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Understanding Why Teens Push Parents Away and How to Rebuild Your Relationship

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Have you ever felt the sting of your teen pushing you away?

It’s a heart-wrenching experience that leaves many parents feeling confused and hurt. Today, I’m here to help you understand why this happens and what you can do to reconnect.

I’ve been there myself. When my son Patrick was a senior in high school, he started to distance himself, and it felt like my world was crumbling. He was caught between wanting to be independent and the comfort of home. Every time I tried to help or offer advice, he shut down or snapped back. It was incredibly painful, and as a child psychologist, I felt helpless.

I also recently worked with a mom who felt disconnected from her tween daughter. She tried everything—movie nights, shopping trips, casual chats—but was met with cold shoulders and eye rolls. She felt rejected and heartbroken, much like many of you might be feeling.

Can you relate? Do you feel like every attempt to connect with your teen is met with resistance? If so, you’re in the right place.

In today’s post, I’ll dive into why your teen might be pushing you away and share actionable strategies to improve this dynamic. This isn’t your fault, and with a few adjustments, you can strengthen your relationship. Let’s get started and move towards a healthier, more connected relationship with your young person.

Understanding the Dynamic: Why Teens Push Parents Away

First, let’s talk about why this dynamic happens. During adolescence, teens go through a phase known as the quest for independence. This is a crucial part of their development, where they start to form their own identity separate from their parents. Think back to when you were a teenager. Remember that burning desire to carve out your own path, to prove that you were capable of making your own decisions? That’s exactly what your tween or teen is going through right now. They’re hardwired to seek autonomy and independence, which often manifests as pushing parents away.

The Quest for Independence

Now, I know it feels personal, but it’s not about you. It’s about their need to assert themselves as individuals. This is a normal and necessary part of growing up. Understanding this doesn’t make it any less painful, but it might help you feel less hurt and confused.

Attachment Theory and Teen Behavior

Attachment Theory, developed by John Bowlby, explains how the bonds we form with our primary caregivers in early childhood impact our relationships throughout life. Secure attachment in early years lays the groundwork for healthy relationships later on. However, even securely attached teens will push boundaries as they strive for independence.

Conflicting Needs

What’s fascinating is how this quest for independence can conflict with their need for security and attachment. Your teen might want to distance themselves to feel more grown-up, but they still need your love and support. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Real-World Examples

To illustrate this, let’s revisit my story about my son, Patrick. As a senior in high school, he was torn between spreading his wings and the comfort of home. This conflict often resulted in him snapping back at me or shutting down when I tried to offer advice. Patrick was confused by his own conflicting emotions, and I became his “safe person,” his emotional punching bag. Understanding that Patrick’s behavior was part of his natural development helped me not take it personally. It wasn’t that he didn’t value my input; he was just trying to assert his independence while navigating new emotions.

Similarly, think about the mom I mentioned who felt disconnected from her tween daughter. Her daughter’s cold shoulders and one-word answers were a classic example of asserting independence. The mom felt hurt and confused, wondering what she did wrong. By understanding that this behavior was part of her daughter’s development, she approached the situation with more empathy and patience.

How This Helps You

By understanding that your teen’s behavior is not a rejection of you but a natural part of their development, you can approach the situation with more empathy and patience. Recognizing that their push for independence is a sign of growing maturity can help shift your perspective. Instead of seeing their distancing behavior as a personal slight, view it as an opportunity to support their journey toward becoming a confident, independent adult.

Remember, even though they’re pushing you away, they still need your support. It’s like a dance—sometimes they’ll want to be close, and other times they’ll need space. Being tuned in to their needs and responding appropriately can help maintain a strong, positive connection during this stage.

Common Triggers for Teens Pushing Parents Away

Understanding these triggers can help you address them more effectively and improve your relationship:

  • Need for Autonomy: One of the most significant triggers is the teen’s need for independence. As they grow older, they want to make their own decisions and assert their individuality. When they feel like you’re trying to take away their independence or choices, they may distance themselves to regain that independence.
  • Peer Influence: Friends become incredibly important during the teenage years. Teens may push parents away as they align more with their peer group. This can create a sense of exclusion for parents, but it’s a normal part of social development as your young person learns to navigate the social world.
  • Conflicts at Home: Ongoing conflicts or misunderstandings at home can lead to teens withdrawing. Whether it’s disagreements about rules, academic pressures, or sibling rivalry, these conflicts can make home feel like a battleground, prompting teens to distance themselves emotionally and physically.

By recognizing and understanding these triggers, you can respond to your teen in ways that support their development while also maintaining a positive parent-child relationship. It’s not about eliminating these triggers but navigating them with empathy and patience.

