Why your teen doesn't hate you, even if you think they do.
There is an age old saying in therapy: There are two ways to detach from a relationship- lovingly or angrily.
As a parent with a teen, you experience more of the anger side of their detachment from you and everything about you. Uhm, ouch! This can feel incredibly startling as a parent. One minute your listening to them vent about a friend, the next—you are in a silent cave filled with nothing but echoing silence. What gives? What just happened?!
And I totally get it, you can’t help but take your teen’s rejection personally. You just spent most of their life being close, knowing the ins and outs of their world. You know your teens strengths, weaknesses, achievements, dreams, goals, friend drama and how they are considering veganism as their new environmental policy. You have been there at some of their greatest and worst moments. You love them and always will, yet here you are feeling like a battered ol’ coffee mug that has been long forgotten in the back of the cabinet.
You have probably heard by now from all your friends, family, barista, that nice lady you walk past in the neighbor, another age old saying about teenagers: “It’s normal.” Or another version,“It’s a phase- they always come back, don’t worry.”
Yet there is another voice in the dark recesses of your brain, the devil with a pitchfork poking at you, whispering insidiously, “Will she/he/them come back...?”
So here is my response to you: Yeah, probably. It may take a minute. Be patient. Do not give up hope. It’s not a great feeling being that ol’ forgotten coffee mug left behind. In reality though, you’re more valuable then you realize just by being there in the cabinet. They know where you are. They know they can come to you and find you whenever they are struggling. You are reliable to them, and so important!
In research done by Dr. Lisa Damour, she discusses the ‘pool effect’ in teen and parent relationships which explains this feeling of rejection or dismissal, or the ‘hard push away’ from your teen at times.
Imagine you mom or dad reading this, that you are a pool. A big, beautiful, deep and at times shallowly amazing pool. You have sturdy walls to lean against and easy access to with a ladder or just by jumping in. Now imagine your teen swimming around in this pool. She/he/them are enjoying this newfound freedom and autonomy by swimming around without the parentals. They are loving it!
Then, suddenly, the teen swims into some unexpected deep waters and they freak out. The teen comes rushing to the walls of you. The sturdy, reliable and comforting embrace of a parent. You reassure them with a gentle hug, remind them that they are capable, cool, and amazing. This, naturally, eases their fear. But then, with a startle, the teen realizes that they just spent the last 20 minutes sitting on their parents’ bed, snuggling. Oh…no…! The teen practically runs away from the parent, often leaving with the same startling effect as they appeared, with a hard push away from the wall of the pool and back swimming on their own, without you.
This dance goes on for a while. Your teen isn’t saying by their indelicate actions that they don’t want, need, or love you. In fact, they do! They just don’t know how to communicate it well. This is a normal, developmentally appropriate process of being a teenager. They need to swim on their own and have the option come back to their parents when they need support.
Your job as a parent is to understand your evolving role as their mom/dad and to continue to be loving and compassionate to a teen that is figuring out how to be a good person with freedom, responsibility, and facing the new dangers and wonders of existence. Please, don’t take this normal teen reaction personally, even if at times, it’s hard to be so angrily pushed away from. Teens are messy. Adults are messy. If you can find just an ounce of grace and compassion around this messy, awkward, at times mean behavior- you are incredible.
Give yourself patience with your response as well. I don’t expect you to be the Dalia Lama in a neutral loving response. There will be days where being pushed away from is that final straw that breaks your back. My recommendations as a teen therapist are simple: Breathe. Walk away. Breathe some more. Be mindful of this behavior and be kind to yourself and your teen.
You got this Mom/Dad! Just keep swimming!