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Parenting When There Is Adolescent Estrangement

As a teenager grows apart from parents, maintaining contact can be harder to do.

Key points

  • Parenting an adolescent can be more estranging than parenting a child.
  • Adolescent detachment and differentiation from childhood and parents can make connecting harder to do.
  • Showing genuine interest, expressing pride, and inviting a teen to do something fun together are some ways that parents can counter estrangement.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

Adolescence can be estranging.

As more detachment grows, more distance from the parents is created; and as more differentiation develops, more contrast to the parents is expressed. The question is how to encompass these changes.

Adolescent estrangement

To some degree, the transition from parenting a child to parenting an adolescent can feel like an estranging one—like going from being an insider to more of an outsider in the young person’s life. “I was told everything when she was a child, but now that she is older, I’m not.” “We used to share together what I love to do, but now he likes what doesn’t call to me.”

For most parents, experiencing estrangement with their teenager is only occasional (“I don’t understand how he could enjoy playing that!”). For others, it can be more ongoing (“She’s too busy with friends to spend time with me!”).

The challenge for parents is not to let healthy separation become unhealthy estrangement, where the parent feels cut off and the adolescent feels abandoned. The challenge for parents is to let go of some control to support growth while holding on through enough communication to stay in adequate contact.

How parents experience estrangement

In counseling, expressions of this parental estrangement can sound like this.

  • “I’ve lost my best buddy.”
  • “I don’t know her as well.”
  • “We have less in common.”
  • “We live in separate worlds.”
  • “He wants less time with me.”
  • “It’s harder to stay connected.”
  • “We value things so differently.”
  • “I feel like I don’t matter as much.”
  • “I’m less in touch with what’s going on.”
  • “It’s harder to find close times together now.”

Such parental expressions of estrangement announce their adjustment to how adolescence grows parent and child apart, which it is meant to do. No love has been lost, but more distancing has occurred. Now youthful entertainments, adventures, fashions, ideas, ideals, activities, preferences, priorities, and relationships all combine to create a competing world of primary experience apart from the family, where the teenager desires to spend more time and where parents do not.

Overcoming estrangement

So, the question for the parent is how to stay communicative and caringly connected to their teenager as their worlds increasingly diverge? This change need not be estranging. How can they constructively stay engaged? Consider a few holding on strategies while they are doing more letting go.

  • Bridging differences with interest: “Can you help me appreciate what you like doing now; I’d love to better understand?” The teenager is treated as a teacher.
  • Inconvenient listening: “Whenever you feel like talking, I want to stop and hear whatever you have to say.” The teenager is treated as a priority.
  • Household work: “Everyone pitching in with help shows how all of us support and strengthen the family.” The teenager is treated as a contributor.
  • Invitations for play: “I‘m always open to doing something fun together.” The teenager is treated as a companion.
  • Cheering on: “I want you to know how appreciative and impressed I am by how you’re doing.” The teenager is treated as a performer.
  • Personal sharing: “I need you to know that I’m down because of the job, not because of you.” The teenager is treated as a confidante.

The parent knows the more complicated adolescent less well than the child. This is not a problem to stop but a growing reality to accept. Knowing their teenager less does not mean loving or valuing them less, only that more independence and individuality is growing between them.

Because the adolescent is often so self-absorbed, parents must lead the effort for them to stay in adequate touch.