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Warning: Extra hormones in the house

  • Article by: KRISTIN TILLOTSON
  • Star Tribune
  • March 24, 2012 - 6:30 PM

Who just slammed that door and burst into tears, mother or daughter?

As women wait longer to have children, their menopause is more often coinciding with the onset of puberty in their kids. The effect can be a lot more squabbling, and extra strain on the family as a whole. Depending on the volatility of the pairing, clashes can range from occasional flare-ups to constantly simmering conflict to complete meltdowns.

"It's the irritability factor, times two," said 45-year-old Chris Niederer of what she and her 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, are experiencing. "Everyone in the family is definitely aware."

Even though the Niederers, including father John, 16-year-old Zach and Michael, Madeline's twin, are a very open family, the key to getting along is "being really conscious of moods and realizing that some of it is internal stuff we can't help," said the Minnetrista mom, adding that many of her girlfriends are in the same boat: "We talk about how erratic and impulsive they are, but it's so much easier to see that behavior in them than in yourself."

Online discussions of the topic call the condition "hormone house" and "Mother Nature's practical joke."

The number of women having babies in their mid-30s has risen significantly in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1996, women age 20-24 had the most babies, followed by women 25-29. By 2010, women in their early 30s were having more babies (97 per 1,000 births) than those in their early 20s (90 per 1,000). Since menopause typically occurs between ages 45 and 55, that means a whole lot more clashing of reproductive stages in families nationwide.

Opposite sides of same coin

"Menopause and puberty are a lot alike, they're just going in reverse," said Dr. Donna Block, an Edina gynecologist with more than 25 years of experience. "One is ramping up; the other's ramping down."

Symptoms common to both cycles of hormonal upheaval -- on top of changing bodies, personalities and emotions -- include more susceptibility to depression, the need for more sleep, acne problems and greater appetite (not exactly the kind of mother-daughter sharing desired by either side).

The mythology in the past was that every menopausal woman acts crazy, said Dr. Gretchen Van Hauer, a psychiatrist for Allina Mental Health who has been practicing for nearly 25 years. Women began taking pointed exception to that notion during the women's movement in the 1960s and '70s, claiming no connection between menopause and emotional volatility. "Now I'd say the pendulum has swung to the middle between the two" attitudes, she said.

There's less stigma attached to both menstruation and menopause than in the past; a recent episode of the popular prime-time sitcom "Modern Family" featured a mom and her two teen daughters having what a little brother called their "monsteral" cycles at the same time. The dialogue poked fun at old stereotypes while acknowledging the reality that, yes, guys of the house, the ladies are going through something right now.

In real life, too, moms and daughters of this generation are much more vocal about what they're experiencing.

"I did not talk with my mom at all about any of this," Niederer said. "But I can with my family, not only with my daughter and husband, but my two teenage sons. We took those commercials about talking to your kids about drugs and applied them to everything else, too, like how our physical changes are affecting our emotions."

So how are dads dealing?

"One patient told me that her husband had plotted out on his calendar to schedule a bit more work when his wife was menopausal and his girls were having their periods," Block said.

"My husband is a pilot, so he gets his weekly break," Niederer said.

Short fuses, navel-gazing

Cathy Lutz of Eagan, 46, a former full-time teacher, has three children with her husband, Mike -- Karlie, 17, Hannah, 15, and son Jack, 13.

Lutz summarized the potent combination of menopause and puberty this way: "Puberty makes kids even more self-centered, and menopause makes mom's fuse get shorter," Lutz said. "We spout off at them for being the way they are, forgetting that we had a hand in that."

Life goes on between dust-ups, and compromises are made. Karlie agrees to at least think about using her own money to fill up the car with gas instead of borrowing mom's Sam's Club card, and Cathy says she'll stop posting on the girls' Facebook walls.

She adds one more factor, a poignant one, to the combustibility of the menopause/puberty mix.

"When your daughter gets her period, it's a huge tangible sign that your baby is changing and she's going to pull away from you as she becomes a woman herself. Of course there are times when I want them to leave yesterday, but it's really a hard break to make."

Keeping the peace: Possible?

You can't achieve total serenity. But you can prevent the household from becoming Nightmare on Hormone Street, say doctors and family therapists.

"Sometimes another member of the family needs to step in and say, 'You need some separation and space,'" Block said. "You go here, and you go there, and don't share it with the rest of the family."

You can't change your hormones, but you can change how you manage your feelings, said psychologist Bruce Fischer: "The first step is learning to recognize when you're being emotionally over the top."

Fischer, who has more than 30 years of family counseling experience in Minneapolis, says things are exacerbated by the fact that they usually occur around the time when parent-child relationships are destined to fray regardless.

"Kids are pushing for more autonomy at that age, and adolescent girls between the ages of 13 and 15 can be particularly mean to their moms," he said. "The moms are just worn out, and you have this collision of issues.""When they're in those intense emotional states, either leave them alone or just listen until they de-escalate. Ignore the content, which can often be illogical. Focus on what they're feeling, and remember that kids at this age sometimes need to win a conflict, or at least tie."

As for menopausal mom Niederer, she says she's lucky Madeline is generally even-tempered, and mature for her age. That way, she knows if there's an outburst, it's very likely to be purely hormonal.

"We can be emotional, but we still have to find ways to be respectful to each other," Niederer said. "We need to figure out when to deal with it, and when to walk away."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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