When Kids Pull Away

May 29, 2009

Kids pulling awayMany 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.

Namaste, Bruce

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Jordan Catapano May 29, 2009 at 9:00 am

Such a beautifully written article. I found myself tearing up in several places here at my desk! Although my daughter is only 2 and my son 4, I’d like to print this out to read in ten years when I’m in the think of it with adolescent kids. Looking forward to reading more on your blog!
Jordan Catapano MGH

Reply

privilegeofparenting May 29, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Thanks so much! The time does go quickly. Meanwhile, I really like what you guys are up to at MothersGreenHouse.com.

Reply

krk May 30, 2009 at 4:52 pm

Thank you. I too am filing this for future

Thank you. I too am filing this for future reference. It is a reminder of my own behavior through the teens, and things have turned out o.k. I will
try to recall all of this and your wisdom when the time comes. KRK

Reply

Darlene June 1, 2009 at 7:58 am

Well stated! The one thing I would add is that I do insist that my 13 year old son be polite and nice as he stakes out his independence. There’s no reason for nastiness. He can ask to be left alone nicely or tell me he doesn’t agree with me respectfully. Part of growing up is being able to state your opinion without putting others down. I think that’s an important lesson to learn early on. I get upset when I hear teens and preteens insult their parents and the parents haplessly shrug as if there’s nothing they can do.

Reply

privilegeofparenting June 1, 2009 at 5:57 pm

I completely agree, manners are really important—and a sign of good self-esteem. There is a difference between expressing our pain and frustration as opposed to giving it to others. As parents we try to hold the line, but our kids do spill over and this can be quite painful. As Carole commented, not taking things personally is key (and sometimes we parents need to be validated about how exhausting it can be to deal with it all). Thanks so much for commenting—and encouraging parents to hold the line and expect manners and civility.

Reply

crb June 1, 2009 at 9:31 am

Nicely written. I am the mother of 2 teenage daughters, 15 and 17. For me what is working really well is remembering that what these 2 young ladies say or do is usually NOT about me personally…

In other words, I do not take things personally…unless I am tired. I was recently reminded by my wise and lovely father that my job now is to “Keep quiet and lead by example”.

So I listen and usually don’t talk to much unless urged on by them…my go-to method of parenting since they were little.

I am actually finding adolescence to be a wonderful experience…not more wonderful than before, but wonderful in a new and different way.

I love being a parent.

Reply

privilegeofparenting June 1, 2009 at 5:38 pm

Yes, not taking things personally is essential—and sometimes challenging. Maybe your wise and lovely dad is part of your secret? Your love for your kids radiates through your words. Thanks for commenting and offering your tranquil energy to others. I love being a parent too (even though it tests me).

Reply

Laurie June 1, 2009 at 11:34 am

Yes a reminder. My son is 10 and there are times that are quite the opposite of pulling away. There are times I feel is trying to crawl back into the womb. Love him as much is humanly possible but I find I need to ask him for my space. Do you have thoughts on this?

Reply

worthless September 16, 2010 at 5:37 pm

My daughter is 7 years old and seems to no longer want a father. I was ignored as a child and tried very hard to be the opposite of my parents. However it seems no good deed goes unpunished.

Used to be, whenever I’d walk by her, I’d stroke her hair gently, just as a gesture of affection. I’d want to hug her frequently.

Lately however, she has started acting crazy. She screams sometimes if I merely look at her. She goes nuts if I touch her hair. Or, she pulls away if I try to give her affection. She has complained about receiving too many compliments.

So, as a self-defense mechanism, I have withdrawn myself almost completely from her. No more touching. I don’t even speak to her when I pick her up at school every day.

I have nothing else in my life. I used to define myself as a father. She was the world to me. Now, I have nothing. I am seriously considering suicide, because there is nothing left for me.

I’ve tried to figure out what is going on with her, but it’s useless.

Please don’t bother telling me to get help. What help? My insurance doesn’t cover jack. I’ve seen “therapists” anyway, in the past, and they’re about as helpful as a brick to the head. The email I’ve supplied is not valid and I won’t be checking for follow-ups. I’ve truly given up.

Reply

privilegeofparenting September 16, 2010 at 10:44 pm

This is so painful to read, much less live, and my first instinct is to offer simple human empathy.

You sound aware enough about being ignored as a child, and so the pain of giving what you did not get is at a particularly excruciating juncture. Combine this with a culture profoundly lacking in compassion and failing to serve the needs of many of its suffering people and we often find ourselves floating in a sea of despair.

Deeper understanding may help a little: your kid is at a stage of differentiating, and so she needs to be separate in order to form her own identity. This is a phase, and if you can let her “reject” you without retaliating (as you say, you withdraw as self-defense) and if you can contain the pain for her, she will come back to you over time and be the stronger for it. We also heal through giving even when it seems like it will utterly destroy us.

One way to think about what you’re going through might be a “dark night of the soul,” which is a term Carolyn Myss has used, and which she suggests comes in the midst of spiritual awakening (albeit exceedingly painful); sometimes just hanging in is all we can do, but it is a world of difference compared with giving up.

I can understand that you feel hurt, but I admire you for acknowledging that you have pulled away. Sometimes growth is about trading up from one level of defense (pulling away, self-destruction) to a higher level, such as intellectual understanding or even dark humor. Your consideration of suicide make the level of your pain clear enough, but suicide often has a lot of anger in it, so please (if you do happen across these words, or someone else in your position does) do not kid yourself that your child will be better off without you.

I’ve dealt with enough children of parents who killed themselves to say that this is one of the cruelest things we can do to our kids. Live in pain if you can, even as an act of love for your child.

As for containing the feelings of our children (and understanding why it hurts so bad and how it helps see an earlier post on the colander and the bowl: http://bit.ly/cLpprH); as for suicide, see a post on suicide which is specifically about suicidal kids, but applies to adults as well (http://bit.ly/cmL1jl); at this post there are links to suicide hotlines. I have personally known some very excellent and caring people who have worked these hotlines, purely out of love and for no money at all, so please, please try them.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to wait when suicide comes into our minds—one thinks of self-harm when one is in terrible distress and such a state of distress and agitation is never a good time to make any big life decision, especially the decision about living itself.

I would encourage any who come across these words to join me not in analyzing what it means to leave this message, but in sending compassion and good wishes to any parent who is at the end of his or her rope, anguished in their own darkest places, for on any given day it could be any one of us who needs that love, compassion and good wishes. It is better to express our anger and despair than to act on it, so we might welcome these words, painful as they are, and hope the expressing of them might have helped the distraught parent in some small way.

Reply

Deanna November 19, 2012 at 9:59 am

God, I needed to read this. And my daughter is 24. Thanks.

Reply

Bruce November 19, 2012 at 7:52 pm

so lovely to hear this was helpful to you, even as your girl is 24, even as several years have passed since I wrote this, even as I myself struggle with the coming, goings and growings of my boys.

All Best Wishes, Deanna

Reply

Tandy July 9, 2013 at 7:38 pm

This was good words of advice. My beloved daughter just turned 12. We were extremely close and I relished our relationship. But lately, she ignores me. I didn’t expect the change in our relationship to come so soon and be so dramatic. I feel a terrible sense of loss. She was my best friend.

Reply

Bruce July 9, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Hi Tandy,

Thanks for taking the time to share your feelings with myself and other readers who may happen across your words. I hope your relationships with your daughter continues to grow and you discover that you love each other more and more, but in growing and differing ways. Her development turns out to be a challenge to both of you, but also an opportunity to learn new things about each other and your own selves and to grow.

Wishing you, your girl and your relationship all the best for the long-haul!

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: