My Teen is Embarrassed by Me and I Don't Know What to Do

It's normal for teenagers to be embarrassed by their parents, but difficult feelings and behaviors need to be addressed. Building and maintaining closeness takes creativity, persistence, and self-awareness.

Mom to Mean Teen

I know they say the teen years can be tricky, but my daughter—she's 16—literally doesn't want anything to do with me. It's been like this for about two years. I recently happened to read a text where she told her friend she's so embarrassed of me because I'm basically "such a mess." That really hurt and I don't know what to do. My sister says I can be overbearing and sometimes way too sensitive. I really need advice.

—Mom to Mean Teen

The teenage 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?" There's a wide range of "normal" with teens, as their bodies and brains change at lightning speed, and they go through so many critical stages of their development in a short amount of time.

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

One of the most "normal" things teens experience is being embarrassed by their parents, and they often try to separate who they are in public from who they are at home. They may choose to spend time away from home and hang out with their friends as much as possible, or avoid family when they are home and hibernate in their rooms. But being mean should not be considered "normal" behavior.

Here's how to deal with this challenging time.

Remember the Toddler Days

Teenagers are famous for regressing back to their toddler ways, probably because of neural changes that cause intense activity in the emotion centers of their brains. They can erupt unpredictably and swing between extremes, much like a toddler throwing a tantrum. It's helpful to make that comparison because we can use the skills we honed back then: Practice empathy first, but then put boundaries around the behavior. Teens are allowed to have whatever feelings they have, and they need to know that their emotions are acceptable, but they cannot act however they want. As with toddlers, however, they will be more likely to listen to you if your relationship is already solid.

Strengthen Your Relationship

A teenager intent on asserting their independence can seem difficult to reach, and it does take some creativity. You may get shot down when you ask to spend more time with them, especially if that's not something you normally do. Teens often reject their parents' attempts at seeking closeness, but two years is a long time to do that. I have no idea if your sister's description of you as "overbearing" is accurate, but the fact that your child has become distant may spur you to try harder. Unfortunately, that extra effort can drive them further away, frustrating you both and weakening your connection.

If there's one thing that all teens have in common, it's that they want to be in charge (something that's also true of toddlers!). When they feel like connecting with you, and know they can do it on their own terms, they will work harder to make it happen. You can let them know you're interested in hanging out with them, then let them decide when and where. Or if you know your child loves going to Starbucks, for example, you might say, "Hey, I was thinking of running to Starbucks this morning. Want to come?" Keeping your time together short and sweet can lessen the pressure for both of you.

The next level of connection will require having the kind of deep talks that can bring you closer. In your situation, it sounds like you both need to work up to that, and get more comfortable spending time together. Don't push too hard too fast! Interrogating your daughter about why she described you as "such a mess" (which I agree is quite hurtful!) may put both of you on the defensive, and not get you where you want to go—which is ultimately feeling more connected.

When it seems like things are easing a little between you two, you can start to leave "breadcrumb signals," slowly and subtly. The surest way to get a teenager to shut down is to pepper them with questions! Let them know you care, and that you will listen and support them, and leave it at that.

When your teen seems ready, and starts to leave their own breadcrumbs for you, proceed cautiously! Keep in mind that the less pressure you apply, the better. You might try having a conversation in the car, which can prove surprisingly fruitful. While driving, you two can talk without making direct eye contact, and there's a natural endpoint to the conversation once you reach your destination. Also try to meet your child where they are most comfortable, like over text. I recently started an important conversation with my daughter by texting her an opening question (we were two floors away from each other at the time). She responded by text, then an hour later continued the discussion in person.

Seek More Support

If you try these approaches with your teenager and get nowhere, there may be more going on than you think. Arranging your own visit with a therapist who specializes in family relationships could help you develop more insight and self-awareness, allowing you to respond to the situation in a way that better serves your relationship. Involving your teen in family therapy can be helpful, but teens do not respond well to feeling forced, so it's better to work on just supporting them first.

The Bottom Line

You may be grappling with the toughest phase of your mother-daughter relationship, but remember that this is a lifetime connection and you have time to work on it. Your desire to be closer and more connected to your child should be the guiding force behind whatever you do, encouraging you to seek greater self-awareness while being patient with when and how your daughter comes back to you.

Have a tricky parenting question? Submit it here for possible inclusion in a future 'Ask Your Mom' column.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the founder of The Art & 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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