“Raising people is not some lark. It’s serious work with serious repercussions. It’s air-traffic control. You can’t step out for a minute; you can barely pause to scratch your ankle.”---Kelly Corrigan, Glitter and Glue. How can we, the parents, manage to sustain this attentive stance for over two decades? That’s an enormous number of hours logged at air-traffic control. Parenting never ends. It ebbs and flows as teens turn into young adults, but they need us forever.
What fuels us, then, to persist and even flourish in this parent-child relationship with all of its highs and lows? Perhaps it’s the feeling of connection we get from the time these little ones arrive to the time we applaud them, tears streaming down our cheeks, as they process up to receive their diploma. Connection is, after all, why we’re here. To know that others “get” us and understand why we feel the way we do is rare. It’s in these moments of being truly understood by others that we feel most deeply connected. How do we arrive at this delicious, coveted place in a relationship? It requires a lot of showing up, again and again, in the same, consistent manner. It’s that kind of reliability, persistence, and consistency that equals love. That ability to show up for another person, despite all the obstacles, is what deepens that groove of trust and connection.
Many parents ask me what they are supposed to do when their tween or teen seems to reject their love and attention. This is a bumpy place to arrive in our parenting because we no longer receive the satisfaction of “being loved back.” Instead, our teens meet our gestures of affection with an eye roll or a snarky comment. If we’re not careful, we can take this type of rebuff personally. If no one warns us of this ugly, but necessary process called “individuation,” it can be very hurtful and surprising to us, especially if we’ve spent the past twelve years doting on our child, putting our own needs on the back burner. It’s where our love and the depth of our connection to our child gets tested. Their drive for autonomy is real. It’s a biological, neurological shift that is the result of a watershed of hormones washing over their awkward, pre-teen bodies.
How to proceed? Spend some time assessing all the things that you do with your time that refuel and energize you. Look for deep and satisfying connections with reliable, admirable adults. Go back to work. Take up a new hobby. Volunteer somewhere. Write a book. Take up fly-fishing. It’s time to take stock, and to realize that you can no longer depend on your child (who is now experimenting with being a young adult) to fill you up with a sense of purpose or with a feeling of being needed. You will only end up lashing out at your teen when he fails you in this department, and that’s not fair or appropriate.
If we continue to rely on our teens to make us feel wanted or important, we create stress. Their job is to push away from us and what we stand for so that they can slowly adjust to the idea of leaving us altogether. If we thwart this process, we create an unhealthy, overly dependent young adult who is living in our basement. Think of this phase as a reset, an opportunity to build a second (or third?) act. A time to reinvent. Teaching parents about individuation is one of the greatest gifts I can give them. Parents who are not aware of this phase and all of its implications tend to lash out at their teens as they, the parents, are hijacked by their feelings of rejection. My goal is to help parents NOT be blindsided by what’s coming down the road.
When should you expect this torrent of hormones to flood your home? The age of onset seems to be getting younger and younger, unfortunately. Some girls are showing signs of breast development as early as eight or ten years old now. Remember that this period of development is a phase; it’s not a change that happens in one night. Kids tend to dip back and forth between being “a regressive child” one hour and “an emerging adolescent” the next. They take five steps forward and three steps back. This is not a straight, clean, linear process. It’s confusing to parents as well as to the teens, themselves. It might come as a surprise to them that they want to snuggle with you one evening and then they completely reject your attempt to hug them the next day when a friend is nearby.
Another piece of this awkward puzzle to keep in mind is that the more deeply attached your child was to you during her upbringing, the more intensely she will have to push away from you in order to individuate successfully. Your deep and successful attachment, the one that feels so good and so satisfying to you, is exactly the thing that will make her push away from you more fiercely. The greater the number of connections and shared experiences, the harder she’s going to need to shake you off.
Parenting is about letting go. This is the saddest, but most truthful statement about the entire job. Most of us look forward to becoming a mom, and it ends up being one of the most satisfying, fulfilling experiences of our lives. It changes us forever. Then, they begin to push us away and rejection hurts. I remind parents in my groups that it’s helpful to view this individuation process as objectively as possible. In other words, unplug you and plug in any other maternal figure, your teen would be doing the exact same thing to her. Most moms interpret the pushing away as a personal affront against them as an individual. This is simply not the case. This is when I suggest that moms think of this as just business, nothing personal. Easy to say, but hard to do.
Do we keep showing up even when they are pushing us away? Yes. In modified ways. Most teens are no longer looking for close, physical affection. So we have to get used to that. Do we keep asking “How was your day?” even when we get a grunt in response? That question was never an interesting or lucrative question to begin with so feel free to delete it. Perhaps you can replace it with a more curious question, such as “Did you hold the door for anyone today?” or “Who did you eat lunch with today?”or “Did someone make you laugh today?” or “Did you help someone out today?” Again, you might get one word answers, and that’s okay. This phase is about adjusting our expectations for connection so that we can all proceed gracefully. Know that it is your consistent, unconditional love, however, that maintains the connection despite the rocky waters of adolescence. Showing up with a loving presence, again and again, is what allows the relationship to expand and adjust.