How to respond when your teen pulls away from you.

Dec 23, 2020

I have worked with many parents who are so saddened and worried when their teenager pulls back from them. These parents come to me because they are noticing that their teens are spending more time in their room, on their electronic devices, talking to friends, giving one-word answers, being angry, and/or are seemingly annoyed at the very presence of them. There are two common themes of responses I have noticed from parents who are experiencing their teen pulling back from them. Both are completely understandable, however, both usually result in teens retreating even further.


The first theme I notice is that parents become really frustrated or even angry at their teen’s lack of engagement with them. They feel like they are supporting and taking care of their teenager and that it is common curtesy for their teen to engage with them and respond to them. They are hurt and feel disrespected and are at loss for how to change their teen’s behavior.


The other theme I notice is that parents become concerned that their teen is pulling back, and therefore try to engage with them even more. They are worried or feel rejected so they try to initiate more conversations, go to their room to check on them more, ask them more questions about what is going on in their lives, and try whatever they can to get their teen to talk to them.


As I stated, both responses are not uncommon and are completely understandable when your child starts acting differently and is distancing from you. The problem with both responses, however, is that most teens withdraw even further. They either feel frustrated and angry that their parent is frustrated and angry or they pull back more because they feel smothered by the increased attention being placed on them.


Can you relate to either of these scenarios? If so, I can assure you that you are not alone. As a parent, you want to communicate with your teen, know what is happening in their lives, and know that they are okay. What is happening for your teen, however, is that they are trying to figure out who they are as an individual and to do that, they need to separate themselves from you, at least to some degree. You are the person who they have been most connected to and who they rely on the most. Because of this, they feel that they cannot grow into their own person if they don’t gain some emotional distance from you.


I know, this sounds backwards when all you want is for them to grow up and to be happy, productive members of society. You would support them and help them do this with only their best interest in mind, however, part of their developmental stage is to start to figure out some of this on their own. Even if they are pulling back, not communicating like they used to, and acting like they don’t want you around, what you should know is that they are acutely aware that you are there and that is important to them. Much of what is going on for them is unconscious. If you ask them why they are behaving the way they are behaving, the likely cannot explain it to you.


Unless you are concerned that they are engaging in dangerous behaviors or are at risk of making a mistake that could have significant and lasting consequences, it is okay to give them some space. You can do this while also making sure they are clear that you are there for them and that they are also clear about what behaviors are not acceptable. Being consistent, both in your presence and in your rules is comforting to them (even though they likely won’t tell you this). They often feel so confused and mixed up inside that having consistent rules and a consistent presence from you is much needed. They will know what to expect from you and they will know that you are there, which can help them feel more grounded while they are dealing with all the uncertainties that come with adolescence.


Below are some tips if you are concerned about your teen distancing themselves from you.


Be clear about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. If you have limits on screen time, want to eat dinner as a family, expect your teen to engage with extended family periodically, require chores to be done, etc., be clear that these things are not negotiable and have consequences for when these expectations are not met. Be sure to praise when they meet your expectations and also be sure to issue the consequences consistently when they engage in unacceptable behavior.


Be curious. When they do engage with you or want to talk to you about something going on in their life, try to be curious rather than immediately offering advice or being judgmental. The more you talk, the less they will. If you can listen and ask open ended questions that further the conversation, you will connect more. If they start to feel “lectured to”, they may shut down and not come to you the next time.


Stay calm. The reality is that at some point your teen will come to you, or you will discover something they have done that upsets you. If you want to keep them engaged in a discussion to fully understand the situation and why they did or said what they did, staying calm is very helpful. Sometimes arguing and yelling can be a diversion from what really needs to be discussed. You don’t need to agree, you can issue consequences, and you can be upset, however, if you remain calm and let them know that you are coming from a loving place, they will be more likely to come to you if they are in trouble in the future.


Take advantage of opportunities to have fun (even if they are rare). When possible, take advantage of opportunities to have fun, laugh together, and relive fun memories together. This may feel like a stretch if you are feeling like your teen has put up a wall, however, they are human and deep down they would rather experience joy and laughter then anger and unhappiness. This may also take some work, however, if you are attentive, you will find these moments. Maybe with a YouTube video, a movie or show, sharing about something that happened in your day, or reminding them of something you did as a family when they were young. If you can be lighthearted some of the time, it will help them see that they can do this as well.


Take notice of the good things. Even if you are having a really challenging time with your teen, let them know when you see them doing positive things. Even if they are small things that could go unnoticed, casually let them know that you noticed and/or appreciated something they did. They want to matter and even though they won’t tell you, your opinion of them is very important to them. Over time, you may see more positive things because they are looking for your recognition (even if they don’t consciously know it).


Make them feel special. I know this can be hard if you are feeling rejected by and/or frustrated with your teen, however, it can be really powerful. Out of the blue, make them their special meal or a special dessert. Surprise them with it and tell them that you just wanted to do something nice for them. Get them a card that tells them that you love them and leave it for them to read it private. Send them a text or direct message letting them know you love them or that you appreciate them. You know your teen best so try to think of something you can do out of the blue that would help remind them how much you care, even if you have felt tension or have felt them withdrawing from you.


I have seen many heartbroken parents dealing with this stage of adolescence. I have seen a mix of emotions and reactions from parents who are just worried and trying to understand what is happening with their teen and who want to be the best parent they can be. Feel free to check out my free parenting resources at How To Parent A Teen by clicking HERE. If you would like to consult about a specific behavior your teen is having, sign up for a free 30 minute consultation HERE.


Just know that you are not alone and that there is support for you if you feel you need it!

~ Karen

How To Parent A Teen

Restoring Peace of Mind During the Teenage Years

**As is always the case, if you have concerns for the immediate safety of your teen, seek immediate assistance from a medical or mental health professional.

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