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.