While it might feel like your teen is shutting you out, understanding the reasons behind their behavior can help you stay connected. You’re not losing them; you’re supporting their growth and helping them become the best version of themselves.

Reassuring Parents: It’s Not Your Fault

So far, we’ve discussed how this behavior is a normal part of adolescent development and how teens are biologically hardwired to go through a period of disconnect with their parents. But knowing this doesn’t make the experience any less heartbreaking. It’s natural to feel hurt when your once chatty and affectionate child suddenly becomes distant.

As parents, we pour our hearts into raising our kids and teens, and when they start to push us away, it can feel like a personal rejection. It’s easy to start questioning yourself and your parenting. You might wonder, “What am I doing wrong?” or “Why doesn’t my teen want to be around me anymore?” These feelings are valid, and it’s important to acknowledge the emotional toll this can take on you. The constant worry and self-doubt can be overwhelming, leaving you feeling helpless and sometimes even resentful.

Addressing Common Myths

Because I work with many parents at my practice, I hear a lot of myths about the parent-child connection that are just not helpful if you believe them. These myths can add unnecessary stress and guilt to an already challenging situation. Let’s dive into three common myths and debunk them.

Myth 1: If My Teen Pushes Me Away, I’m a Bad Parent: Many parents believe that if their teen is distancing themselves, they must be doing something wrong. This just isn’t true. Teenagers pushing away is a normal part of their development, not a reflection of your parenting skills. Think of it like this: when toddlers start to walk, they need to let go of your hand to take those first independent steps. Similarly, when teens push you away, they are trying to take those first independent steps into adulthood. It’s their way of testing boundaries and asserting their independence. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent; it means you’ve given them a safe base from which they can explore their independence.

Myth 2: Good Parents Don’t Have Conflicts with Their Teens: Let me share a story with you. One time, a parent of one of my daughter Belle’s friends made a comment to me that blew my mind. She said, “It must be nice to have a perfect relationship with your daughter.” On the outside, she was only seeing me and Belle at our best, during school events or gatherings. What she didn’t see were the times when I felt disconnected from Belle, when we had arguments or misunderstandings. Even as a child psychologist, I have moments where I make mistakes and feel lost in my parenting journey.

There were times when Belle would come home from school and barely say a word to me, or when she would get frustrated over something I said. I remember feeling just as worried and confused as any other parent. It’s important to understand that all parents experience conflicts with their teens. Disagreements and challenges are a natural part of parenting. What’s important is how you navigate these conflicts and work towards understanding and resolving them. By working through these challenges together, you’re teaching your teen valuable life skills like problem-solving, empathy, and communication.

Myth 3: Teens Don’t Need Their Parents’ Support and Guidance Anymore: While teens may seek independence, they still need their parents’ support, guidance, and love. Let me tell you about a teen I worked with at my practice. She and her mom got into a few blowout fights, which resulted in both of them avoiding each other as much as possible at home. They didn’t like to be in the same room together, they only spoke one or two-word sentences to each other—and only when it was necessary. On the outside, it looked like this teen couldn’t care less about her parent. But in our sessions, this teen would tell me how hurt she was that her parent didn’t seem to care anymore. She wanted a good relationship with her mom, but just didn’t know how to repair it after those fights.

We worked together in my office to have some important conversations, and slowly but surely, their relationship began to improve. The point here is that while on the outside it might look like your young person is pushing you away, inside they’re craving that familiar, peaceful, and centering feeling that only you can provide. They still need your emotional support and stability. Your consistent presence and support give them the strength to grow and flourish, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

Debunking Self-Blame

It’s easy to fall into the trap of self-blame when you’re going through this phase with your teen. But I want you to know that this isn’t your fault. You’re not a bad parent because your teen is seeking independence. This behavior is a natural part of their growth, and it doesn’t mean that they love you any less.

Good parents often blame themselves because they care so deeply about their children and want the best for them. When things go wrong, they look inward, trying to find what they could have done differently. This tendency comes from a place of love and responsibility, but it can also lead to unnecessary guilt and stress. Recognize that feeling this way is a sign of your commitment and love as a parent, not a reflection of your failure.

