Parent Teen Relationships: Balancing our Differing Needs

By Linda Rosenberg McGuire Posted July 21, 2015 under Guest Authors

Our generation of parents puts an exceptionally high premium on building close relationships with our children and teenagers.

This creates a familial dissonance because as our children mature, they are seeking closer relationships with their peers than their parents.

While parents are leaning in, often times their teenagers are leaning out.

It is both developmentally appropriate and necessary for our teenagers to seek their allegiances outside of the parent-child relationship.

This is because of a confluence of factors like:

  1. The psychology, neurology, chemistry and biology of our teenagers make for a soup of hormones and brain-functioning issues that drive them towards adulthood. They are predestined and predisposed to readying themselves for leaving their family and making their way in the world.
  2. At the crux of adolescent development is individuation. Teenagers are trying to figure out where they begin and their parents end. In order to do this, they need to try having their own sets of opinions and beliefs so they can begin to see themselves in juxtaposition to their parents, rather than just a long-arm extension.
  3. Teenagers need to practice being adults and that is best done by making their own decisions, both good and bad, and to have a steadily increasing sense of agency in their own lives. As parents, we have been the agents for our children, but ultimately, we need to let that role go so that our teens are able to self-advocate, make decisions, and take responsibility for their actions.
  4. Sometimes, if there is a particularly tight bond between parent and child, teenagers may need to push even harder in order to break the ties that are holding them back from growing up and out of the nest. Often, parents feel like an especially close relationship with their child will prevent teenage behavior. I would argue that this is not only impossible to prevent, but that a certain amount of angst and push-back is imperative for maturation.

Although our teens may be doing whatever they can in order to develop their own life separate from their parents, there are still ways to preserve connection in the midst of their need to disconnect. Teenagers still want parents in their lives, even while they may be actively telling us to get out of their lives.

Here are some ways to maintain parent teen relationships without getting in the way of their development, and hopefully not annoying them (too much!):

  1. Teenagers need cheerleaders more than quarterbacks. Stand along the sidelines and root for them, not just at athletic contests, but in their academic endeavors, summer job searches, and anything else your teen may be pursuing. Show you are interested without intervening and your teenager will be glad to know you are in their corner (and in a corner).
  2. Support them without defending them. They really only need us to defend them when they are in actual danger. However, they always need our support. This may mean standing alongside of them as they pay for a parking ticket, apologize to someone, struggle in a challenging class, or in some other way take accountability. The temptation may be to protect them from the consequences of their actions, but that robs them of the opportunity to learn and although you may be the hero for the short-term, you need to parent your teen for the long-run.
  3. Allow them the freedom to vent, without fear of judgment or intervention. Basically, this just means listening, while resisting the urge to comment other than to reflect back what you are hearing them say. Often, teens feel much better after doing what I call a dump–and-run. They get a load off their chests and feel much better after unburdening themselves, and then continue on with their day. Parents who intervene may end up silencing their teenager by giving them the message that they can’t safely share their feelings without a reaction. Truthfully, the more listening we are willing to do, the stronger the connection will be between you and your emerging young adult.
  4. Give your teen the message that you have faith in their ability to handle challenges. This not only builds competence and self-esteem, but if you show you have respect for your teen’s problem-solving skills, there is a much better chance they will run ideas by you. Teenagers are sensitive to criticism and are looking for us to bet on their best, even when they stumble.

The teenage years can be challenging ones, and a certain amount of tension and tumult is required as they carve out their own identity. However, while building parent teen relationships, if we can make every effort to get out of our teenager’s way and allow them to begin to navigate their world, we will not only be providing a chance for them to get some practice, but we can also maintain a satisfying connection with them.

Linda Rosenberg McGuire is a parenting coach, consultant, speaker and avid writer, providing insight, support and education for parents and teachers who live and work with teenagers. She has 30 years of experience working with children, most of that time focused on parent-teen relationships. Linda began her career as a caseworker and trip leader for teens-at-risk, leading to work as a community mental health therapist and a school-based counselor. For the past 12 years Linda has been employed in independent school administration, working with teenagers, parents, and faculty as a program director and a dean. She is currently the Dean of Students at Westtown School in West Chester, PA.