What you can do when your tween or teen is shutting you out.
How do you respond when your tween or teen is shutting you out and pushing you away…? This is one of the questions I am asked most often when speaking at parent events and conferences. And it’s a topic that is often present in coaching sessions. D.H. Lawrence once described adolescence as being ‘The Hour of the Stranger’. And so it can seem – that a young person can be trapped in a pattern of behaviour that is hard for them to step out of, and that they themselves don’t truly understand – so there is an internal estrangement. Equally the way they show up in their changing relationship with their family as they embark on the sometimes lonely, sometimes enthralling journey to independence and adulthood, can mean it does indeed feel that we have a stranger – a cuckoo – in the nest.
As a parent of a 12 year old, it’s a situation that may well be something I will have to wrestle with in some shape or form over the coming years as our child enters her teenage process and embarks more fully on her adolescent journey. Already the physical closeness of the past changes subtly, and suddenly, with those developmental clicks. The body is less squidgy and cuddly, more angular and bony. Suddenly they are not so little any more, and you can’t just sweep them into your arms. You’re eyeball to eyeball. Their bodies have changed, their voices, their lives have mushroomed in ways we no longer know. Who are the friends they refer to? Chances are in secondary school, there are many we’ll not have met… Then there are circumstantial changes. We’ve got the proximity and distance stuff of the pandemic with the last 2 years of strain and family life in captivity. But even if you put those to one side, there’s burgeoning homework that -perhaps legitimately – perhaps not – takes them off and away. There’s a burgeoning social life…and there’s a burgeoning digital life. Back in my teenage days, you either listened to records in your room, or did your homework, or watched TV together on the sofa. I often joke that I only became successful academically because it was either that or endure my father’s relentless teeth-grinding, or kill him with a kitchen knife. Work was my way of separating – but my addiction to Coronation Street and Eastenders somehow brought me back to the hearth.
This transition to independence, and the navigation of separating lives can be difficult, painful. I often feel that the most productive starting place to work on this question is to start with ourselves. And the key question of what this separation might mean to us…Checking in with the narratives we are holding about being shut out can be quite revealing of how the dynamics of a changing relationship are impacting on us. And also of some of the ways we might be showing up in understandable reactivity, rather than response. As parents, we are brilliant at time travel. Anticipating disaster ahead… ‘This is the end of our bond…’ or revisiting the past with either rose coloured lenses when it suits us ‘But I was always so great as a teen’ or with stormy dark glasses… ‘This is just like me and my mother/father…I SWORE I would never let this happen…’ The anxious parent brain races to anticipate disaster, exaggerates the likelihood of catastrophe occurring, and emphasises the impact of that dreaded event. When we find ourselves caught in that ‘stinking thinking’, how Albert Ellis described the tendency we humans have to engage with thoughts that do not serve us well… And suddenly we have an agenda…we MUST CONNECT! And that’s where some of the problem lies. Gripped by the anxiety to connect somehow, anyhow, we can inadvertently embark on disconnecting patterns of behaviour, intrusiveness, inquisition, monitoring, micro-managing…Asking about school, work, tests, friends, teachers, and not able to get to what we really want to get to…THEM!
Time to stop and bring in a reframe…
Know that it is developmentally natural – and healthy – for a young person to try to establish greater autonomy as they grow. And in order them to embark on their apprenticeship to adulthood, they need to experience, learn, and grow into separation: physically and emotionally. In my psychoanalytic training, this was called ‘individuation’…
So don’t take it personally. You cannot parent effectively when you are activated by the ‘No-brain’ state of fear, threat or hurt. Deliberately try and move back into a more open and objective space. And the non-violent communication framework is particularly resonant here:
Marshall Rosenberg (Non-violent communication): All behaviour is a communication…
• Of a skill not yet learned (I don’t really know how to be separate and independent from you yet…but over here are all my peers and I am leaning away from you into this world…I don’t know how to make this shift, so I am just going to start blocking you out)…
• Or a need not yet met… (I need some privacy, I need space to work more of this life stuff out for myself…I need to try stuff and push at some boundaries…but I also do need you to keep me safe)
The key to healthy individuation lies in integration rather than splitting or complete fracture. So it is our job to allow them the space for greater privacy and separation, whilst staying connected. In more basic terms, we should expect to get fired as ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ – but tender to get re-hired as their consultant. As the adults, we need to take the lead in moving towards repair when things are moving toward breaking point. In the teen years, there is a neurological disconnect between the maturation of the emotional system which is turbo charged, whilst executive functioning (strategic thinking, contextualising, impulse control) lags behind. This aspect of the teen journey is often likened to being on a rollercoaster. But here’s the thing. A 13/14/15 year old can have an intense reaction to something and take a direction that sets the course of the relationship for the next 10, 20, 30 years. SO it’s important that as the adult, we take the lead in taking ownership, being vulnerable, and offering the space to re-negotiate, navigate back to relationship by having a ‘reset’. Ideally with some collaborative elements. In this article, I will work through various methods for bridging the divide, and coming back into connection. So here’s a process, which is designed to help find a pathway back – especially when things have felt fractured, distant, or even quite broken over time. And unfortunately, as a result of the added wear-and-tear of the past 2 years pandemic parents, are experiencing more extreme behaviour earlier.
