Parents, have you ever had an experience like this? You’re standing in the kitchen, it’s a beautiful weekend morning, and your teenager strolls in and begins rummaging through the pantry. You admire and love your kid and sincerely ask, “How are you doing this morning?” Instead of getting what you might consider a normal human response, you receive a glare that could turn a giant to stone. “I’m fine,” replies your teen in a monotone voice. Then comes a quick huffing, stomping, and under-the-breath comments about minding your own business. You’re left confused and wondering what the heck just happened. Well, you’re not alone!
While long term depressed or grumpy moods are not normal for teens, there is something pretty common about the scenario I mentioned. I know you have probably heard this before, but it is so very normal for your teen to pull away from you. I’ve heard many parents and teens describe what we call the ‘pursuer – distancer’ dynamic. This involves the teen slowly disclosing less and less to their parents about their thoughts and feelings, and then parents seeking desperately to find new ways to connect. Sometimes these tactics work briefly, but for the most part, teens know what the deal is and shut down even more.
So, what the heck is happening with your teen? When we think of adolescent development there are several key changes that happen, and no, I’m not just talking about hormones! The brain is growing immensely, increasing its capacity to problem solve and learn novel ways of engaging with others in the world. Teens experience a shift in their need to be close to their parents; instead, they feel drawn to their peers and want to figure out who they are and what their purpose is in life. If we don’t allow them to separate a little and make decisions, good or bad, they will never learn how to function independently in the world. That means giving a little bit of space for them to process their feelings and thoughts without knowing the details.
And, you know what? Giving teens space also gives them room to come back closer to you.
How do we do this, you ask?
Tips & Tools:
- Be consistent with offering opportunities for them to spend time with you, but don’t force it.
- When they open up, don’t try to fix the problem for them. I repeat, do Not try to fix the problem for them. As parents, this is such a natural reaction. Of course, you want to help and solve problems, but this is not what your teen needs right now. More than anything, they need you to listen and not talk. Developmentally, this is the time for them to learn how to find their own solutions. So, validate where they are coming from, and tell them you are available if they want to talk again.
- Love unconditionally: This may take some adjustment if it hasn’t always been the norm in your family. Remember, unconditionally means you love them even if they fail their classes (it’s not your problem!), even if they say they want to join the circus (it’s not your job choice!), even if they shave their head and paint their nails bright purple (it’s not your body!). This isn’t to say you can’t hold boundaries and keep them accountable. But make sure to give them space to sometimes make their own decisions and to even screw up every now and again, and then show them that you love them anyway.
- You’re probably stressing out over #3 now, so remember to get a support system for yourself and take care of your own emotions and overall health. Many parents find themselves grieving the loss of their children being little and dependent. Allow yourself to grieve this change. It’s normal to miss what was. As your teen grows, you’re moving into another phase of life too. Let yourself feel your feelings about all of this, and make sure you have your own support to help out.
Adolescence is not without its challenges, but it can be a time of great achievement and growth for your teen. We are setting our young people up for success when we give them the platform for developing their own sense of self and identity. They may seem to be drifting away right now, but if they know there’s a safe and consistent place to return to, then they’ll likely come back to you when they’re ready. And, the relationship with your adult children can be so rewarding!
By Seija Zimmerman