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Why Parents Matter (Especially!!) to Teens

Kids Push Us Away Because of How Deeply They Love and Need Us

It is so easy to feel pushed away by our teenagers. After all, it's not uncommon for them to tell us that they can't stand us. In case that weren't enough, there are plenty of messages out there that suggest that we just don't matter anymore anyway—that the media and peers are today's parents.

As a point of fact, those messages are dead wrong!

We need to remind ourselves that our children sometimes hate us precisely because of how deeply they really do love us and resent how much they know they need us. They need to fly from the nest. Who would want to fly from a warm, cozy, and comfortable nest? They have to imagine it as prickly at best, maybe even uninhabitable. They have to figure out who they are—identity development is the task of adolescence. The first step of teens figuring out their own identities is to prove themselves different from their parents. In order to know how different they are, they sometimes have to see us as offensive, as hopelessly embarrassing at the very least.

But do we matter?

To begin to grasp the challenging developmental work your teen is facing, imagine a table covered with 10,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle is titled "Who Am I?"—the fundamental question of adolescence. Not realizing he has a lifetime to complete the puzzle, he ferociously tackles it because he believes he needs to get it done by the time he graduates from high school or even by the time he writes his college essay.

How does someone put together a puzzle? One begins with the corners and then creates the borders. Only once the borders are in place does a person have the confidence to work out all of the pieces in the middle—occasionally trying to force even those together that don't quite seem like a natural fit.

It is the boundaries you create and the monitoring you insist upon that creates those trustworthy borders that your teen can push against as he tries to manipulate the harder inner pieces on his own.

Once the borders are securely in place, what is the next step of putting together an impossibly complex puzzle? One looks for matching pieces and imagines how the patterns might fit together. A wise person looks at the picture on the lid—over and over again.

You are the picture on the cover your child compares himself against. When teens have a role model of what healthy adults looks like, it becomes easier for them to complete their own puzzles.

The good news is that our teens can be so darned loveable and cuddly moments after they are, well... not quite so endearing. Remind yourself, especially during those moments when you are feeling less than fully appreciated, that you are critical to your child completing his "puzzle". How can he be expected to answer the question "Who am I?" if he doesn't have you serving as a role model and offering those boundaries from within which he can safely stumble.

Finally, remember that kids may need to see your nest as nearly uninhabitable, but when you keep it warm and cozy (no matter how they might view it) they'll want to return to it once they have proven they can stand on their own.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg is the co-author of "Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century" with Susan FitzGerald, and the author of The American Academy of Pediatrics' Book "Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings." More importantly, he is the father of two teen daughters and is learning (and making mistakes) every day.