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Sharon Hersh


Sharon Hersh is a licensed professional counselor and the mother of two teenagers. She is the author of "MOM, I FEEL FAT!" Becoming Your Daughter's Ally in Developing a Healthy Body Image and BRAVEHEARTS: Unlocking the Courage to Love with Abandon. A sought-after speaker for retreats and conferences, Sharon lives with her family in Colorado.

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April 2004's contributing writer Bethanne Kelly Patrick interviewed Sharon Hersh, author of "MOM, I HATE MY LIFE!" In this conversation about Christ-centered parenting of adolescent girls, Hersh describes the "five postures of mothering"; how mothers and daughters face different challenges, but are more alike than they think; and why a few nights of "praying without sleeping" may take place in the life of every mother of a daughter. Hersh also talks about the previous books (and final installment) in her Hand-in-Hand Mothering series and why readers can use these no matter where they are in their mothering journeys.

FR: Let's begin by having you discuss what's different for mothers and daughters today. What issues should mothers be "tuned in" to --- and what hasn't changed?

SH: Today's growing teenage girls face the same roller coaster of emotions we mothers remember. Our daughters can wake up in the morning singing and full of sunshine and by 8:00 a.m. be sullen and withdrawn, threatening to storm any moment. But the external world our girls are navigating is scarier than the world that we grew up in. Statistics and stories alike confirm that today's girls are growing up in a world that is as stormy, if not more so, than their normal internal teenage turbulence. Today's girls are hurting, angry and afraid. Teenage girls ages 12-19 are the most victimized segment of the population. By the time a girl is 15 she will have confronted realities most of us moms never dreamed could exist when we were teenagers --- sexual harassment and aggression, daily drug and alcohol use among classmates, dangerous liaisons via high-tech connections, even the possibility of death at the hands of other teenagers.

FR: You identify four mothering styles in this book and use those not to point fingers, but to point mothers in the right direction. Tell us about those styles and how you identified them.

SH: All mothers develop styles of mothering --- sometimes we learn from our own mothers and other times we do what comes naturally or what seems necessary in the midst of our unique situations. Mothering styles can be identified by understanding posture. Posture is what makes different activities possible. When I sit, I can be at attention or listen. When I lay down, I can rest. When I kneel, I can pray. There are five different postures in mothering:

Mothering From Above --- this mother talks to her daughter, often using lecturing or rules to connect to her daughter. This style becomes less effective as our daughters grow into adolescence.

Mothering From Beneath --- this mother may feel inferior and mother out of fear, often pleading that her daughter "be good" or "be happy." This posture hides a mother's strength and keeps her from being powerful in her daughter's life --- something our daughters desperately need in the midst of their scary internal and external worlds.

Mothering From Too Close --- this is the "hover mother" who tries to fix everything and manage her daughter's emotions to happy outcomes. Unfortunately our teenagers are not projects to be managed, and when we try to fix everything we keep them from developing their own internal resources and developing emotional maturity.

Mothering From a Distance --- this mother is often too busy or too overwhelmed to be involved in her growing daughter's life. This daughter is often left feeling alone and may turn to unreliable sources of support and guidance or may develop an unhealthy sense of independence that does not make room for the support and help of others.

The fifth mothering style is the foundation of this book as well as my previous book, MOM, I FEEL FAT! This is hand-in-hand mothering --- a willingness to learn as many ways as you can of responding to your daughter out of a heart filled with limitless love for her. You may draw on some of the strengths of your primary mothering style, but you will stretch far beyond your comfort zone to form an alliance with your daughter that can withstand the storms within and without and enable you to lead her to emotional maturity so that she can create the life she loves!

FR: You've divided your book into three main sections: Understanding Your Worlds, Building a Bridge Between Your Worlds, and Conquering Roadblocks to a Relationship. Will these apply no matter what a daughter's age? Why or why not?

