When your teen pulls away

As your child becomes more independent, it's normal for her to put distance between you and her. Learn how to give your teen the space to spread her wings, but still remain close.

By Christine Langlois

Gaining independence

Developing his adult identity is your teenager's priority. And along with that identity must come autonomy. As your child pushes to become more independent, it's normal and natural for him to put distance between you and him. Your teen wants to leave behind his preteen identity, and he's likely to show less interest in family activities and more need for privacy. If you invade his privacy, he may tell you to stay out of his business. It's quite natural for you to feet hurt, confused, or frustrated by these efforts to pull away. It's unsettling when a gulf begins to develop between you and your child and changes your relationship.

For argument's sake
As part of their search for identity, teens often experiment with different ways of being. They try on different personas, behaviours, and beliefs that may be exactly the opposite of those of their parents. In the process of finding and defining herself, your daughter may adopt political and religious beliefs or hairstyles and clothing that seem outrageous or offensive to you. You might even apply those terms to your teens' friends and their conversations.

Try not to take these actions or beliefs personally or as criticisms of your own lifestyle and beliefs. Although it's normal to feel some resentment when your child makes critical judgments, it's important to see her experiments as a necessary part of her development. A hypercritical, idealistic teen may label as hypocritical the compromises that her parents make in life. The challenge for both of you is to find ways to debate and acknowledge your differences without being dismissive and disrespectful of each other's opinions.

That's not easy when your sixteen-year-old son makes snide, sarcastic comments about your boring job. You may be tempted to snap back about how much time he wastes at the mall. You may disagree about many things - business, politics, the environment, or music - but listen to each other's point of view, acknowledging that you might learn something new. Or at least agree to disagree rather than push each other's buttons until you get into heated arguments.

Separate, but not disconnected
Healthy rebellion does not mean that a child wants to completely break the connection with his parents. In fact, as parents, you remain the single most important force in your teen's life. The goal of parent-teen relations is to find new ways of connecting that acknowledge the teen as a different, self-defined person. There is a huge difference between a teenager who separates from his parents to create more space to grow and one who becomes totally disconnected.

Adolescents need to push against their parents in order to break free of the container of childhood, but they also need to retain the connection with their parents in a way that's appropriate for adolescence. If you can find ways to make that sometimes elusive connection work, you help your teen develop into an independent person.

Stay involved
Being connected to your teen means knowing what's going on in his world without being too intrusive. If you take a rigid approach that doesn't give your child the scope to become his own person, you may rupture your relationship. The opposite approach - letting your teen do as he wishes without setting any limits, without providing any direction, and without maintaining your emotional connection-will have the same result, especially if your teen interprets it as a sign that you don't care.

It's the parent-teen connection that keeps your teen grounded as she grows and develops, that allows her to try her wings with a family safety net around the nest, and to test herself in her expanding world. This constant moving out to the new and back to the familiar helps her define herself. She'll feel safer when venturing out if she has the security of your known values and limits to refer to and push against. It's this connectedness, the knowledge that you love and care about her, that is an essential ingredient of the resiliency that a teen needs in order to cope when her behaviour goes awry.

Page 1 of 2 -- Learn how to cope with a teen's mood swings and how to give them your emotional support on page 2

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