When your children are young, their lives revolve around family. They come to you for comfort, guidance, reassurance and safety—for almost everything. Then they reach adolescence, and family takes second stage as their peers become the center of their attention. They engage with you less. They roll their eyes at everything you say. They spend the majority of their waking hours in their bedroom with the door closed only to come out for food or water.
A colleague of mine hears it often, “My daughter spends so much time in her room. It’s like she’s trying to avoid me.” Or, “All I get are one-word responses from my son. It’s like pulling teeth to have a conversation with him.” These parents worry their kids want nothing to do with them.
There is an evolutionary reason for the distance adolescents put between themselves and their family. From an evolutionary perspective adolescence is a time to mature, find a peer group, and even begin mating. It was a time to prepare to leave the tribe. While humans have evolved and kids live with their parents longer than they have historically, their brains and bodies are still living in the past. Their peer groups are their future, and they act accordingly.
The teenage brain is highly attuned to oxytocin, which makes social connections feel increasingly rewarding. The relationships they create at this age feel important. And they require a degree of privacy. But that doesn’t mean they want to write you off entirely, despite what their behavior tells you.
How is a parent to connect with a teen who constantly gives the side eye? In a word, mindfully.
Give Your Teen Space
When my own daughter went from hanging out in the living room to wanting to be alone in her bedroom, I had to respect that natural withdrawal. She needs some space to help her prepare for eventually leaving the house and being on her own. Barging into her room every 15 minutes to check up on her will only drive a wedge in our relationship.
But Don’t Give Up Family Time Altogether
Family time is still important. A great way to connect is to eat dinner together as much as possible. Even 20 minutes together talking about your day can make a difference in how your child feels seen. Put away the phones. Turn off the television. Just spend some time asking them questions and listening. Don’t judge, scoff or try to solve their problems—JUST listen.
Notice When Your Teen Is Most Open
Take note of when your teen is open to connecting. Perhaps it is later at night before they go to bed. Maybe they are more open to chatting in the car on the way home from practice. Maybe you have a teen who will do just about anything for a trip to Starbucks. Try not to let your own distractions rob you of these opportunities. Think about times when they are most open and be intentional about being present for them during those times.
Don’t Take it Personally
It’s not about you. Your teen is going through an emotional and sometimes confusing time of life. Teens don’t always understand their emotions, much less how to handle or communicate them. Don’t take it personally. Your teen’s outburst, “You don’t understand me!” is, in part, their own difficulty in understanding themselves. That doesn’t give them the right to be rude, but it might help you to not get so upset yourself.
Find Common Ground
My daughter is currently obsessed with the television show This Is Us. We have created a Tuesday date night around it. Truth be told, I don’t even like the show that much, but I know she enjoys the fact that it has become “our show.” We kick the boys out of the family room and watch—and often cry—together. We also have a standing lunch date every weekend, just the two of us. She opens up to me during these times, and even reminds me that we need to go to lunch again when we’ve missed a couple weeks.
When to Seek Help
If your teen seems withdrawn to the point that you’re worried, or sad to the point of having trouble finding simple joys or staying focused on everyday tasks, or if you notice new behaviors that are perplexing, seek the advice of a therapist. Talk to the other adults in your child’s life—teachers, coaches, etc., and see if they have concerns. Always better to err on the side of caution if you are worried.
Warmly, Kristen Race
and the Mindful Life team.
P.S. If you’d like to discover how parenting can feel less like a struggle and more like a privilege, add your name to the wait list for the next Foundations of Mindful Parenting course. (You’ll get a sweet deal too!)