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. But most fifteen year olds say they wish they could talk with their parents; they just don't know how to be closer.

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.

First, fight to stay close to your daughter. Do not let her push you away. She still needs you, she just can't acknowledge it. Find every opportunity to connect. Hug her hello every morning, and when you see her again later in the day. Hug her goodbye when she leaves for school.

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 find that time just before bed to be the time my daughter is least distracted by other things, and most willing to open her heart to me.

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."

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.

Set appropriate limits, but focus first on the relationship, not on discipline. You'll get no respect if she doesn't feel connected to you. Don't take anything she says or does personally. Teenage girls are famous for feeling like their moms "Just don't understand!" 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.

Cultivate empathy for your daughter. 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.

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.

Then 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.

The other, obvious, opportunity to build the family connection is holidays. 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, my own family has eight nights of Chanuka, but Christmas offers similar opportunities for family connection. But make December about connecting, not about achieving particular results. In other words, pull out the decorations and get her to help you, but don't worry what the house looks like, focus on connecting with your daughter. 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, or 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.

I find that taking teens to dinner often gets them to open up and talk. You and your husband might want to take her to a fancy restaurant for her birthday or for some other celebration.

You'll also want to set some limits around screen time. If your daughter 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.

The important thing is the mood in the 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 favorite book on parenting teenagers: Michael Riera's Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They're Really Saying. This book will really help you understand your teen's communication code, and give you more ideas for staying close.

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

Dr. Laura

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