How to Respond When Your Teen Wants Space

Adolescents and teens have a natural tendency to want to separate from their parents and seek psychological autonomy. No matter how great a parent you've been, at some point, your teenager will pull away from you. The good news is that this is totally natural.
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Teenage girl sitting apart from grandmother on bench, arms folded, looking down
Teenage girl sitting apart from grandmother on bench, arms folded, looking down

All parents reach that point when they hang their head in their hands and lament, "My kid hates me." For most parents, this moment either happens for the first time or a lot more often when their child reaches adolescence. Adolescents and teens have a natural tendency to want to separate from their parents and seek psychological autonomy. No matter how great a parent you've been, at some point, your teenager will pull away from you. The good news is that this is totally natural.

Separating from their parents is part of a process of self-realization that helps kids determine who and how they'll be as individuals and adults. In this stage, friends and peers become more important and parents seemingly less so. For parents, this can be a hard pill to swallow, but what we'll find is that like so many parts of parenthood, this is NOT about us; it's about our kids.

So much of how we treat our adolescents and teenagers has more to do with us than with them. We see ourselves in our kids, and they stir up a lot of old pain that we've long shelved in our memory. We project our own history onto their future and assume they'll repeat our mistakes. We even tend to see our kids as a reflection on us and add extra pressure on them to do better than we did or to not slip up. As parents, we do our kids a disservice by failing to separate our experience from theirs. The more we can see them and respect them as autonomous individuals, the more we can be available for them in the unique ways that match their needs as opposed to ours.

Although it's a real challenge when our kids, who still depend on us in many ways practically, are pushing back from us emotionally, the best thing we can do to balance this transition is to put ourselves in their shoes. We should always aim to respect their opinions, ideas and boundaries with the goal of understanding what they're going through and being sensitive to their new, shifting needs. Here are some of the most essential ways we can continue to support our kids in this trying phase of our relationship:

1. Recognize that it is not about you. Teenagers can say some pretty hard things to hear. Though these statements can be extreme, there's often some truth to them that can make them all the more painful. Our kids have spent their entire lives as our spectators. All that time we thought they were oblivious, ignoring or forgetting, they were actually noticing, observing and absorbing. The answer when they start to voice their opinions about us, or even lash out, isn't to hate them or to hate ourselves. Although we should definitely interfere with any hurtful behavior, letting them know it's unacceptable to be abusive to anyone, if we want our kids to deal with their feelings in healthier ways, we must be open to their feedback. That may mean hearing some unpleasant things about ourselves. It may mean taking them seriously when they say they no longer want us texting them 10 times a day or coming in and out of their room without knocking. In response, we should try not to be defensive and accept the ways we may hurt our kids even though that's far from our intention.

Once our kid reaches adolescence, it's easy to feel like we've switched roles, and they have the power. We may feel like we're being mistreated or ruled by the strong willed, opinionated person who was once a helpless baby in our arms. We may even feel jealous of our kids and the fresh spark they have toward life. At this point, we may tend to feel victimized and indulge thoughts like, "Were we really that bad?" "Can't she just forgive me?" "Why doesn't he understand everything I've done for him?" However, it isn't our kids' job to take care of us and make us feel better. That's our job.

Of course, we all want our kids to be compassionate, caring people, but we teach them that by being compassionate and caring ourselves and not by denying their natural, angry feelings that arise. There are plenty of ways to help kids learn that all their feelings are okay, but that nasty behaviors are not. We can offer them the space they need to feel what they feel and get through their feelings with strength and resilience. Many of these tools are taught in Dr. Daniel Siegel's book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, a book meant for both parents and teenagers.

2. Don't overstep boundaries or over control. It's reasonable to worry about what kind of adults our kids will grow up to be, especially in that profound period when a child is transitioning to adulthood. We worry even more about their future, the kind of job, partner or degree they'll have, because all of a sudden, that future is rapidly approaching. As a result, we may make a bunch of unrealistic rules that make our kids feel untrusted or intruded on, and we resist letting them learn for themselves. A lot of these rules and reactions may have more to do with what makes us feel comfortable than making our kids feel truly seen and safe. A teenager's desire to rebel can often ignite our desire to control. However, over-attempts to control generally backfire in a big way.

When we start assuming our kids will make bad choices, we may implement restrictions that make them feel punished simply for coming into adulthood. When we label a lot of their natural, developmental behaviors as bad or unacceptable, we teach our kids to sneak around and hide from us. As Dr. Siegel wrote, "Adolescents who are absorbing negative messages about who they are and what is expected of them may sink to that level instead of realizing their true potential."

It's hard advice for many parents to take, but sometimes we have to let kids be. We can still keep them safe by noticing their mood and familiarizing ourselves with their activities, friends and how they're doing in school. While we shouldn't make too many rules, we should stand by the ones we do make. By creating natural, realistic boundaries, we can keep them feeling secure, while offering them the space and respect they need to develop.

3. Be there when they reach out. Giving our kids space does not mean rejecting them altogether. Adolescents and teens still need a lot of guidance and support, and they should always know that we're there to talk to them and help them work though the many hurdles that arise. This means being open to whatever they want to discuss. We should never punish our kids for the times they've rejected our help and should always respond when they come toward us. We can be present for them in a calm, consistent way that lets them know we are 100 percent there if ever they're in trouble, want our input or desire our help. They may not need us as much as they used to or for the same reasons, but that doesn't make our dedication or love any less.

4. Make sure they have other caring and trustworthy adults they can turn to. As parents, we often want to be "the one" our kids go to for any problem or issue. We tend to take our kids' rejection as a personal slight or an attack on our ability to parent. But again, this isn't about us. When our kids feel awkward, ambivalent or resistant in relation to us, it is our responsibility to make sure they have other supportive figures in their lives to whom they can turn. The presence of a mentor -- be it a teacher, counselor, aunt, uncle, grandparent, step-parent or family friend -- should not be seen as a threat to us as parents but as a gift in our children's lives. Think of it as yet another force helping them navigate the tricky and tumultuous waters that take them into adulthood. Allowing them to have that relationship is an example of us doing our job as caring, attuned parents.

5. Be open-minded. We may not feel all that comfortable with the idea of our teenager talking about dating and crushes. We may cringe at the outfits they want to wear or the parties they're now begging to attend. However, we have to accept that these interests are a part of growing up. Making a bunch of rules they're bound to break or that they'll completely rebel against the minute they move out is probably not the answer. Neither is denying or ignoring the whole business and wishing it would all just go away. It's better to be open with our children about their experiences as well as our own. We have to find a way to push past our own discomfort and leave the pathways of communication open for topics they bring to the table. We can inform them of what they need to know and help them feel the value and respect they should have for themselves as they enter an adult world. We do this by valuing and respecting them as individuals in their current lives.

Ideally, from the time our children are born, raising them becomes a series of nurturing weening experiences, in which we're sensitively helping them evolve into strong, self-sufficient adults. Through these inevitable developmental stages, we can expect our relationship with our kids to change and certain phases to come and go. All kids need more and more independence as they grow older. At its best, this evolution can be yet another rich, rewarding lesson in what it means to love a growing human over time. At its worst, it can feel like we're repeatedly losing something or being forced to relive all the big and little traumas of our own childhood. That is why we should always strive to remember that the very best thing we can do for our kids is work on ourselves, to divorce their needs and experiences from our own and accept them for who they are as separate and unique individuals.

Hear more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on parenting:

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