Parenting a teenager can be challenging — and oftentimes, downright scary.
We understand! It might feel like overnight, your sweet, snuggly child turned into a teenager that may want nothing to do with you. Your teen suddenly is much more distant than before.
Baleska Alfaro, licensed marriage and family therapist at CHOC’s Co-Occurring clinic, wants parents to know that feeling disconnected from their teens is not only common, but natural.
Here, Baleska answers parents’ common questions about why their teens may be distant and how to better their relationships with them.
My child and I used to be so close. What happened?
A normal part of adolescence (or the period following the onset of puberty during which a young person develops from a child into an adult) is the desire for autonomy, or independence, says Baleska.
From a young age, children are typically very tethered to their parents — and their identity is linked to their family of origin. But as children enter adolescence, they start to experience hormonal shifts and changes. These changes, coupled with social constructs and pressures to fit in, can lead teens to want to explore who they are — usually apart from their families. They want the independence and opportunity to find their own identity.
For parents, this developmental period can be challenging. You may feel anxious or scared that because suddenly your teen is not as open, or something may be wrong. They are not as communicative with you, and they may even be a bit secretive. In response, you may be tempted to push a little harder on your teen and probe more — which can create friction in your relationship.
How do I deal with my teen hurting my feelings?
Having hurt feelings or anxiety about your teen’s distance during this time is common, says Baleska. Adolescence can be a scary time for everyone involved!
You should normalize having feelings and anxiety about your teens’ new distance and behavior — it’s totally natural to miss your teen during this time. You might want to think about it and try to identify what specifically is bothering you about your teen’s newfound independence.
Then, you can look for ways to cope with that anxiety so that it doesn’t translate into your parenting. You may want to reach out to other parents or join a support group for help.
You might also find it helpful to talk about your feelings with your teen. You may say something like: “I know you think that I’m pushing you a lot. I’m only doing this because I’m a little nervous that you want this new independence.”
Having open, honest communication with your teen is important. When you can identify and talk about your own emotions, you are also teaching your teen to do the same.
What can I do to build a better relationship with my teen during this time?
It’s very typical for your relationship with your teen to shift and grow more distant during adolescence. However, there are some things you can do to show your teen that you are there for them and repair or build a stronger parent-child bond.
Consider the following when connecting with your teen:
Leave the door open for communication
Let your teen know that if they ever want to talk, you will be there to listen. Ensure that they know that if they want to share something about their lives or themselves with you, you will listen without judgment. Make sure they know that sharing will not lead to punishment on your part.
Respect their boundaries
It is very natural and a typical part of adolescent development for teens to want space to find their own identities. Try to give your teen the space to develop their own interests, opinions and identity.
Provide positive reinforcement
Something that I often hear from teens, says Baleska, is that they feel like their parents are always on their case, like they can’t do anything right.
Make sure to provide praise when your teen does engage in a desired behavior like taking out the trash or helping a sibling or family member with a task. You can also provide opportunities for your teen to earn things that they like for completing chores, doing well in school and following house rules.
By providing positive reinforcement like praise or small rewards when your teen engages in constructive behaviors, you increase the likelihood that your teen will continue to engage, more consistently, in behaviors that you want to see from them.
Be accepting of their friends
During adolescence, peer relationships become of utmost importance to your child. As they try to develop their own identity and autonomy, they will rely on friends to help them find who they are. So, it’s important that you keep an open mind when it comes to meeting your teen’s friends. Negatively judging your teen’s friends or making disapproving remarks about them might cause your teen to feel like you are also directly judging them — especially since these are the friends they chose.
Use shared control
Since adolescence brings about the need for a child to become more autonomous, you may find that your teen is less agreeable when being asked to complete a task or follow a direct command.
To help, try using shared control. Shared control refers to the intentional use of limited choices; if your teen is not agreeing to do the dishes “right this minute,” you can use shared control to have your teen pick which of the two tasks on their to-do list they would like to do first. In this scenario, you are still asking your teen to complete their task, but they get to choose the order in which they complete the chore — giving them a sense of control over their actions and reducing any potential for a power struggle.
Explore shared activities and family outings
Although your teen might scoff at the idea at first, having weekly outings as a family can be a great way to ensure your teen knows that their family is still their support system. The outing doesn’t have to be anything fancy; you could have a movie night or go out to dinner as a family. It’s important, though, to make sure the activity is leisurely and fun. Don’t use that time to talk about potential trigger topics like your teen’s grades or chores.
You might also try to identify shared interests with your teens. Maybe you both like to fish, do crafts or play a sport, and you can connect while doing an activity that you both enjoy. But just like with family time, use your shared time to enjoy each other’s company rather than having serious conversations about their behavior, etc.
Will my teen ever grow out of hating me?
There isn’t a specific age when teens will typically start to appreciate their relationship with their families more. However, I have noticed that some teens, says Baleska, start appreciating their family relationships more when they have settled into who they are and have experienced independence.
For some, it might take an experience like going away to college or moving out to spark that appreciation. Living on their own might be exciting, but also scary — so they start to value the relationship they have with their parents and the support they provide.
It’s important to remember that how you respond to your teen during this time will do wonders for your future relationship. Understand that it’s normal and natural for your teen to distance themselves, get the help you need as a parent and make an effort to build a strong parent-child relationship.
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The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.