Name it. Within your own mind – name the state of things as you see them. And try to do this reflectively, filtering out the red mist and emotion surrounding this phase in your relationship. It is really easy to feel grief and loss: the easy snuggles of yesteryear are vanished. Instead of closeness, you’re getting push-back. And this can feel deeply personal, rejecting, and hurtful.
- Work on narratives. You might want to use the James Pennebaker method a few times – where you write out ‘the story’ of what has happened two or three times, and reread them as the different versions build. This is a way – through repetition – of finding more nuanced meaning and perspective, and of seeing the narrative of what is happening as something less set in stone, and more malleable. That we might be able to re-write and edit and make various course-corrections. You might also want to add in a ‘next chapter’ to explore and articulate what you would like to see happen in a new phase…
- You might want to do some emotional journaling – where you might set a timer for you to write down, brain-storm, blurt out on paper the unedited words and phrases that come into your mind. Give full vent to the feeling states you feel, the harsh inner-critic mind-chatter you hear around this in your stream of consciousness. This is a deeply private exercise, for your own eyes only……Put it away safely, sleep on it, and then read, reflect, and review. What is here that is of real importance – linking to your values. How does this help you see the impact of the dynamics that have emerged. What is recorded here that is a useful worry – ie something you can address. What here is a useless worry – that is beyond your control?
- Stock yourself up. Get support – find community, a trusted friend or advisor who you can be in a non-competitive, non-judgmental relationship with. Maybe join an online parent group to boost your confidence.
This is about connecting with the hurt which can surround this dynamic in a different way. If we are able to hold the pain, regret, shame, injustice of it in more spacious awareness, to accept and be with the feeling of being cut off, we can start to see more clearly what the issues are. When we meet with rejecting behaviour from those we love the most, we can feel overwhelm in two ways:
- Feel pushed to melt-down, and lash out with harsh criticism, defining their personality negatively…You are so X, Y, Z…!
- Withdraw and collude with their withdrawal and rejection. So the relationship shrinks from fulfilling to functional or worse. You may be relieved that they’ve slammed the bedroom door and stay online in their room for a few hours…The problem is, if the stand-off becomes habitual, then it’s easy to slip from functional into dysfunctional. Privacy is one growing need for a teen, secrecy another. And when we start to feel we no longer know each other, that’s when we need to do parent/child CPR!
These sorts of exercises can help clear the decks – filter out some of the noise and clear the path for you to do the next important part…
Detoxify – Undertake a searching, and fiercely compassionate audit… You need to be able to address the situation anew. You’ll have done some time playing what Phillippa Perry calls ‘Fact Tennis’ where you rehash who said what, who did what etc…the ruminatory aspects of quarrelling which can serve the purpose of avoiding responsibility. Rick Hanson (Author of Resilient, Neurodharma, Hardwiring Happiness), talks on his podcast ‘Being Well’ about taking a ‘hard, searing look at what you did – on your side of the street.’ This metaphor is very helpful, to start working towards finding the middle ground – where you aren’t defending, denying, silverlining, or minimizing… Those intervals between the line markings in the middle of the road are where you can take responsibility for your side, and bring in authentic and heartfelt invitations to find common ground and move together, to the centre. You need to do this in a way where you can come to acceptance of what from your side went awry without catastrophising or overstating eg that you must be a terrible parent, that you’ve messed it all up… The marks in the middle of that road are also meaningful and helpful to acknowledge. These are the limits of your influence – your helplessness. Your teen may have reactions that are out of proportion – you don’t have control of that. But being able to own your side of things, and state your intentions for moving forward, whilst acknowledging their autonomy can be liberating, and free up the tension around what contributed to things being as they are. And this may feel really, truly difficult. After all, you may feel that your teen’s behaviour is harsh, unforgiving, disproportionate, disrespectful, inappropriate etc etc. I have worked with many parents over the years who can feel so bruised or angry, or just burned out with it all. When these dynamics really bed in, it can feel like you are living in stable misery where you’re white-knuckling it until the earliest opportunity for them to viably leave home. And it’s not only the relationship with your teen where you can feel fracture. As Jennifer Kolari, author of Connected Parenting acknowledges, challenging situations with our children can easily polarise us as a parenting couple – where we can end up with the inconsistencies that can play out where ‘good cop – bad cop’ dynamics kick in. This is why it is most important for parents to really work on taking a thoughtful and integrated approach, to really listen to each other’s perspectives, look at the values at stake, the impact of those values being in breach. Then work together to take the lead in employing deliberate and committed compassion and empathy, rather than an arms-race of tough discipline and ever escalating consequence. It is about coming back into relationship. Children and teens need both parents to be that blend of nurturing and authoritative…NB NOT authoritarian…They need love AND boundaries. It’s not good enough to have one appeasing parent becoming increasingly permissive to keep the peace, whilst the other becomes more reactive and increasingly distant.
