On Twitter the other day, someone copied me into an anguished email from a mother, hoping that I could help: “Relationship with my daughter is in shreds & I’ve no idea why. Nothing but contempt for me though manage[s] to speak to others… She’s changed so much in the last 6 months & is unhappy. I feel powerless to help.”
The pain in this message is clear. Let me try to help.
“She’s changed so much in the last 6 months”
Although some teenagers seem to transition smoothly and almost imperceptibly from child to adult, in fact most change suddenly or in spurts, with noticeable alterations in behaviour at various times between the age of 11 and their twenties. This is hardly surprising when you realise a few things:
- The difference between a typical human aged nine and one aged 25 is profound. It’s the difference between dependence and independence, between spending their pocket money on sweets and working out how to pay the rent. It’s the difference between having their decisions made or supported by you and making every decision for themselves.
- Everything around them changes during adolescence: their bodies, their brains, hormones, friends, fears, responsibilities, knowledge of the world. Change is exciting but it’s also intrinsically frightening and stressful, especially when it’s change they have no control over.
- Their brains and bodies are going through an upheaval which is biologically programmed, whereas you are still biologically programmed to protect.
In a way, a more surprising thing is that some households with teenagers and parents don’t seem affected by conflict and stress. Let’s think about some possible explanations for those households which appear to sail through calmly:
- You’re looking in from the outside and you’re not seeing them as they often really are – no one really knows what happens inside another house
- Or perhaps the individuals happen to be naturally laidback; nothing is particularly causing them distress; the teenager is fortunate to have a friendship group that works together extremely well, supporting each other calmly, safely and positively.
- They just haven’t hit a rocky patch yet.
- Another explanation is that the family has such preoccupying things going on that there is really no time or opportunity for the common teenage flare-ups.
Whichever of these factors fits your experience, be assured that your son or daughter seeming to changing rapidly in a short period of time is entirely within the bounds of normal.
Again, this is a very common experience for parents and there are several explanations.
Adolescence is best summed up in one word “separation”.
Adolescence is a journey; the destination is independence and the route involves separation. The separation is unavoidable. If they are to become independent of your protection and control, the young person must separate from reliance on that protection and control. You are biologically programmed to protect; they are biologically programmed to separate, once their brain changes start pushing them in that direction.
How painful it will be depends on a load of factors, many of which are not in your control because they involve personalities, other influences (such as friends, peers or school pressures), moods and family structures and relationships. But some conflict and pain during this time is, while not inevitable, highly likely.
Your teenager can afford to push you away
If you’ve done your job right, you will be the person your teenager feels able to be rude to. If they know that your love is unconditional, it is safe for them to push you away, even to appear to hate you. You see, as your teenager separates from you, because humans are deeply social creatures and need to know who their team is, she needs to make strong bonds with people her age (and other ages, later) but she cannot rely on the unconditional love of any of these other people. So, yes, she will behave to them very differently from how she behaves to you.
It’s very hurtful but it’s not a bad thing. She doesn’t hate you, even though she might seem to and even though she might say she does.
Even if your teenager is only 13 and a long way from leaving home, subconsciously she’s starting to know that one day she will. She needs to test out what it’s like to feel on her own, to want to leave you. She also may be afraid of it and fear often looks like anger. They are linked by stress and the chemicals are the same.
Many of the emotions and reactions of adolescence can be explained as some form of or degree of separation anxiety. It’s entirely natural. The anxiety gets less as the person practises responses and tests things out. It’s not a simple process; nor is it one that can be hurried or forced. And the anxiety may never entirely disappear: we need connection and we don’t do well when entirely separate. But your teenager needs to have connections with people who are not you and needs to learn how to make those connections and to trust.
We are most irritated by those closest to us
Our tolerance for habits of people we live with is very different from our tolerance of similar behaviours in others. The emotional connection makes everything more raw, important, unavoidable. Irritating! Those closest to us constantly invade our space, just by being there, and often in a household we are each fighting for our own space, peace, territory. When we snap or scowl or tut or say something rude or aggressive, it doesn’t necessarily mean we feel anything more than a temporary irritation – but it’s an intense one, partly because we are trapped near the source of the irritation and because we are allowed to be angry.
What we mean is that this teenager “seems unhappy”. We don’t know that they really are, deep down. But being unhappy is not on its own a bad thing or a sign of something being fundamentally wrong. Low mood can come from myriad causes and is more common at some times than others. Possible signs that you might notice are: snappiness, body language seeming weighed down, expressions of negativity about everything, finding it hard to laugh, not seeming to want to have fun with the family, sitting in a darkened room, listening to sad music, perhaps tearfulness. Sometimes you might feel that your teenager just exudes negative emotion, that as soon as they enter the room you’re aware of tension, upset, stress, negativity.
But is this just at home, with you, or is your teenager also like that in other settings, with other people? When they leave the house and link arms with a friend, do they seem happy again? If you happened to see their photos on their social media account, what would they look like? (I’m not suggesting you spy!) What do their friends’ parents say about how they seem? What do teachers say?
If your teenager only seems unhappy in the house with you, again it’s because they can afford to. And, indeed, because you might be really irritating them. Do you actually think they are crying a lot or showing signs of genuinely low mood or is it really just when they have to be near you? If you are really irritating them, this does not mean they hate you. As I said, we are most irritated by those closest to us. We can afford to be.
