones and there’s just so much going on with them,” Mogel explains.  Think voices—and other things—changing.  “They’re so self-conscious,” she adds.  They don’t have words for the way they’re feeling and often don’t understand what’s going on, says Mogel.

Boys need compassion and respect and, yes, privacy.  Grant them space, don’t take it personally and when you can, find ways to engage them.  Try listening to their music and discussing it or get them talking about technology—they probably know more than you do.  Remember, this is not the epic documentary or their life.  It’s just another phase.

May 1, 2010