It’s also important to take care of yourself during this time. The emotional toll can be heavy, and it’s important to find ways to support your own well-being. Here are a few tips to help you navigate this challenging period:

  1. Remind Yourself This is Temporary: This stage of life, where your teen is pushing you away, is temporary. It’s a part of their journey towards independence and adulthood. I’ve been through this with both of my kids, and I can tell you from experience that it doesn’t last forever. Today, I have a close relationship with both Patrick and Belle. The tough times we went through actually helped us grow closer in the end. Remind yourself that things will get better and that your relationship can and will improve with time and effort.
  2. Talk to a Friend or a Therapist: Sometimes, just talking about your feelings can make a big difference. Reach out to a friend who understands or seek support from a therapist. Having someone to listen to you can provide relief and new perspectives.
  3. Engage in Activities That Bring You Joy: I know it may sound selfish, but taking time for activities that you enjoy and that help you relax is crucial. Whether it’s reading a book, going for a walk, practicing a hobby, or exercising, taking care of your own happiness and mental health is essential. When you are happy and balanced, you are in a better position to support your teen. Think of it like putting on your own oxygen mask first in an airplane emergency. You need to be well to help others effectively.
  4. Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that parenting is tough, and you’re doing your best. It’s okay to make mistakes and to feel overwhelmed. Treat yourself with the same compassion you would offer a friend in a similar situation. Try positive re-frames, like changing “My kid hates me” to “This is normal, and they just need my support through this stage,” or “I’m failing as a parent” to “I’m learning and growing just like my teen.” These small shifts in perspective can make a big difference in how you feel and respond.

By debunking these myths and understanding that this behavior is a normal part of adolescent development, you can alleviate some of the self-blame and emotional burden. Remember, you are not alone in this. Many parents are going through the same thing, and it’s okay to reach out for support.

Actionable Tips to Reconnect with Your Tween or Teen

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I’m a take-action kind of person—and parent. This part of the blog is where I give you actionable strategies to help you reconnect with your tween or teen. These tips won’t solve the problem overnight, but they will help you minimize the damage done to your relationship and reduce the time your young person stays in this disconnection stage. Our goal is to minimize both the severity and duration of this phase.

Tip 1: Always Keep Communication Lines Open

Maintaining open, non-judgmental communication with your tween or teen is crucial. Research in adolescent psychology shows that open communication helps build trust and understanding. This means listening more than talking and trying to understand their perspective without immediately offering solutions or judgments. This is what I mean when I remind you to connect before you correct.

How to Keep Communication Lines Open:

  • Find Opportunities to Talk: Look for natural moments to start a conversation, such as during car rides, while cooking dinner, or at bedtime. These times can be less intimidating and more conducive to open dialogue.
  • Start with Simple, Open-Ended Questions: Instead of asking, “How was your day?” which might get a one-word response, try “What was the best part of your day today?” or “Tell me something interesting that happened today.”
  • Keep the Tone Positive: Focus on making positive observations and comments. For example, “I noticed you were really focused on your homework today, great job!” or “You were so kind to your friend earlier, that was wonderful to see.” When focusing on relationship-building, keep negative observations or criticisms inside. There’s a time and place for those conversations, but strive to connect (positive comments) 70% of the time and correct (sharing concerns) only 30% of the time.
  • Share Your Own Experiences: Sharing a bit about your day or your own feelings can open the door for your teen to share theirs. It shows that you value open dialogue.
  • Active Listening: Show that you are really listening by nodding, maintaining eye contact, and repeating back what they’ve said in your own words. This helps them feel heard and understood.

Tip 2: Respect Their Need for Independence

Teens need space to explore their identity and assert their independence. Research shows that autonomy is a key component of adolescent development. According to Self-Determination Theory by Ryan and Deci, providing autonomy and freedom can significantly enhance motivation and well-being in young people. When teens feel that they have control over their decisions, they are more likely to make better choices, trust their parents more, and increase their intrinsic motivation.

In one of their notable studies, Ryan and Deci explored the effects of autonomy support on student motivation in educational settings. They found that when teachers provided students with choices and encouraged self-initiation, the students exhibited higher levels of intrinsic motivation, better academic performance, and greater psychological well-being. This concept can be directly applied to parenting. When parents offer their teens similar autonomy, it fosters a sense of responsibility and self-regulation.

Strategies to Foster Independence:

  • Collaborative Rule-Making: Involve your teen in setting rules and consequences. This can help them feel more in control and respected. For instance, you can sit down together and discuss curfew times, agreeing on a reasonable time that considers both your concerns and their social needs.
  • Give Them Space: Allow them privacy and time alone. Respect their need to retreat and recharge. For example, let them have some alone time in their room after school to unwind before discussing any plans or tasks.
  • Support Their Decisions: Even if you don’t agree with every decision they make, supporting their right to make choices can help them learn from their experiences. This doesn’t mean you have to approve of everything, but showing support can go a long way in maintaining trust and respect.
  • Provide Choices Within a Defined Menu: Decide on the options available, and let your tween or teen choose from this menu. This approach provides them with a sense of autonomy while ensuring that the choices are acceptable to you. For example, instead of saying, “You need to do a chore today,” you could say, “Would you prefer to take out the trash, do the dishes, or vacuum the living room?” This way, they feel a sense of control and responsibility within boundaries that you’ve set.