If their “unhappiness” is a cause for concern, they will be unhappy out of the house, too. Schoolwork will be affected, they’ll be shutting out their friends and stopping their usual activities. (But note that friendships and activities, likes and dislikes, do also change and this doesn’t necessarily mean anything worrying.)
“Unhappiness” can also be a healthy emotion because it leads us to act to change whatever can or should be changed. When we are unhappy in a healthy way we look around to how we can change things. When we’re unhappy in an unhealthy way, we’re unlikely to find the energy or motivation to change things.
“Relationship with my daughter is in shreds & I’ve no idea why”
It feels that way, and that feels horrible, but it is not in shreds. It’s being stretched and altered. It’s being rewoven in a different shape. That will take a while but one day your relationship will regrow. It won’t be the same – how could your relationship with your 18 year old be the same as the one with your nine year old? We respond to the people around us as they are, not as the people they once were. Your teenager is changing, you are changing; a new relationship awaits.
And now you know something of why it seems in shreds. Your daughter is changing, growing towards independence, which is what you actually want for her. You cannot always hold her hand and the problem is that you are (quite naturally) trying to.
All that’s happening is that you’re trying to hold her hand as you did when she was four, or six, or nine, and now, at 13 or whatever, she’s rightly pushing your hand away (metaphorically) because soon she won’t need it and she’s trying out what not having her hand in yours feels like.
Perhaps, too, you react when she pushes your hand away. Of course you react: being pushed away doesn’t feel nice. But your (over?)reaction makes it harder for her to reach out to you again. So the best thing you can do when she rejects you is nothing, except just stay there, be there, be open and warm and steady. Be forgiving. Be the person you’d like to be if you look back on yourself tomorrow.
This does not mean condoning really bad behaviour. It means understanding where such behaviour comes from and using your whole human brain rather than your reactive amygdala which is always looking for danger and enemies.
“I feel powerless to help”
You feel powerless but you are not. The trouble is that you are still programmed to protect, to hold her hand, to scoop her up and prevent all problems and that you can’t do. Problems are there to be solved and to teach us, to make us stronger and more able.
So what will help is if you reprogram your mind to become the safetynet instead of the helicopter. Learn to understand, trust and respect your daughter so that you can watch her overcome her own problems. I’ve talked about safetynet parenting before but I can’t find a post about it so perhaps I’ve only talked, not written. But basically what I mean is that we need to be like a safetynet: not there to prevent a fall but to allow the person to fall safely. The safetynet fall allows the person to look and see what they fell, and try to do it better next time.
Doing this doesn’t mean that you refuse to hold her hand. It means that you are there, in the background, with a hand that is ready to be taken by her when and if she wants to. But she will only do that if she believes that when she does you will still let her make her own way, make her own mistakes, learn her own strengths.
So, what does your teenager need?
Although not every person is the same, most teenagers and most parent/teen relationships respond well when you:
- Set fair boundaries, ideally with negotiation, always with trust and respect, and based on love. When you make a rule, it has to be thoughtful, well-intentioned and well-informed. Firm but not inflexible. Clear and followed through. And achievable, not out of reach.
- Be there when they mess up, and help them move forward. “You made a mistake this time but next time how will you get it right?”
- Make sure they know that you will listen when they do want to talk. Say so often but not in a hassling sort of way. Just keep reminding them that you’re there whenever. And put your phone away when they do talk to you!
- Show them that you mess up, too, and that when you do you say sorry – be human; treat others as you would wish to be treated.
- Show how you make decisions yourself – think aloud. They’ll hear you even if they don’t say anything. And they’ll unconsciously take their cues from you. Do you act impulsively or thoughtfully? Who do you listen to when you’re looking for good information? How do you resist temptation or structure your work/relaxation time? Model the behaviour you want to see.
- Ask their opinions – and listen to the answers. Don’t pretend to be an expert on everything yourself – they know you’re not.
- Let them talk to other people and don’t be offended when they don’t share something with you. Teenagers might not want to talk to their parents about something personal or worrying. Sometimes they need to try it out on someone else first. Don’t be offended.
- Respect their need for space and peace. Some people – those with a more introverted personality-type – have a strong biological need for time alone. This might be especially pressing when they have just come back from school, where they’ve spent the whole day having to be extroverted, which is doubly exhausting for introverts. Your teenager really really needs time to wind down, to process, to regain energy.
- Accept that they don’t always feel loving towards you – because you are extremely irritating to them! You don’t mean to be and, in most cases, you couldn’t not be. Don’t blame yourself – or them.
- Love them, whatever. They’ll come back.
ACTION 1: Print that list and show it to them. They might say nothing at all but they will know that you care and that you’re doing your best. Ask them what they think of the list and would they add anything. But they can’t expect you to be perfect…
ACTION 2: If No 8 seemed like an important and relevant point, how will you make that happen? Discuss with your teenager how you can give them space at that time of day.
ACTION 3: Buy Blame My Brain and let your teenager have reassuring and fascinating insight into the brain changes they are going through.
Have you seen my video Understanding Teenagers? It comes with masses of handouts and information but even the video on its own will help you understand what’s going on in your teenager’s mind.