SH: "MOM, I HATE MY LIFE!" leads moms down four pathways to develop and deepen their hand-in-hand mothering --- no matter your daughter's age or her present struggles. First, moms will get a chance to understand their worlds as well as their daughters' worlds. We moms have to understand our own emotional life, how it has developed, where we need to be challenged, and our strengths and weaknesses in relating our understanding of emotional development to our daughters. Then we can understand their world --- a roller coaster world --- that does actually begin to make sense as we understand their biological realties and the impact of their culture upon their emotional development. Secondly, we look at common complaints, retorts and questions by girls about emotional life. Sentiments like, "I'm Not in the Mood!" or "Just Leave Me Alone!" and how we can use these inevitable expressions of teenage angst to connect with our daughters rather than shake our heads in frustration or hide in our bedrooms feeling overwhelmed by our daughter's volatile emotional expressions.

Third, "MOM, I HATE MY LIFE!" looks at the roadblocks that keep mothers from forming strong hand-in-hand alliances --- scary subjects like eating disorders, depression, cutting and suicidal thoughts.

The fourth pathway in this book is one of pure encouragement. We mothers surely need to know we are not alone, we can help our daughters --- no matter how rocky or scary it gets, and that as we work to become hand-in-hand mothers, we can hold on tighter to a Hand that is infinitely stronger than we are!

FR: One of the most hotly debated theories on adolescent development of the past decade has to be Judith Lerner's idea that peer groups are more influential on our children than anyone ever thought. Regardless of how much weight you give to this idea, there is a certain point at which a child leaves her mother's orbit and begins to relate more to her peer group. Do you have specific ideas for this "bridge" moment?

SH: The peer-pressure cooker is as powerful and influential on teenagers today as ever. Author and psychologist Judith Lerner has written controversial conclusions that peers actually influence teenagers more than their parents. Common sense tells us that there are moments in time and seasons in adolescence when peers have great influence. "MOM, I HATE MY LIFE!" encourages moms to use the power of these relationships to further their own relationship with their daughters. If we try to fight our daughters' peers, they may join their peers and fight us. Rather, we can find a resting place in knowing that WE are the ones God entrusted with our daughters. He has placed with our hearts the love, wisdom and commitment that will outlast changing peer groups, fickle fashions and trendy behaviors. Perhaps the greatest strength and passion of "MOM, I HATE MY LIFE!" is reminding mothers that God has placed within them the strength to form an alliance with their daughters that will outlast troubled times, bad friends and risky behaviors. As we grow in curiosity, compassion and commitment for our daughters, we will be their anchor in the inevitable storms of emotional development.

FR: While you approach your subject from a Christ-centered perspective, you caution mothers of adolescent girls from carelessly throwing out spiritual platitudes ("God will make it all work out," etc.). Do you have specific advice or methods for moms who might be prone to doing so?

SH: As our daughters grow into adolescence, one of our greatest challenges as moms can be letting them go to find their own faith. What we long for for our children is an attainment of the heart, and no one is ever judged or lectured or condemned into changing their heart. We can respect our daughter's questions and doubts while we share with them our own questions and doubts and how God has "grown" our faith in the midst of these. We can encourage peer influence in youth groups and Young Life or youth leaders who give spiritual guidance that is often more easily heard from our children than from us. And we can pray that God will give us the faith to know --- heart and soul --- that our dear daughters are in His hands. Sometimes a genuine question about your daughter's developing faith (without responding lecture), an affirmation of the evidence you notice in her spiritual life, or your silence combined with a few nights of "praying without sleeping" (the mother's version of the Apostle Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing"), will be your most powerful mothering.

FR: Your chapters are sprinkled with quotes and aphorisms from a variety of sources --- eminent psychologists, spiritual thinkers, Scripture. Tell us a bit about how you choose these/find these, and what they have meant to you both in your role as a mother and in your role as a writer.