By respecting their need for independence and providing them with choices, you’re helping them develop crucial decision-making skills and self-confidence. These strategies, supported by research from Ryan and Deci, show that giving freedom within structure can enhance their sense of autonomy and improve their overall development.

Tip 3: Stay Connected Through Shared Activities

Quality time is essential to maintaining a strong bond with your teen. Shared activities provide opportunities to connect and communicate in a relaxed environment, away from the pressures and conflicts of everyday life. In the therapy room, one of the best ways to get a reluctant teen to open up and talk is through activities like games or simply coloring in a coloring book. Having an activity helps the teen not feel pressured to make eye contact and feel like they aren’t the center of attention. This same principle applies to you and your young person. Focusing on these activities can strengthen your relationship, build trust, and create lasting memories.

Strategies for Shared Activities:

  • Find Common Interests: Engage in activities you both enjoy, whether it’s cooking, hiking, or watching movies. For example, if you both love cooking, plan a weekly cooking night where you try new recipes together.
  • Scheduled Time Together: Set aside regular time each week to spend together. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; even simple activities like a weekly walk can be effective. Consistency is key; having a scheduled time reinforces the importance of your relationship.
  • Participate in Their World: Show interest in their hobbies and friends. Attend their events, whether it’s a sports game, a school play, or a club meeting. For instance, if your teen is part of a school band, attending their performances and praising their efforts can make them feel valued and understood.

Tip 4: Seek Family Therapy if Needed

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, communication may break down to the point where professional help is needed. Family therapy can provide a safe space for everyone to express their feelings and learn new ways to communicate.

How to Find a Good Family Therapist:

  • Research and Referrals: Look for licensed therapists who specialize in family therapy. Ask for recommendations from your pediatrician, school counselor, insurance provider, or other parents.
  • Interview Potential Therapists: Don’t be afraid to ask questions about their approach, experience, and how they handle family dynamics.
  • Consider Fit: The right therapist for your family is someone you all feel comfortable with and who can create a safe and supportive environment.

By incorporating these four tips, you can start to rebuild and strengthen your relationship with your tween or teen as they go through the stage for independence. Remember, this is a process that takes time and patience. The goal is to minimize the damage and reduce the time spent in this disconnection stage, ultimately creating a healthier, more connected relationship.

Conclusion: Moving Forward with Hope

As we wrap up, I want to circle back to my own experience with my son, Patrick. Today, our relationship is strong and healthy, but there was a time when we were deeply disconnected. His senior year of high school was tough; we experienced almost an entire year of emotional distance. Things began to improve after he graduated, and our relationship got even better once he went to college and gained his independence. Now, Patrick is a brand-new prosecutor in a large city in California, living about two hours away. Our bond is such that he feels free to reach out to me for anything, including coming home for the weekend to visit and help with a house project.

I’m sharing this to illustrate that, despite how bleak things might seem now, there is hope. If you had asked me during his senior year if I thought he would be asking to come home and help me with household projects, I might not have believed it. But it did happen – and your relationship with your tween or teen can improve too. You’re committed to making things better, and that dedication will pay off.

You have the power to improve your relationship with your teen. Small, consistent efforts can make a big difference. It might feel tough now, but your dedication and love will shine through.

Your Challenge

Now, I want to challenge you to take action. Choose one of the tips we discussed today and commit to implementing it this week. Reflect on any barriers or mindsets that might hold you back from using these tips effectively. Is there a fear of rejection? A concern about not doing it right? Address these barriers head-on and remind yourself that progress, not perfection, is the goal.

Get in Touch

I’d love to hear about your experiences or any questions you might have. Share them with me via social media or email, and please share this blog post with other parents who need to hear it. The more we spread these messages, the more we can help parents build stronger relationships with their kids.

Additional Resources

If you’re looking for more tips and strategies on repairing the parent-child relationship, I’ve got you covered with some great resources:

  • Free eBook: “How To Have Difficult Conversations With Your Teen So That You Get Your Point Across & Create a Close Parent-Child Bond.” You can download it here.
  • Online Course: I have a court-approved online course for parents that addresses this topic. You can find my suite of online parenting classes by visiting Modern Parenting Solutions Courses.

Thank you so much for reading today. If you found this post helpful, please share it with others who might benefit from it.

And always remember, Friend: I believe in you. You’ve got this.

Connect with Dr. Becca Ballinger:

And always remember, Friend, I believe in you. You’ve got this.