Parenting A Distant Teenager

Angie Dion, MFT, LMFT, Therapist

Posted by: Angie Dion
MFT, LMFT, Therapist

Have you found that your teen has been shutting you out lately? When you ask curious questions about their life, do you get a dramatic sigh and an eye roll as an answer? If your teen feels like a mystery to you and you are looking for ways to improve your relationship with them, read on.

It is developmentally appropriate for teenagers to begin to distance themselves from their parents as they get older. Your teen is trying to obtain independence while they are still dependent on you for basic necessities. Your instinct may be to confront them on their attitude or demand that they talk to you, however, this may not be the best way to maintain a relationship. It is hard to keep a teen close to you if their relationship with you is all about rules and consequences.

When deciding when and how to intervene with your teen remember to pick your battles. Not all of the bad choices your teen makes need to be a huge issue. Decide what the hot issues are for you and make those known. Teens gets used to hearing that they are doing a lot of things wrong. If that’s all they’re hearing from you, they won’t take you seriously on the things that really matter.

Figure out how your teen best expresses themselves. Does your teen like to draw, write or sing? Pay attention to what they spend their free time doing. This may be an in for you to learn more about them. Join them in these activities-   listen to their music and talk about it with them.  Ask questions about the latest story that they have written and ask to see their drawings. You will gain some insight into their world and also strengthen your connection this way. For the very shut down teen, sometimes driving to their appointments and starting off in the role of chauffer is enough.  Ask your teen to join you in the kitchen while you cook dinner, or join them at the table while they are doing their homework. Sometimes proximity and a consistent effort at spending time together are the very things that help to build a foundation for a relationship. Remember that openness takes time and also trust that over time you will have the moments that you are hoping for.

Listen closely when they are describing the most recent fight they had with a friend. Besides strengthening your empathetic and nonjudgmental skills, you can learn a lot about your teen’s conflict style. Do they tend to be assertive or more withdrawn? Do they internalize or externalize their feelings? Understanding how your teen deals with conflict with their peer group can help you to understand why your teen acts the way that they do when you are in a conflict together. Of course, parent child dynamics are always different than friendship dynamics, but these conversations can give you some insight as to what is happening with them. 

Try out activities together. This is about building your connection to your teen. Learning something new or taking a risk together will only have positive effects on your relationship. It’s an added bonus if you both have fun while doing it. Adults can be too serious sometimes, remember what it’s like to laugh with your teen. Also, give your teen some space to try new things. This is within reason of course. If they want to take an obscure class or dye their hair a funky color, consider letting them. If what they’re asking for is not going to harm them, is it worth it to get into a fight or power struggle over? 

Remember that what your teen needs from you the most is to feel like they can trust you. Gaining trust with a teen takes time and patience. You want to create an atmosphere of safety, leaving your teen feeling like they can come to you when they have something exciting to share or when they need to ask for your help. You want to leave your teen with the feeling that you can trust them and that you believe in them to make decisions that are good for them. This begins with you leading with curiosity, making it a priority to learn about what makes your teen tick and how they view the world around them.

Lastly, send a strong message that a relationship with your teen is important to you. Relaying this message is a good start, but also make sure to follow up that message with action. Make an effort to be around them and to take an interest in who they are by trying out some of the suggestions above. You’ll be taking steps in the right direction to build upon and strengthen your relationship.

If you find yourself still struggling and you live in the Philadelphia area, call 267-324-9564 to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists at the Center for Growth.