Navigating the Path to Independence
“My 13 year old wants to spend all her time with her friends. Isn’t that our goal, raising them to be independent? Why all this focus on keeping them close?”
If we've accepted our child's dependency needs AND affirmed her development into her own separate person, she'll stay fiercely connected to us even as her focus shifts to peers, high school and the passions that make her soul sing.
It's appropriate for teens to want to spend more time with their peers than their parents as they get older, but kids who are well grounded in their families will respond well to parents' efforts to stay connected. And parents who have bonded adequately with their children at each earlier stage will feel invested enough in their teens to stay connected, even if a lot of effort is required.
critical, during the teen years, for parents to remain their
children’s emotional and moral compass. Kids will begin to experiment
with intimate relationships outside the family, but to do that
successfully, they still rely on those intimate relationships at home
remaining solid. That means that a 13 year old who focuses mostly
outwards is probably looking for something he wasn’t getting at home.
We need to invite our children to rely on us emotionally until they’re emotionally ready to depend on themselves. Too often, in our culture, we let teenagers transfer their dependency outside the family, with disastrous results. Teens often give up a great deal of themselves in pursuit of the closeness they crave, only to crash against the hard reality that other teens aren’t developmentally able to offer them what they need.
It is NOT a sign of healthy emotional development for a teen to push parents away, or for parents to let him. That’s a sign of a damaged relationship. Attempting to parent when your relationship with your child is damaged is like pushing a boulder uphill. It’s never too late in your relationship with your child to do repair work, to move closer. But it’s a whole lot harder to build the strong connection you want if the foundation isn’t there.
If you're feeling like your teen is a thousand miles away, you're probably also feeling critical. Without understanding your teen's inner life, it's hard to understand his choices. I'm not saying that even with more connection you'll like his choices, or that you'd make the same ones. That's one of the benefits of being an adult -- hopefully you have better judgment than your teen! His frontal cortex is still developing into his twenties, so he's still building his impulse control and the ability to foresee the consequences of his actions. Good judgment, after all, develops from experience combined with reflection. Life will provide your teen with experience. Your job is to make sure he has the opportunity to reflect on his experience. But you can't do that by rubbing his nose in his bad decisions. You have to ask good questions and let him come to his own conclusions.
So start slow, with connection. Find ways to be with your teen daily, and longer times on weekends. Listen more than you talk. As Stephen Covey says, "Seek first to understand." Over time, your connection with your teen will deepen, even while she's spending lots of time with her friends and activities. In fact, don't be surprised if she plops down on your bed some night just when you're about to turn out the light to sleep, and wants to talk about what's going on in your life. I know, you need your sleep -- but what a vote of confidence from a teen! Every teen needs at least one relationship like that as she journeys toward independence.