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I Love You -- Now Go Away: The Push and Pull of Life with Teens

Teens need to grow up. And they also need our help. But can you foster independence and still keep them close?

By Margery D. Rosen

Flip-Flopper

When my son Michael hit puberty, he morphed into someone for whom, on any given day, "Hello, how are you?" might be too personal a question. Where once we'd been close, now he'd scoff at my opinions, dismiss my suggestions, and accuse me of yelling when I hadn't even raised my voice. Then he'd turn on a dime and leave a message on my cell phone just to say he loved me.

That scenario, as many parents know, is all too typical, and is usually accompanied by your teen's burning need to deny your very existence. The child who just a couple of years ago barely gave you space to breathe now refuses to be seen in public with anyone in the family -- especially you. Oh, and by the way, you've also transformed into the worst parent on the planet. Except if she needs someone to listen. Right this minute.

What is going on? She's breaking away, that's what. The "I'm becoming my own person" phase of growing up that can be as annoying, confusing, and even painful -- for kids and parents -- as it is necessary. "A child's struggle for independence is a cycle of pushing and pulling that gets repeated over and over again," says Larry Aber, PhD, professor of applied developmental psychology at New York University. "He has to test limits and experiment with separation from you." He moves away when he's able to cope -- then comes running back when life gets too scary. "The key developmental task for teens is to shape their identity and separate from their family," says Robin M. Deutsch, PhD, coauthor of 7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You -- and How to Talk About Them Anyway (Ballantine Books). The result is a molting process, during which they gradually shed dependency and prove to themselves, and to their parents, that they are now ready to make their own decisions and handle responsibility.

The problem is, their ability to reason, plan, and control themselves is still developing, says Deutsch. "So there's a constant battle between a teen's reasoning side and the part of the brain that controls the emotions." Usually emotions win. As a result, "kids this age often feel powerless," says child psychiatrist Ron Zodkevitch, MD, a member of Family Circle's Health Advisory Board. "Behind the rebellion and bravado lies a wellspring of insecurities." This, to put it mildly, can be difficult to live with. Staying close to a teen when she seems hell-bent on pushing you away requires patience and skill. But it is possible to guide your child through the breaking-away years without losing your mind.

Expect Surprises

What's Up with Your Teen It's a developmental fact: Every adolescent will zig one day and zag the next. "Teens want more autonomy and input into decisions that affect them," says Aber. "It may not seem as if they care about what their parents say, but research shows they do." They crave the freedom of growing up yet still have the need to stay safe, comfortable, and close to you. And while you may feel you have no clue as to what they're thinking, chances are they don't either, says Christy Buchanan, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

How to Deal Look at the big picture. After a particularly crazy day, Jennifer Satterwhite, a mother of a tween and two teens in Plano, Texas, forces herself to step back for a moment. "I ask myself, How are my kids doing in general? Are they growing up to be the kind of people I'd hoped they'd be?" And build in a healthy pause before you respond to the mood du jour so you can consider the underlying issue before you react.

Don't Take the Bait

What's Up with Your Teen When a kid can't stand the sound of your voice and would rather die than be seen in public with you, it feels personal, but it's not. Instead, it's a reflection of your teen's shifting of loyalty from you to his peers. "Though your child is trying hard to figure out who he is without you, subconsciously he still sees himself as an extension of you," says Aber. "Tweens and teens are acutely tuned in to what other people think of them, and worry that anything you do will reflect poorly on them."

How to Deal Yes, it's infuriating to have your ideas, rules, music, and just about anything else you can think of challenged nonstop. It's also hurtful, and seemingly silly, when your child goes to great lengths to avoid being associated with you or the rest of the family. But if that's what it takes for her to avoid unspeakable embarrassment, don't mock her feelings. Just go along. (Public displays of affection may be inexcusable, but a private hug is almost always welcome.)

As for the mouthing off, when your child comes at you with remarks like "I hate you!" or "Everyone else does it," don't react. Walk away and calm yourself before re-engaging your teen in a reasonable discussion. This doesn't mean you'll tolerate rudeness. Make sure your teen knows when she's crossed the line and why that's not allowed.

