It’s common for tweens and teens to want to separate themselves from their parents. And teens assert their need for independence with clear signals; not wanting to be seen walking next to their parents in public, spending more time with their friends than their family, or heading straight to their rooms and closing the door when they get home from school.
This growing need for separation can be a hard adjustment. Why is it that teens push parents away just at a time when they need them more than ever? It’s because rejecting parents is a necessary – but TEMPORARY – part of development. It’s about the signals they receive from their bodies and brains that say they’re getting ready to launch into the world.
The Fundamental Question of Adolescence
Teens are working to answer a major developmental question, “Who am I?” To begin thinking of themselves as separate, they must start to see parents in a critical light. As they take necessary steps towards developing their individual identities, they may find parents irritating or embarrassing. Understanding this makes it easier to get through some of the more challenging moments of parenting teens.
When Brain Puberty Strikes
Parents take on the role of protector from the beginning. Part of that protection includes providing children with basic needs: shelter, food, education, and love. Think of parents like birds who’ve built a nest for their young. They line it with feathers to make it comfortable. They return often, bringing worms for their young to eat. The babies mature and all of a sudden, brain puberty strikes. And the teen brain starts signaling, “I’m going to need to get out of here and learn to fly on my own.”
Preparing for Independence
To prepare for takeoff, teens must begin to see their “nest” as uncomfortable. Their parents are a sudden source of embarrassment. And as puberty strikes, so does the realization that they’re getting close to setting out on their own. While they’ll miss their parents, they look back and see their homes as uninhabitable. And that’s a good thing! If they didn’t, they’d never go out and lead independent lives.
Forming a Separate Identity
In order to find their own identities, teens must have opportunities to see themselves as separate and different from their parents. “Who am I? I’m not you!” Adolescence is all about having new experiences, making new friends, discovering new interests and determining what they’re meant to do with their lives.
Supporting Teens as They Push Away
As teens continue pushing away, remember this is a temporary, but necessary phase of development. There will come a time when they appreciate you again! And while independence is certainly a goal, we want to build an interdependent relationship -- one that involves a mutual reliance on each other. One where teens know they can return home for frequent landings.
Here are five strategies to strengthen your relationship with your teen during this time. And keep in mind that teens are trying to answer complex questions that feel like putting together a 10-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.
- Create Boundaries: You don’t let a young child run into traffic just as you don’t let a teen get into a car with a driver under the influence. To keep teens safe, parents must set clear boundaries. Research tells us that young people are more likely to follow rules and stay within boundaries that are established to keep them safe or that tell them how to act in society. They aren’t as receptive to rules that infringe on their personal territory. Whenever possible, frame rules around your duty to keep them safe. Your boundaries must form the edges of the puzzle – the ones they can push against but must stay within.
- Role Model: Show teens what it means to be a healthy adult. Take care of yourself, eat healthy, don’t make decisions when you’re stressed, spend time with friends, bounce ideas off of others you trust. Teens are watching. Think of yourself as the picture on the front of the puzzle box. When teens lose their way, they’ll look to you for guidance.
- Allow for Trial and Error: Teens must be given chances to experience new things, even if it means making mistakes along the way. This is how they discover their strengths and limitations. It’s how they formulate their own sense of style, ethics, and values. Teen brains are wired to take in new information at a rapid pace and discard unnecessary information in a process known as pruning. But, the same chemicals are released when they play chicken on a busy road as when they try out for a school play. So, parents should encourage teens to take healthy risks that don’t jeopardize their safety. Think public speaking, entering a competition, joining a sports team, or reaching out to make a new friend.
- Equip Them With Coping Skills: Seeking answers to big developmental questions can contribute to stress.But parents can guide teens to learn effective coping strategies to counter stress such as deep breathing, mindfulness, exercise, getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and self-relaxation. The key is to equip them with a wide range of healthy ways to manage stress. You may even support them to create their own stress management plan.
- Trust in Their Abilities: Trust strengthens relationships. It conveys that you believe teens are capable. So trust them to problem solve. Be available if and when they need guidance. Let them bounce ideas off you. But don’t try to solve the puzzle for them!