Many parents have asked me to talk about kids pulling away as they enter adolescence. One of the key issues for us parents is the sense of loss we encounter as our kids grow. And one of the best things we can do about this is to let it happen. But then what do we do with our broken hearts? Our kids lash out, reject and hurt our feelings as they establish their separate identities, but they also regress and need our unconditional love and comfort even though they were just recently cruel toward us. A child growing up is like a lover who we are madly attached to telling us that they love us but they’re not in love with us. Ouch.
This past Monday my wife and I found ourselves driving into the setting sun as Memorial Day drew to a close. We were listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” as our boys each listened to their separate headphones in the backseat. It was so viscerally clear that these days are beautiful and fleeting and we both felt the bittersweet passing of time. How many more years will they be with us in our car, in our plans and in our way of doing and being? We both felt a little teary, but then a rock would get a bit moist listening to “Circle Game.”
Times of separation are highly confusing to parents because of that “Get out of my life, but could you first drive me to the mall,” sort of mixed messages that kids moving into teen years send out. Just as the newly venturing forth two-year-old needs to continually touch base with their parent’s leg as they start to explore the sandbox, and they need to be welcomed back and not rejected for having “rejected” the parent by exploring, likewise, the adolescent needs us to stay welcoming of their returns and yet accepting of their needs to distance. They are all over the map: aloof and rejecting, and then suddenly, and out of nowhere, she gives us a two minute hug one morning… a closeness that vanishes again like morning mist.
Besides the compassion and empathy that I sincerely wish to convey across the ether of this virtual huddle of caring parents, a few things to keep in mind as kids pull away include:
Loss is part and parcel of parenting. Love is about attaching, and then transitioning to the next stage of development, with more autonomy and more capacity to give love in both parent and child as we grow together. In fact, while parents help children develop emotionally, kids also help us parents to develop spiritually—toward more generous and abundant loving. Non-attachment does not mean not caring, instead it means recognizing that we are all part of one totality. Our trust in this helps us to love in a way that facilitates freedom and growth in our children—and in ourselves.
Good feelings that last include an appreciation of what is, and not a clinging to what was. And that is where our needs for intimacy, as well as community, come in. Perhaps our relationships with our spouses can deepen in the space provided by distancing children, or in becoming more involved with friends or community. If one is single, perhaps we become more open to new connections (be it platonic or romantic).
Still, for us parents, and especially for moms relinquishing the extreme closeness that they may have had with their daughters, this period can feel fraught with anguish akin to the break-up of our most profound soul-mate love relationship. However, with our kids it is not really a break-up, but a transition (and we know that Transition is Hard, a time when most “problems,” conflicts and misunderstandings occur in the context of growth and change).
Kids pulling away may be re-framed as the start of a new time and way of relating and not merely the end of our closeness with our children. If we allow the ebbing and flowing of separation and attachment to go at our child’s pace, striving for accurate understanding of their shifting needs, we will be eventually rewarded with a deeper relationship with a more mature person. However, this may take until they are twenty-seven to fully develop… as that is approximately when true adulthood begins in many corners of our culture, so you may want to bring along something to read and a snack.
Beyond separating to form his identity, our kid may also simply overflow with anxiety and hurt related to just being them in the world right now. This helps account for some of the cruelty which they spill over into us, and we are wise to simply hold it (and not absorb it) if we are able. This “crap” that they give us, binds them to us because they are incomplete without it. Even in adolescence, and despite all signs to the contrary, it is still us parents who “complete” our kids by containing the Shadow until they mature into the capacity to recognize and contain their own “crap.” As Dickens and Jung both recognized, there is gold in the dung, so be like the girl in Rumplestiltskin and spin that grief they dish out into the gold of loving our kids no matter what.
Also, remember that no matter how rejecting she may appear, deep down she still does want us to parent her. Also keep in mind that limits help calm anxiety, and sometimes acting out is really a child begging for a limit (as we are not helping kids by allowing disrespect and cruelty without any response, it’s more about recognizing that, kids and adults alike, when we feel good about ourselves we are kind and polite).
Our child may also be looking to us as a potential model of how to behave when someone is difficult—by watching how gracefully (or not) we deal with him and his difficult behaviors.
Being our best Selves as parents hinges less on knowing what to do (i.e. give space, don’t take it personally, stay interested and welcoming) and more on somehow being able to actually be patient, kind, interested, welcoming and not take things personally.
To that end, we can set an intention and dedicate today to being patient, kind, interested, welcoming and not taking thing personally in the service of our specific child, or children, as well as all our collective children.