Value His Opinion

What's Up with Your Teen Kids are exquisitely sensitive to your attitudes toward and opinions about them -- especially whether you're respecting their budding autonomy. "Tweens and teens are very good at turning just about any run-of-the-mill conversation into a major battle," says Susan S. Bartell, PsyD, a psychologist and mother of a teen and two tweens in Port Washington, New York. "But the fights you're having aren't really about whether starting his homework before or after dinner is best. They're about whether he thinks you actually trust him enough to manage his own responsibilities."

How to Deal Solicit his ideas regularly: Where should the family go on vacation this year? Which computer should you buy? What movie should the family rent? Sometimes giving him the ability to choose is a lot more important than the choice itself. It signals that you value your child's judgment and opinion, and that you take his concerns seriously. Look for ways to work with him to ask the right questions so in time he'll learn to balance the rewards of doing something against the risks involved. Help him build good judgment by engaging in regular conversations about hypothetical risky situations. Ask things like, "What would you do if your friend put vodka in a water bottle and brought it to homecoming?" and talk him through possible scenarios. That way he'll get in the habit of thinking risks through.

Keep Her Close

What's Up with Your Teen When your daughter says you're ruining her whole life or challenges your rules on everything from curfew to clothing, it feels like she's personally rejecting you as her mother. She's not -- she's simply rejecting her status as a kid. And your trying to control her life only makes her more intractable, says Bartell.

How to Deal Stay firm, yet be open to new ways of doing things. "Teens who feel that their parents are usually fair and reasonable are more likely to stay connected than those whose parents draw a hard-and-fast line," says Bartell. When it comes to family traditions, keep the values but try to work around everyone's changing needs. "Our family has always done something together every week -- going to a movie, watching someone's soccer game, working together on a home renovation project," says Satterwhite. "The kids may squawk, but they know it's not optional." Maybe you can't have dinner together every night because your son's garage band can practice only at that time. Ask what he thinks would work instead -- maybe Sunday brunch. Then relax and enjoy.

Embrace the Space

What's Up with Your Teen If your child hides out in his room but is healthy and doing well in school, and has friends and outside activities, he probably just wants privacy. "In early adolescence especially, kids become secretive and don't share much information with their parents," says Bartell. "They want and need to make their own plans, choose their own friends, think their own thoughts. Not telling you everything -- or anything -- is their way to accomplish that."

How to Deal Feeling your teen distancing himself from you may tap your deepest insecurities, says Deutsch. On the one hand, you're happy he's becoming more independent, but you're also sad he's growing away from you. To reinforce your own self-esteem during this bittersweet time, focus on nonparental activities you find fulfilling and rewarding, so that you can make good use of all the time and energy you once devoted to child rearing.

Loosen Your Grip Gradually

What's Up with Your Teen Adolescents want and need to make their own decisions. It's the only way they'll take command of their lives. The problem is, they're still learning so they're not especially good at it.

How to Deal Kids have to take healthy risks and make mistakes. How much and how soon depends on age, temperament, and how they've handled responsibility in the past. Can you count on your 14-year-old to remember basic safety rules? Is he usually responsible? Then maybe he is ready to take the train or bus by himself. Yes, it's frightening, which is why parents instinctively tighten their grip during the teen years. "But," says Deutsch, "it's a mistake to make holding on to control your defining mission." Meet your child halfway by making privileges earnable. If your teen consistently comes home on time, consider extending her curfew an extra 30 minutes for special occasions. The more trust your teen banks, the more freedom you'll give her.

Even if you disagree with your teen's bid for independence, show respect by listening, not lecturing. Say, "I'm impressed by the way you've worked out a plan for the concert, but I still don't think it's a good idea." If you give him a chance and he messes up, resist the urge to slip into I told-you-so mode. State your case once, then drop it. Chances are he's learned a lesson.

Grandparents Can Help Too
Encourage your tween or teen to build relationships with trustworthy adults -- grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, or friends -- who share your values, says Dr. Zodkevitch. Another adult can provide a relationship with less emotional baggage and can act as a mediator in parent-child disputes.


Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the December 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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