SH: My two teenagers, as well as the many adolescents I am privileged to know in my counseling practice, keep me alive to the world of adolescents. I listen to their music, hear their stories, watch their movies, and read all of their magazines. Being immersed in their world fills my heart with delight and doubt, with wonder and fear, with hope and sorrow. I look everywhere --- academic writing/research about adolescence, other mothers' stories, teenage memoirs and poetry, and mostly the stories and antics of my own children --- to learn all I can about teenagers and those who know them, help them and love them well.

FR: You speak frankly in your first chapter about how, despite your professional knowledge of adolescent girls, you found yourself challenged by your own mother-daughter relationship. When did you know that you had to write this book?

SH: My own mother's heart --- full of longing for my daughter to live her best life, to know her giftedness, find her own faith, develop her passion, serve others, and bring glory to the God who has made her so gloriously --- compelled me to write this book. Nothing derails females more from living gloriously than our emotions. Conversely, our emotions --- the height, depth and breadth of them --- can also become our strength if they are matured to be used for good and God.

FR: One of your most powerful chapters is on eating disorders, and part of this is because you encourage mothers to squarely face their own feelings about their bodies. Could you elaborate, please?

SH: As I report in my first book in the Hand-in-Hand Mothering series, MOM, I FEEL FAT!, 1 in every 4 adolescent girls is struggling with an eating disorder. This staggering statistic compelled me to ask, "Why?" Today we have more information about eating disorders than ever, we hear more celebrity stories, and girls talk freely at school about eating disorders. My conclusion, after research and interviews, is that today's moms have been on every diet known to man or woman, we know the fat content of every food, we spend more on plastic surgery than ever before, and we stand in front of the mirror and lament, "I Feel Fat!" Our daughters have a slim hope of developing a healthy body image and staying away from eating disorders if we do not confront our own issues, grow ourselves up, and develop a healthy relationship with our bodies and with food.

FR: Although you do deal with some issues relating to mothers, most of your focus is on how problems like anxiety, eating disorders and depression affect daughters. If a mother knows that she has a problem she has not surmounted (addiction, mental illness, a disease) that interferes with her parenting ability, what do you recommend?

SH: "MOM, I HATE MY LIFE!" will help mothers identify the areas where emotional immaturity or confusion has kept them stuck in unhealthy behaviors like an eating disorder or addiction or in the grips of unhealthy emotions, like anxiety or depression. This book will help moms understand the roots of their emotional development delay or paralysis and encourage them to do the necessary work to develop their own emotional maturity, which may include seeking outside help. This is work worth doing --- not only for our own sakes, but for the sakes of the daughters whom God has entrusted to us.

FR: How do you recommend readers approach your book --- should they read through and then go back to do the "Just For You" exercises, or should they read more slowly and do each exercise along the way? Does it matter?

SH: Mothers who read "MOM, I HATE MY LIFE!" can read this book in the way that best suits where you are right now in your mothering. You may need to devour it because you feel like you are in the middle of a hurricane and desperately need a way out. You'll find one or two handholds that resonate with you. Start there. Mothers of younger girls who are just beginning to ride the roller coaster of adolescent emotions may want to go slowly. Use the questions and exercises in the Just for You and Just for the Two of You sections to begin connecting with your daughter. Don't try to do it all at once. If one question or idea doesn't work, try another. Find what fits you and your daughter. Other moms who are alarmed by a specific struggle --- self-harm (like cutting), anxiety, or talk of suicide --- may want to go to that section first and get insight and ideas to address the immediate problem and then go back and lay a foundation for developing your relationship further with your daughter in the context of emotional development.

FR: In the chapter about suicide you discuss "satanic attack," and your thoughts may be controversial for some of your readers. You say, "'Maybe my daughter is under satanic influence' becomes a justification to hand off a child to someone who is deemed more spiritual or who specializes in child welfare." You are not willing to let mothers off the hook. You write, "When your daughter is depressed and thinking about suicide, she definitely needs prayer, but she also needs you." Please discuss.

