You knew it would happen, but you never thought it would happen this fast: Your child has become a teen. And now, suddenly, everything about you is annoying or embarrassing—the shirt you’re wearing, the way you walk, the questions you ask, the gifts you buy, the pace at which you spread cream cheese on your bagel. The kid can’t stand being around you. Yes, this kid. The same darling child who once jumped into your arms whenever you picked him up from preschool, the one you called your shadow because he would never leave your side. What happened?
Adolescence happened, and as frustrating and painful as it can be for you as a parent, the fact that your kid is “allergic” to you is healthy. Really. Asher Brauner, a family therapist in Santa Cruz, California who has worked with adolescents for years, tells me that teenagers have an “inner mandate to individuate”—or as Kelly Clarkson might say, break away. This, of course, is a massive feat. The kid has relied on you for so many years (you’ve wiped their bottoms and peeled their grapes, for goodness sake). When they suddenly try to assert independence, things are bound to get messy.
Brauner’s advice for parents: Don’t make it worse.
In his practice, he has seen parents make it worse. “We know how it can go,” he says. “The kid yells a little bit. The parent yells a lot. The kid says, ‘I don’t like this.’ The parent says, ‘Well, you’re grounded.’ And then the kid says ‘Fuck you.’ And now where are we?”
Teenagers, he adds, “aren’t dropped in from space.” They’re still themselves—just more emotional, dramatic, and sometimes really cranky versions of themselves. “They’re human beings,” he says. “They want respect and need to be heard. They are no different from you and me or anyone else in wanting to be understood.”
He shared some ways parents can support their teen through this difficult phase and come out alive on the other side.
Start Way, Way Before They Become Teens
Brauner believes that parents who start teaching basics like “Don’t be rude” when their kid is a teen have already lost half the battle. That work must start earlier, he says, way earlier. You’ve got to lay the groundwork at around age three, and reinforce it often.“Young people go through a a major struggle to identify their power at two times: when they’re toddlers and when they’re teenagers,” he says. “When they’re toddlers, it’s a good idea to make it clear that you mean what you say and you say what you mean, in a loving and firm way, so that trust is built.” If you do this, he says, when the kids grow up, they’ll have a baseline understanding of your expectations.
He gives this example: “You might say, ‘You may not drink alcohol. I’m not angry at you. I’m not upset about the possibility that you would think about doing such a thing, but it’s just not okay.’ When you say ‘not okay’ to a 14-year-old and you’ve been saying it for 10 years and they’re used to it, they might chafe at it a little bit, but they assume at this point, ‘My parents mean me well.’”
Don’t Take It Personally
Parents are often the problem more than their teenagers, Brauner says. They overreact when their teens huff or roll their eyes. They take it personally, thinking I didn’t raise you to act this way. “Parents who take every minor provocation personally are signaling to their teenagers that they are so very powerful that their every move can destroy their parents’ day,” Brauner says. “That’s a foolish message.” When a teenager’s world becomes uncertain, they seek security by testing their parents. When they lash out, they are implicitly asking you, “Can I still trust you to be strong?” The way to say “yes,” Brauner says, is to not let them rile you up.