The Mutual Disaffection of Parenting an Adolescent

As parent and teenager grow apart, mutual dissatisfaction grows as well

Posted Jan 28, 2015

A goal of parenting a child is forging close mutual attachment to establish the girl or boy’s basic trust in the relationship, thereby able to plant their family roots. A goal of parenting an adolescent is supporting more mutual detachment to foster the young person’s growing trust in self-reliance, thereby able to grow their own wings.

In general, most parents find holding on and Attachment Parenting child to be easier than letting go and Detachment Parenting an adolescent. This adjustment can be hard because the mutually affectionate relationship with the child becomes more mutually disaffected with the teenager. Why is that?

Adolescence is not just the transitional period of growth between the end of childhood and the onset of young adulthood; it is also the developmental process that gets this change accomplished.

When, around ages 9 – 13, the girl or boy becomes dissatisfied with being defined and treated any longer as just a child, the separation from childhood that begins adolescence brings an end to the Age of Attachment and Attachment Parenting. Now the Age of Detachment and Detachment Parenting begin in order to give older individuality and independence more freedom to grow.

To help accept the neccessary end of primary attachment and the need for mutual detachment (and some disaffection) to begin, parents might think of it this way. If parent and teenager remained as powerfully attached to each other as they were at the outset of childhood, come the end of adolescence neither would be prepared to let the other go,

“Disaffection” does not have to mean any lessening of love; it only means the parent/adolescent relationship must now tolerate more mutual dissatisfaction than before. This disaffection with each other is based on the loss of what was valued during the childhood years, and on the strains of separation that beset their relationship as adolescence begins to grow them apart, as it is meant to do. A lot of times, the term “disaffected” is just applied to the adolescent; but parents can become more disaffected too.

For example, consider a few common losses that may contribute to parental disaffection as their child’s entry into adolescence begins. They can miss in the adolescent what they valued in the child. Common parental sources of disaffection might be found among the following.

“I miss how she used to be communicative and confiding in me, how we had much in common to enjoy doing together, how I was his favorite company, how she looked up to me, how he liked to work hard for school, how she was unselfish and thoughtful, how we rarely seriously disagreed, how he thought I was so smart, how she loved to help and please, how he could focus on what needed doing, how she was positive most of the time, how he was good at following rules, how she kept her agreements, how he didn’t need reminding, how I could take her at her word, how he liked to be touched and hugged.”

As for the adolescent, not only must childish enjoyments be given up for the sake of becoming older, but there is another more disaffecting change. This was articulated many years ago in counseling when I asked a young man how he could tell adolescence had begun. “Change,” he replied. “How my parents have changed.” He wasn’t lying. Common sources of adolescent disaffection might be found among the following.

“I don’t like how my parents are more unfair than before, are harder to please than before, criticize more than before, are less trusting than before, are more serious than before, worry more than before, ask more questions than before, set conditions for what I want more than before, refuse more than before, take away more than before, understand less than before, listen less than before, lecture more than before, are tenser to talk with than before, are more boring than before, are more embarrassing than before, demand more chores than before, talk about grades more than before, like my interests less than before.”

Detaching from childhood and becoming adolescent, detaching from parenting a child to parenting an adolescent, can both cause disaffection in the relationship. Managing these losses and frustrations from disaffection, parents must take the positive lead. This means not allowing feelings of disaffection to be expressed in words or acts of disaffection, because that can erode caring, and sense of being cared for, in the relationship.

For example, the dad who is feeling disaffected because teenage son no longer enjoys what they loved to share in childhood has no business expressing what is missed as blame: “We used to have such great times together, what’s happened to you?” For example, the mom who is feeling disaffected because of losing best friendship status to her daughter’s friends has no business expressing what is missed as criticism: “You’re not the same companion you used to be!” Or, feeling hurt from the loss, suppose the parent in question becomes less positive or interested and pulls away? Now  the adolescent might think: “My parents don’t like me anymore.” 

One challenge when parenting in the age of mutual detachment and more disaffection, as parent and adolescent increasingly let each other go, is not trying to reassert the old childhood attachment at one extreme or abandoning the relationship on the other. There is a middle way: Connecting.

Instead, parents can commit to maintaining meaningful contact with their teenager by constantly initiating positive choice points for engaging with them. This requires continually offering such contact as concern, compassion, communication, caring, communication, cooperation, companionship and the like which, when the adolescent chooses to accept, are opportunities for continuing to sustain a meaningful connection with the parents.

Although the adolescent may act like parents are now less important than in childhood, actually during the complicated passage of growing up, loyal parental dedication, abiding parental love, and ready access to the parental advice matter more than ever.

In addition, what some parents of adolescents seem not to understand is how the connected relationship they form with their teenager, during the more disaffecting detachment years, becomes the foundation on which their future relationship with the independent adult child will be built.    

For more about parenting, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENT” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and what is Enough

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