Building connection: This is going to take a really deep reservoir of your kindness, commitment, patience, and resilience. It’s what writer Jennifer Kolari describes as relentless love and compassion. In her book, Connected Parenting, she says that “when kids are angry, they are vulnerable, when they are unlovable, they feel unloved.” She comes from a background of work as a family therapist in private practice, but also in her work in a children’s mental health centre in Toronto where she worked with children who were out of control and in social care. When attachments are frayed, kids and teens will test to see if adults can be trusted and they will test that by pushing with their behaviour. Sometimes that will be gladiatorial behaviour, at others, it will be avoidant or rejecting behaviour. The development of relationship is the key – not a dramatic connection or a bonding event – it’s in the small stuff of daily care and consistency. A generosity of spirit and an interest in their lives that does not have a funnelled agenda…who they are and where they are at, rather than have they done X, Y, or Z. So no magic wands. Prepare yourself for rejection, awkwardness, sabotage. Build trust, and help scaffold the building of trust. Offer recognition and connection and seek understanding of their context so that you can meet your child where they are at and change the script that lies behind the distance and polarisation of the relationship. Where there has been a lapse into patterns of distance…Address the situation with them – prepare carefully so your communication will be clean: Here’s what I am noticing about our way of being… This is the direction of travel I am seeing… The impact of this is… Why this is important is… I want to start working on this…so that our relationship, and the atmosphere in our home can be… Can we talk about it? How are you seeing this on your side of the road? They may react in a rejecting or even a cruel way. Avoid talking, negotiating, bartering – it’s a common parenting trap – even though it doesn’t work, we keep on talking. That is for us, it’s not for them and they see it a mile off. Stop talking, start listening instead of trying to convince. ‘I hear you’. ‘I know this is difficult, and awkward. But you are too important to me to just let this slide.’ Double down on the need to come back into relationship. Don’t get agitated by the big feelings – they can come out. Hold the space for them to feel what they feel about it. Let them talk it out and feel it out. Be there for them 100% in that moment. And listen all the way through. The ability to be more flexible will return. And you will be in a better position of understanding to negotiate next steps. Creating spaces to hold the feelings and allow their feelings to be seen and heard and felt is important because the feelings they have are driving their behaviour. All behaviour is a communication, and serves a purpose. Curiosity, courage, and compassion towards the rejecting, distancing behaviour will help them move towards you. Talking at, lecturing, diagnosing, threatening, means stepping too far forward in the relational dance. Stepping on their toes, boxing them in, when really you want them to step forward and make an approach. Stock yourself up by revisiting peak moments of connection from the past. Really reflect and journal on your child’s strengths. You need to mindfully go to those places because during an established pattern of distance and spiky interaction, your mind has probably been marinading in the bitterness of it. Your negativity bias and confirmation bias have possibly been fuelling up your internal scripts which are critical of the situation and making it ever easier for irritation to compound frustration. A really nice exercise is to revisit old photos which celebrate or manifest those aspects of their personality that are still a part of them, but have not been so visible. Maybe even create a separate album that forms a highlight reel of reminders about who your child really can be at their best. Cherished, cherished moments. And flick through the images every day – they will remind you of the bond which is temporarily frayed – but they will also offer you the impetus and means to find a way back – to see them through a different lens and help you change your inner script about them and the interpersonal script you both enact. Transformation often comes when established patterns are broken or disrupted.
Barbara Fredrickson, one of the principle founding thinkers of the positive psychology movement, coined the mantra that ‘What you focus on, grows’…so grow the good, reconnect with the good things about them so that you can catch them getting things right and acknowledge them, make sincere moves and invitations to connect. They may block them initially, but that’s where your persistence will pay off. At some level everyone responds to being seen and heard and feeling valued.Keep making those moves…It’s not WHAT you say, it’s the WAY that you say it, how you LISTEN, and what you DO about it that counts…Change the steps of the dance…Stay open, receptive, and agile. Sometimes breaches or interruptions to connection can be significant and lengthy. One of my most treasured possessions from my teaching days is a letter from a young person I supported when she was almost entirely cut off from each of her parents and on the brink of one expulsion or another. She was often in great distress with compulsive, difficult and out of control behaviour in and out of school. I supported her and stayed with her through many fraught years.So many times she seemed out of reach and we wondered how she’s find a way back – at home – and with herself. Two years after she left, she wrote to me from her university halls. The most heartfelt letter of gratitude – acknowledging what she’d inflicted on herself and others, and how grateful she was for the support she had rejected. It had meant that she was able to finally find herself and launch herself on adult life. As an English teacher, the spelling, and punctuation left a lot to be desired, but that letter meant the world to me, and I revisit it from time to time to remember the power of compassion in the eye of the teenage storm.Parenting can be like trying to hit a moving target – just when you think you’ve got it nailed…things change. But remember, things may get off-course. Remember that on a flight an aeroplane is often slightly off course. And sometimes a detour is necessary because of a storm, warfare, turbulence. But most of the time, we arrive at our destination. And even if not, most of the time we land safe. I hope this reflection on relationships under strain has been of help in this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week. Please feel free to share with friends, family, or those in your network who you think might be helped.With love and gratitude,Emma.