How to Connect with a Teen who Seems Withdrawn from the Family
As children enter adolescence, significant changes begin. Developmentally, teens are trying to create their own identity and cultivate independence. As a result, youth naturally begin to pull away from their parents. But these changes can be difficult for the family. Parents frequently describe situations, such as ‘my daughter used to tell me everything but now she seems to only share her private thoughts with friends,’ or ‘my son seems to actively try to spend as little time with me as possible,’ or ‘my daughter only responds to me with one-word answers and frequent eye-rolling.’
As painful as it may be, these descriptions fall into the range of normal teenage development. Focusing on peer relationships helps youth learn to be less dependent on parents. Their new opinions and attitudes – no matter how outlandish – are just ways to “try on” new identities to see what best fits. However difficult, parents must try to not take their teens’ choices personally. While it’s important that parents still insist on respect and safety, a teen’s withdrawal is a necessary step forward in becoming an adult and is not a rejection of their family.
So, do you have to just grin and bear your teen’s withdrawal? No. Teens absolutely need time, attention, and unconditional love from their parents. While you shouldn’t be offended by their pulling away, neither should you just accept it and leave them to their own devices. Today’s blog will offer ideas for connecting with your adolescent while still respecting their privacy and desire to be with peers. No strategy will work perfectly; the prickliness of the hormones and growth spurts may cause some grumbling and bad attitudes, but if you make efforts in the following areas you can build connection.
Use low-key interactions. Teens don’t like it when parents try too hard, nor do they want to listen to lectures every time you speak. Instead, try to find small unobtrusive ways to show your teen some lighthearted kindness. Visit YouTube and send them links to videos you think they will find amusing. Find and share media tidbits about public figures they like or loathe. When your teen is watching a funny TV program, join them with some favorite snacks.
Prioritize mealtimes. If you’re like most families, mealtimes are chaotic if they even exist. Everyone’s tight schedules may make it difficult, but we still recommend that you prioritize sitting down to meals together whenever you can. Research shows that youth who eat meals with their family are more likely to get good grades and feel that their parents are interested in them, and they are less likely to be overweight, abuse drugs or alcohol, feel stressed, or engage in risky behaviors. Mealtimes are a fantastic time to connect with teens through conversation. Avoid the talks about school, chores or homework and instead discuss pop culture, politics, family stories, or current events. Make sure that you respect your teen’s opinions even if you don’t agree with them.
Plan quality family time each week. The entire family should get together once a week for spending a fun hour or two together. Beforehand, everyone should discuss and agree to how this time will be spent. Offer suggestions – playing a board game, watching a movie, getting ice cream, baking a new recipe, hiking, etc. – but let the teens drive the decision.
Create “hang-out” time each week. In addition to the family time, parents should create an undistracted hour every week (no work, chores, phone, etc.) to spend with each child in the family individually doing something THEY want to do. Be present with your teen to do any activity they wish in a low-key, relaxed way. Let them lead what you talk about and what you do together. This should be a lighthearted time with no parenting agendas or sneaky interrogations.
When Withdrawal is a Problem
As we’ve discussed, teen withdrawal is a natural step in adolescence. However, withdrawal can also be a warning sign of deeper problems. Some teens withdraw from their family if they feel misunderstood or unaccepted. In this case, the family is at risk of a broken relationship. Withdrawal can also be a sign of mental illness, trauma, or substance abuse. In cases such as these, withdrawal is a cry for help.
So, how do you know if your teen falls into the normal range? Whether or not you have cause for concern really depends on the extent to which your teen has withdrawn. If, in addition to withdrawing from you, your teen has withdrawn from friends, lost interest in activities that once gave them pleasure, and has grown increasingly isolated, then you likely have a more serious problem on your hand that needs professional help. If you’re not sure, you can always call your pediatrician for advice.
A parent-child relationship is very special, and it can hurt deeply when your child appears to be rejecting you. If your teen is pulling away, but not showing red flags of mental illness or risky behaviors, the key is to not take their withdrawal personally. It is not a reflection of a lost relationship, but rather a normal developmental milestone in your teen’s quest to become independent. Remember that youth need a certain amount of time and space to pull away from parents to form their own opinions, identity, and values. It’s important during this time that you find alternate sources to meet your relational needs. Connect with other adults who will support, affirm, and encourage you. When you get your relational needs met by supportive peers, you will be more at peace to accept your teen’s path to independence.