Teenager pulling away from family

Dr. Laura,
I have a 15 yr. old daughter. Her biological father hasn't been in her life since she was 2. My husband now has been in our lives since she was 4. My husband & I also have a daughter who is 7. We all live together as a family all of the time. I just worry about my teenager and her relationships with me and her stepfather. Most of the time she just stays in her room and doesn't want to participate in any family activities. Can you give me some advice on what we can do to bring us closer together?  P.S. I love this website! Sure wish I had found it a LONG time ago!

I hear your worry and hurt. It might help to remember that your 15 year old daughter might be pulling away even if your husband was her biological father. It is normal for teens to want to establish their independence. That means distancing themselves a bit from their families. She's practicing for the day -- not so long from now -- when she will need to stand on her own two feet as an independent person.

But teens do need to know their parents are there for them. In fact, most fifteen year olds say they wish they could talk with their parents; they just don't know how to be closer. Here's how.

1. Work to stay close to your daughter.

You ask what you can do to bring your daughter closer. I would start with your individual relationship with her.

Remember when she was little, at the playground, and kept yelling for you to "Look at me, Mommy!" when she hung on the monkey bars? She still needs to feel seen by you to feel good about herself and her new achievements. She needs attention, but it has to be the kind of attention that supports, rather than limits her.

She still needs you, she just can't acknowledge it. Find every opportunity to warmly connect. Hug her hello every morning, hug her goodbye when she leaves for school and when you are reunited later in the day.

Use car rides as a time to connect. (Most people feel safer talking in cars because eye contact is limited and the ride is guaranteed to end!) If she'll let you, lie down next to her for a few minutes as she's going to bed at night to discuss her day and have a few minutes of quiet connection. I often hear from parents that car rides and the time just before bed are the two times when they have their best discussions with their teens.

Create regular times, at least once a week, when you go together for brunch or a manicure or a walk, and make the most of those opportunities to connect. For ideas on conversations to have with your teen, check out the articles in the section of this website called Talking with your kids, especially 230 Conversation Starters for Family Discussions

When you talk with your daughter, resist the urge to lecture. Just listen. Give your daughter the space to be a separate person, with her own developing identity. If you can do that, she won't need to push you away in order to become herself.

2. Don't take it personally. Teens do need to feel like they can make their own decisions and navigate the world well, so they famously push their parents away. It helps them feel more confident. That means they start finding us annoying, which can really hurt. Worse yet, sometimes they ricochet back into toddler mode, whining that they can't manage something they handled fine just last week, and needing a lot of our attention and encouragement. Then, as soon as we get excited about reconnecting and enjoying some time with them, they're too busy with their friends and activities to give us the time of day again!

Try not to feel hurt by that. In fact, try not to feel hurt by anything she does. Most of it is not about you at all, but about her urgent need to shape an identity as a separate, independent person. So just breathe and stay calm. The minute you get triggered, you're pushing her away.

Remind yourself that this is all part of becoming comfortable with independence, sort of the teen version of the toddler's alternating "do it myself" with meltdowns. When you do feel hurt, remind yourself that your job as a parent is to be her safe foundation, so she can grow her wings and experiment with leaving the nest in safe ways -- knowing that you're waiting when she needs to refuel.

What if she's actually mean, which is a step beyond the usual annoyance of pushing you away? If your teen makes frequent cutting remarks, it's a sign of a relationship that needs strengthening. You'll get no respect if she doesn't feel connected to you. Which brings us to...

3. Seek first to understand. If your teen says something hurtful, don't attack back. But do set a clear limit. And invite her to work things out with you in a positive way, to get on a better footing with each other. Say "Ouch! Are you trying to hurt my feelings? You must be mad at me to use that tone/words like that. Tell me what's upsetting you, Sweetheart. We can work this out." In other words, acknowledge that your teen is upset and take responsibility for any way in which you're contributing to the unhappiness. Your job is always to de-escalate the drama. 

Teenage girls are famous for feeling like their moms "Just don't understand!" You'll need to cultivate a whole new level of empathy for your daughter now. As you listen, remind yourself that the upset of the moment may not seem like a big deal to you, but to her it feels like the end of the world.

Teenage girls can be volatile. If we can empathize with them, look for the upset under the disrespect, and remind them of who they really are ("You don't usually act unkindly"), we create an opening. The inevitable ruptures of daily life become opportunities to model so many lessons: how to process their emotions, how to repair an emotional rift, how to problem solve, that they can trust us. Most importantly, we end these interactions with a stronger relationship.

