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It is normal for teenagers to be embarrassed by their parents, but difficult feelings and behaviors need to be addressed within the context of a close relationship. Building and maintaining this closeness takes creativity and persistence, and often, our own self-awareness.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
April 01, 2021
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The teen years can be more than tricky, they can be bewildering and painful. One of the biggest challenges faced by parents I work with is figuring out, "is this normal teenage stuff, or something more?" The range of "normal" with teens is as wide and diverse as they are, as their bodies and brains change at lightning speed, and they go through critical developmental stages in a short amount of time.

An illustration of a teenage girl on her phone and her sad mom in the background.
Credit: Illustration: Yeji Kim.

One of those "normal" teen things is to be embarrassed by parents, and to want to separate who they are in the world from who they are at home. They often do this by literally staying away from home as much time as possible with friends, or even staying away from family while at home, hibernating in their rooms. What does not need to be a normal part of this process, however, is being mean to everyone in the process.

Recall the Toddler Days

Teens are famous for regressing back to toddler ways, probably because of brain changes causing intense activity in the emotion centers of the brain. They can unpredictably erupt and swing between extremes, reminding parents of toddler tantrums. It's helpful to make that comparison because we can borrow from what we know works with toddlers! Empathy first, but boundaries around behaviors. They can have whatever feelings they need to have, and know those emotions are acceptable, but they cannot act however they want. As with toddlers, however, these behavior corrections are most effective in the context of a close parent-child relationship.

Rebuild Your Relationship Slowly

A teenager intent on her independence can feel difficult to reach, and it does take some creativity. Typically, direct requests for spending time together, especially if that has not happened for a long time, get firmly shot down. Two years is different from the usual teenage dance between rejecting parents and seeking closeness. I have no idea if your sister's description of you as "overbearing" is accurate, but it's very common to try harder the more your child seems distant. This effort often drives that child further away, in a cycle of total frustration, and less and less connection.

If there's any commonality in teens, it is that they want to be in charge (also true for toddlers!). The more that she can feel like connecting with you is on her terms, the more likely it is to happen. This can look like letting her know you are interested in hanging out with her, and it's up to her when and where. If you know she loves going to Starbucks, it could be a casual, "hey I was thinking of running to Starbucks this morning, want to come?" Time together can be short and sweet, at least to start, so it feels like less pressure all around.

The next level of connection is having those deep talks that build closeness. In your situation, it sounds like you need to work up to that by becoming more comfortable spending time together. So, don't push too hard too fast! You mention the hurtful text. Debating with her about why she would describe you as "such a mess" (I agree this is quite hurtful!) will likely put both of you on the defensive, and not get you where you want to go, which is ultimately feeling more connected.

Once you feel like it has become easier to spend time together, then start to leave breadcrumb signals, slowly and with subtlety. The surest way to shut a teen down is to pepper them with questions! Let her know you care, you are there to listen and support her, and leave it at that.

When she seems ready and throws you some breadcrumbs, proceed cautiously! Keep in mind the less pressure the better; for example, conversations in the car can be surprisingly fruitful. While driving, you two can talk without direct eye contact, and the conversation has a clear endpoint once you reach your destination. Or, you meet her where she is most comfortable, like over text. I recently started a conversation I had been wanting to have with my daughter by texting her an opening question (we were two floors away from each other). She initially responded by text, and an hour later, came to have this very important talk in person.

Seek More Support

If you try these approaches and get nowhere, there may be more going on here that needs attention. Seeing a therapist who specializes in family relationships could help you develop more insight and self-awareness so you can respond to your daughter in a way that feels better for your relationship. Depending on the dynamics, involving your daughter in family therapy could also be helpful, but teens usually do not respond well to forced therapy so getting your support is likely the best first step.

The Bottom Line

You may be in the midst of the toughest phase of your mother-daughter relationship, but remember this is a lifetime relationship and you have time to work on it. Your desire to be closer and more connected can guide you in putting in the hard work, both around your own self-awareness and in being patient with when and how your daughter comes back to you.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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