I see a lot of angst in my job. It comes with the territory when you do family therapy. But sometimes, the turmoil is simply caused by the passage of time. It seems like such an innocent thing because it happens to everyone, but eventually, children become teenagers.
(How many parents out there just gulped?)
Let’s face it, the teenaged years throw even the most prepared and flexible parents for a loop. Your kids seem to completely change. One day, they’re trying to be like you and make you happy; the next day, they’re saying they hate you and you’re the worst parent evvvvvvvvvver. (If you haven’t heard a teenager drag out a word to make a point about how “lame” you are, just wait – it’s going to happen.)
Parents, you’re not going through this alone. Many parents feel disconnected from their teens because the relationship changes so dramatically, and they don’t understand why. Simply put, it’s a teenager’s job developmentally to create their personality separate from their parents. They pull away from parents because they’re supposed to pull away from parents.
They still need you, of course. Teens need rules and boundaries as much as when they were younger. In fact, three-year-olds and teens are a lot alike. Watch a three-year-old at the park; he’s happy playing, but he also glances over to make sure Mom or Dad is there. He knows they’ll protect him – for example, they won’t let him run into the street – so he feels safe when they’re around. Teens look to parents for the same thing, but they’re operating in a much bigger “park.” They still want and need parents to be in charge, but they’re not going to thank parents for the effort. In fact, teens are likely to rebel against it while knowing intuitively it’s exactly what they need. Deep down, they see consistent rules and boundaries as proof that you still love them.
At the same time, teens also need enough freedom to explore the world around them, how it works, and who they are in it. Teens need to make mistakes so they can learn lessons. They need to experience success as a result of their own efforts. And they need to develop relationships separate from the family. Parents often feel threatened, even rejected, when teens invest so much effort into friends, but it’s a natural part of growing up. It helps to remember that when teens navigate their small part of the world, they’re learning how to navigate the much bigger world when they’re adults.
I remember a story from my first psychology professor in college, who also doubled as the school’s baseball coach. One of his players said to him, “We like you because you’re not just a coach. You’re our friend.”
“I’m not your friend,” the coach said. “I’m friendly. There’s a difference.”
That’s the parent’s role with teens as well. Our first job as parents is to make sure our children make it to adulthood feeling safe, secure, and confident that they can operate in the world. So sometimes it’s our job to make them mad, and sometimes it’s our job to listen to how much they hate us. That cuts deep occasionally, but it’s part of the process.
In time, it will get better. Ben Franklin once said his father got a lot smarter between the time Ben was 15 and 25. Of course, his dad didn’t really get smarter. Ben just became more aware.
Don’t worry. That should happen for you, too.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy. His practice, Grody Family Counseling, is located in Worthington, Ohio. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment, call Carl at 614-477-5565.)