As your teen leaves for school, you open your arms to hug her goodbye. She receives the hug like a telephone pole being grappled by a porcupine. Ouch. Your heart drops. Where did your sweet little girl go? What did you do to make her rebuff you?
Many parents of teens experience similar moments—which often prompt paralyzing worry. A torrent of guilt, hurt, and shame suddenly surges because of a misunderstanding: Parents mistakenly take their child’s behavior personally.
Parents immediately assume that the rejection is their fault. Of course it is, they reason, because they are the ones with the power and the influence over their children. There is truth to that, but sometimes kids have feelings and thoughts that are completely outside of the influence of their parents. As parents, it is crucial that we understand this.
Learning to Be Independent
Teens go through developmental stages where they are learning independence, and this means creating some separation from their parents. They can do ridiculous and hurtful things to parents. A 13-year-old girl who has always been affectionate with her father suddenly refuses to let him hug her. Her posture says, “Get away from me, you creepy person.”
Sadly, many fathers errantly believe that their sweet daughter no longer likes them, and perhaps that they really are creepy. A dad may conclude that if she doesn’t want anything to do with him, he might as well back away.
Don’t do this. When a daughter rejects you, she is really saying, “I don’t like who I am. Everyone stares at me because I’m too fat, too tall, ugly, stupid, and so on.” Her behavior shows that she is rejecting herself, not her parent. This is painful for parents.
Healthy teen development can prompt kids to act kind one minute and snarky the next. They are in turmoil. One day they want their space, and the next day they want their parents. There is no consistency in their behavior. One day a boy will spend the afternoon playing video games alone in his room, and the next day he will want to change the car oil with his dad. Their moods can fluctuate wildly, but we need to remember that, after several years, this fluctuation dissipates in most teens. Our job is to simply hold on and try to keep our teens safe until that happens.
Sometimes, what looks like normal teen development is really depression or anxiety. Parents can make the mistake of accepting warning signs as normal teen behavior. Here’s how you can tell the difference between healthy teen separation and depression or anxiety, both of which have skyrocketed during COVID-19.
Symptoms of depression include:
• isolation to the point of rarely interacting with family members, such as spending every afternoon alone in their room
• change in friends
• change in sleep patterns
• change in appetite
• inability to focus
• stops talking with friends as much
• talks about dying and the way he would kill himself if he were going to do it
• stops enjoying things he or she always has
• constant fatigue
• changes in the way he or she dresses
• lets appearance get sloppy
If a teen has more than three of these, consider the possibility of depression and take your teen to a physician.
Boston Children’s Hospital saw a 47 percent increase in children hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or attempts between July and October 2020, compared to the same period in 2021, according to a WBUR report.
However, do not parent from fear. Be wise and cautious while showing increased affection and attention to your teen. If you are concerned that he is depressed, rather than dance around the issue, just ask. Many teens feel relieved when someone addresses a problem.
How to Help Your Teen
Whether your teen is adjusting fairly well to life changes, showing healthy separation from you, or living with depression, there are some important things parents can do to help their teen.
First, as I said earlier, never take your teen’s behavior personally. Most of the time, bad behavior isn’t about you. It’s about them. If you focus on what you might have done to cause the behavior, you become emotionally entangled, inhibiting you from handling the situation well.
Second, when your teen pushes you away, change the way you approach him, but never back away. Rejection of you connotes rejection of himself, and what he needs is understanding, attention, and affirmation. So rather than say, “What’s wrong with you? You never treated me this way before,” say something like, “I’ve noticed that you aren’t yourself lately. I know that this is normal, but if I can do anything to help make life better, please tell me. You can trust me, and I’ll always have your back.”
This is hard to say to a teen who is acting nasty, but it is the surest way to help him.
Third, be affectionate. Again, this is tough—particularly when you want to string him up—but what he needs when he feels horrible is to know that no matter what, you love him. He can be as nasty as he wants and sit in his room for the rest of his life, but there is nothing he can do to make you stop loving him. Being affectionate lets him know this.
Most teens no longer want the same kind of affection, and that’s OK. Rather than hug and kiss your daughter in front of her friends, do it privately. If she is completely uncomfortable hugging, simply touch the top of her head or shoulders. One of the best ways to show affection is to go into your teen’s room at night and sit at the end of the bed, asking about their day, even for just a few minutes.
Watching a teen go through painful stages is hard. But here is one thing that I know for sure: You can do it.