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5 Questions To Ask Yourself When Your Teen Keeps Telling You To Leave Them Alone

As a parent you want to know what your kid is going through, so you can offer them help when they need it most. Yet when opening the door to conversation, you may find yourself met with an audible sigh, and some version of: “Can you leave me alone?” or ‘‘I’m in the middle of something!” or “No, not now.” Feel a sigh of your own on the way? When this familiar back-and-forth exchange happens, instead of feeling exasperated and disappointed, here are five questions to help you get unstuck.

1.What might be going on below the surface?

When your attempts at connection and care elicit your teen’s frustration, and they yell at or ignore you, curiosity and empathy may be the last things you’re feeling. Your teen’s response can feel like an uncalled for personal rejection. Yet, what lies behind a teen’s pushback is often far from what you assume. If we get curious, we can appreciate the many stressors teens might want to escape by losing themselves in a game or TV series. For some, screen time can be a form of zoning-out or dissociation that serves as a coping mechanism to protect them from difficult feelings, like feeling overwhelmed or shame. Then, over time, it can become a go-to-reaction triggered by unexpected interruptions or invitations to talk. 

2. Could pushback be your teen’s way to communicate a desire for more space?

Part of being an adolescent is discovering how you are different from, rather than just similar to, your family members. Taking space from parents and the family unit helps teens figure out who they are, and where they belong. This is an important process—think of the many coming-of-age films or the many cultures that have ceremonies marking the transition from childhood into young adulthood. When this natural process comes through behaviours like distancing, it can be painful for parents and not always best for them, but it’s part of how a teen moves towards adulthood. In the space they take, they may be better able to discover who they are becoming.

3. How can I give my teen space, while keeping a sense of connection?

It’s not just in your head—your teen is likely giving you mixed messages. A part of your child wants space, while another important and primal part needs to feel securely connected, emotionally close and seen by you. Over 30 years of research has demonstrated that when we feel securely attached/bonded to our loved ones, we are more courageous and successful in our lives. Trying to respect the wish for space, while also regularly communicating and demonstrating that you are interested in them, care for them, and want to be there for them is the most important balance to strike. Try approaching gently and spending quality time, while engaging in something your teen chooses.


4. How can I work to ensure my teenager will turn to me when it really counts? 

It’s the quality of your relationship with your child that determines whether or not they’ll seek your support when they need it most. In other words, the better the quality of your connection to your child, the better you can influence them, and the more you’ll be able to protect and help them.

5. When my teen is in a confusing or unsafe situation, can they trust me to show up and support them? 

Feelings of shame, guilt, and regret often lurk behind a teen’s actions. Shutting you out or shutting down, is a way of protecting themselves. Those vulnerable feelings may be the tender, sensitive part that they are protecting. Your job is giving them a soft place to land. Generationally, we may have gotten the message that the parenting is more about teaching, course correcting or disciplining, than connecting, understanding and supporting. Yes, there may be a need for accountability, learning or readjusting boundaries. But first and foremost, when teens are dealing with hard things, they need to be able to lean on you emotionally. It’s only from the base of a strong connection that they’ll let you in, and share what they’re living through. And then, perhaps, they may even turn to your for support and guidance. 

If you and your teen feel stuck, there are options. You may want to pick up a copy of the book, How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and consider parent-support therapy as a next step.

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