SH: I am not an expert on "spiritual warfare" and certainly esteem and value the work of those who are. If you believe your daughter's emotional struggles are the result of Satanic attack and your mother's intuition as well as the nudging of the Holy Spirit guide you to seek assistance from these needed ministers, don't fall into the trap of believing you are unnecessary to your daughter's healing and recovery. Remember, God gave this girl to you --- to love, guide (and that means sometimes leading her to others who are gifted to help her in unique ways), and to STAY WITH HER through it all!

FR: At the end of the chapter on suicide you tell the story of a girl named Tamara, her suicide attempt, and the beginnings of hope for her in a struggle against depression. Here's another story: Recently a friend's daughter committed suicide while away at college. Mother and daughter, very close, were both strong Christians. There is another daughter, still at home. How should we help adolescent daughters deal with tragedy and grief (obviously I think, and hope, that your answer will involve some of the principles in your book)?

SH: When our daughters have friends or family members who commit suicide it is essential that we involve them in therapy that allows them to address the anger, hurt, "survival guilt" and questions. Offering our daughters understanding of the mental illness of depression and the extreme consequences that can result if this illness is not treated is a wonderful opportunity to share the necessity and joy of asking for help. This is the time to share our stories of when we have been in despair and asked for help and found the support and healing that comes from involving others in our lives.

FR: The chapter "Mom, I'm So Stressed Out!" is one of the first I've seen that gives full space and respect to the problem of anxiety. Why do you think it's so often overlooked?

SH: We are the most anxious culture to ever live on the planet. Statistics confirm that those seeking help for anxiety in the last year have increased SIX times. We live in anxious times. Because being "stressed out" is the norm, we sometimes overlook how anxiety can rob our lives of joy and productivity, can lead to debilitating depressive conditions, and can compel us to seek out self-destructive ways of self-medicating (like drugs and alcohol). I am passionate for mothers and teenagers to understand the biology of anxiety, to see how anxiety affects their quality of life, and to understand the many healthy means to treat anxiety.

FR: You give fantastic, practical and creative advice on honoring a daughter's privacy. For mothers who might be afraid to let go and give their daughters space, what would be your immediate advice?

SH: Dear mothers who want to be in control (and that is most of us!), remember you are not in control anyway. You can snoop and your daughter will get sneakier. You can keep her in her room, and she will pull away even further in her heart. You can try to find out every detail of everyday and every interaction in her life, and you will still not be in control. Mothering out of fear is the least powerful position from which to mother. But perfect love casts out fear. I'm not suggesting you love your daughter and naively overlook troubling behaviors and warning signs. I am suggesting you become skilled in direct, intentional connection with your daughter that uses negotiation, natural consequences and a passionate vision for her future. These skills are detailed and developed in "MOM, I HATE MY LIFE!" And rest a bit --- you are not in control. But there is One --- far wiser, loving and creative --- who is in control.

FR: At the end of this book you have I Corinthians 13 for Mothers of Teenaged Girls. When in your writing process did you compose this --- at the end, or at another time? What does your daughter think of it?

SH: My daughter, Kristin, and I wrote I Corinthians 13 for Mothers of Teenaged Girls when I finished writing "MOM, I HATE MY LIFE!" I read her the chapter, which includes stories about her crying, colicky baby days and her wonderful/tumultuous recent prom experience. I read a part of the Scripture and she helped me fill in our modern day version. She probably did not run to the computer to e-mail the completed version to all her friends, but she did print out a copy and tuck it into her journal. She could give me no more treasured gift than to take our co-authored words and keep them in the journal in which she expressed her fears, hopes, dreams and passions. The strand that connects us may grow thinner as she gets ready to graduate from high school and move toward greater independence, but it is a strong strand that tethers our hearts.

FR: What's next for you? Do you plan to write books for girls as well? If not, do you recommend certain books/authors for daughters to read about their relationships with their mothers?

SH: Next year my final book in the Hand-in-Hand mothering series will be available in bookstores. It is a book that is so needed and that I am very excited about --- MOM, EVERYONE ELSE IS: Becoming Your Daughter's Ally in Confronting Smoking, Drinking, and Drugs.

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