“I hate you!”
“You’re the worst parent who ever existed!”
“I can’t wait to move out!”
If you have recently heard these words (usually screamed at full volume, followed by the loud slamming of a bedroom door), you may be the parent of a teenager.
Only those of us with halos and wings are consistently able to respond to such statements with perfect compassion and sweetness: “I love you, honey, and I’ll be right here for you whenever you need me!” Parents are human beings, and as such we have a limited set of emotional reserves and resources, which can quickly become taxed by a raging or withdrawn teen.
In fact, although you love your child as much as ever, you may be struggling with feelings of intense hurt, anger, dislike, distrust, grief, anxiety, and loneliness. You may feel that although you love your teenager, you just don’t like him or her very much right now. It may feel at times that your teenager has his or her finger on every one of your buttons, and is pushing them … all at once!
What can you do when the very child you love and worry over appears to hate and reject you as a parent?
Teens are known for their emotional volatility. Unfortunately, when parents become as overwhelmed by negative emotions as their teens are, they are no longer in a strong position to be stable, loving, or helpful to the teen. In fact, the parents’ hurt and anger can easily add fuel to the fire and bring about a downward spiral that both parents and teens feel helpless to stop.
To say teenagers value their friends and social life is an obvious understatement. However, to family members around that teenager, it can seem as if by “choosing” to value their friends, the teen is showing the family that they no longer matter. Indeed, as illustrated by the quotes above, the average teenager may even say as much in the midst of an angry, hormone-fueled argument.
The traditional task of adolescence is to move away from exclusive identification with family and to explore the greater world outside of the home. Separation of the child from the parents is absolutely necessary and healthy at this stage. However, that separation must be counterbalanced by the availability of the parent to continue to meet the adolescent’s needs. Therefore, this is an extremely frustrating time for many parents. They feel as if the teen is pushing the parent away, only to pull the parent back whenever he or she “wants something from me.”
In order for the adolescent to explore the larger world in a healthy way, the home and family must be a sort of “home base.” This means the teenager needs to experience his or her family as stable, its identity as stable, its love and acceptance as unconditional, and its boundaries as safe and secure.
Understand that by focusing on his or her peers, your teenager is not rejecting you. Instead, the teenager is simply transitioning through an intense period of changes. The teen needs the family life to remain solid and secure, so that he or she can return to it for comfort and healing when the peer world becomes too intense or overwhelming.
Teenagers may often resemble adults physically, but socially as well as cognitively, they still resemble children much more than adults. We now know that the human brain does not fully mature until the mid- to late twenties. Executive functions such as prioritizing, consequential thinking, and evaluating options are still coming online. Furthermore, teenagers do not have the life experience, confidence, or savvy to navigate the complicated demands of life as adults do.
Because of these factors, it can be useful for parents to see past the bravado and the occasional glimpses of maturity that their adolescent displays; to understand that, inside, there still exists the child who has needs he or she does not have words to express, who cannot meet those needs independently of the parent.
The family itself is also moving through a transition period. They must move into a new life stage, with new roles for each family member. It can be difficult to feel entirely ready for these changes. Many parents of teenagers experience this time as a loss: the loss of the innocent and impressionable child they once knew and enjoyed; the loss of the role of all-knowing nurturer and protector.
Parents often report that they feel that “time is running out.” When your 5-year-old threw a temper tantrum, you knew as a parent that you still had “endless” years in which to heal relationships and correct behavior. When your child is 15, you understand that the years are not endless and that damage done to the relationship now may persist into your child’s adulthood.
Because the family is a “safe launching pad” for their forays into the larger world, teenagers move into and out of their family, and not always on the parents’ timeline. Your teen may refuse to join you for dinner, hiding out in his or her room; he or she may seem to eat, sleep, and shower with iPod headphones on. He or she may argue endlessly over attending important family functions such as weddings or funerals. And, just when you think the teen has disowned the family forever, there he or she is, curling up next to you to watch a movie or opening up from the passenger seat on a long drive.
Recognize your teenager’s attempts to reach out to you for what they are: The teen is looking for reassurance from you that he or she is still a part of the family; he or she wants to know that no matter what he or she screamed at you last week, you still love him or her. The teen needs to feel certain that if the “real world” becomes too scary, he or she still has a safe place to return. In order to practice being an adult, your teen needs to periodically return to being a child—and this will happen when you least expect.
Nobody said being the parent of a teenager is always easy, fun, or fair. As the adult in the relationship, it is you who holds the responsibility. It is you whose role, although different, is still most important in these last years of your child’s development. It is you who must keep the gates of the family open for your teen when he or she needs to reenter them.
Once you can view your teen’s behavior from this developmental context, you can depersonalize it. It is no longer about your teen’s rejection or manipulation; it’s an understandable and necessary stage in his or her journey to reaching his or her own, full potential as a young adult. It becomes easier and more natural to meet the ebbs and flows of your teen’s changing needs. Even when, sometimes, the need is for separation from the parent.
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kyle S. King, LMFT, LCPC, therapist in Lake Bluff, Illinois
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