4. Change your discipline. If you have been using conventional parenting, starting with time outs and then moving to "consequences," then your teen has a view of relationships that includes using power over someone else, in place of working out win-win solutions based on respect and communications. The symptoms? Mean comments and disrespect,  edging into defiance and lying. I'm not hearing any of that in your note, so I'm hoping that is not part of what's going on with your daughter, but most parents can use a refresher on the most effective discipline for teens: Beyond Discipline for Teens. In a nutshell: Set appropriate limits, but focus first on the relationship, not on discipline. Instead of responding to infractions with punishment, expect your teen to repair relationships and trust when her behavior has damaged them. 

5. Set limits around screen time.  If your daughter is in her room alone, she is probably on her devices. Talk with her about common-sense rules around technology use and family participation. If she leaves her phone at the charging station by the front door when she comes home, she's less likely to stay in her room scrolling through Instagram.

For more on tech agreements:

The First Cell Phone: Rules for Responsibility

Internet Smarts: Keeping Your Child Safe Online

6. Require dinners with the rest of the family at least four days a week. Research* shows that even when relationships between parents and teens are strained, family dinners are important for teens. They do better in school, are happier, and are less prone to depression and anxiety.

7. Deepen your discussions with your daughter.  One step at a time, you will see that your relationship with your daughter is getting closer. In a few weeks, you can raise the issue of how important it is to you that you are all a family together. Ask what she thinks about your family. Some ideas for questions:

* How do you think your friends' families compare to ours? Are they about as close? Closer? More distant? Why do you think that? Do you think your friends talk to their parents? What do you think makes a family close?

* Do you feel like you could talk with me about anything at all?

* How do your stepdad and I compare to your friends' parents? Are we about as strict? More? Less?

* Do you ever miss your dad?

* Do you think things would be different if your dad was still with us and I had never met your stepdad? How?

* Even though your stepdad is not your biological dad, you know he adores you. Do you feel close to him?

* You know, to your little sister you are completely her sister, not her stepsister. Do you feel that way, or is it different for you? Do you feel close to her? When you both grow up, do you think you will stay connected?

Your daughter may have a lot of feelings about her biological father, and about her sister's arrival -- even though it was seven years ago! Try to just listen, and empathize, without getting defensive. She may need to go slowly in this exploration, but if you can defuse the conversation and just accept whatever feelings she has, and keep a gentle, accepting tone, she will probably keep talking. Obviously, this is not one big conversation, but many small ones, over time. It will probably keep unfolding over months. But if your daughter gets the chance to process her feelings about all this, she will probably be able to relax more into your family.

8. Ask your daughter what kinds of activities you could all do together that would make it feel like a family to her. The big age difference between your girls makes it harder, but the four of you can certainly play some games together (choose games of chance, rather than of skill), have good conversations at dinner, go to a museum or for a walk, etc.

9. Use holidays as an easy way to build family connection. If you can develop rituals that connect your family during the various holidays, your daughter will start to feel more like part of the family.

Some ideas:

  • Bake pies with both your daughters at Thanksgiving.
  • In December, pull out the decorations and get her to help you, but don't worry what the house looks like -- focus on connecting.
  • Go gift shopping with her for your other daughter and husband, and make it about her -- take her to lunch, encourage her to try on clothes and buy her something she covets, or just make sure your conversation in the car is really special.
  • Invite her friends over for a holiday cookie-baking party. Be the fly on the wall, assisting as necessary, and just enjoying as the young people talk. If she isn't interested, ask if she will help you host a cookie-baking party for your younger daughter.
  • Have a family evening where you make holiday cards, or write them, or make gift-wrap, or wrap gifts.
  • Ask if she will volunteer with you at a soup kitchen some Saturday.
  • You can keep this up all year long with a New Years ritual in which each person in the family says what they are leaving behind and what they're looking forward to, making each other homemade Valentines cards, etc.

There are more ideas to bring your family closer with holiday rituals in the Rituals & Traditions section of this website. But you get the idea. Find ways to celebrate as a family.

10. Take her to dinner, WITH her stepdad. I find that taking teens to dinner often gets them to open up and talk. This also recognizes her new maturity, and different role in your family, since she is older than her sister. But it also reinforces her relationship with your husband. You and your husband might want to take her to a restaurant for her birthday or for some other celebration.

And the most important thing of all? The mood in your family. If you and your husband can focus on creating a warm, playful, welcoming atmosphere, you may find that your daughter is hanging out with you more.

I want to end this letter by recommending my two favorite books on parenting teenagers:

Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They're Really Saying by Michael Riera. This book will really help you understand your teen's communication code, and give you more ideas for staying close.

Untangled by Lisa Damour. This book is indispensable for parents of teen girls. 

I hope this helps. I wish you and your daughter every blessing.

Dr. Laura

 

*Family Dinners: Luthar and Latendresse (2005). Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2005 Feb;14(1):49-53.


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Thank you so much for this great advice! You give me ideas for how I can "do it better" and that lifts me up with hope and positivity too!