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When Your Teen Turns away from Family

Sophie Louise CC

William McKenna, M.S. - published on 11/19/15

Ask IPS: Advice from psychological experts, drawing on Catholic faith and modern psychology

Question: My adolescent daughter has suddenly decided that she only wants to talk to her friends and distances herself from the family. We are afraid that her independence is isolating her from family relationships and our guidance. Do you have any recommendations for how to get her to open up to us again?

William McKenna, MS; Clinical Psychology Extern at Catholic Charities: Growing up seems to not only be painful for children but for their parents.  So many parents tell me how much they want to protect their children and fear how our current society may harm them. A good way to understand what your family is experiencing is to use the family life cycle. The family life cycle can be used to predict certain moments in all families where they may become distressed and provide accompanying goals that will help alleviate that distress. According to the model, your family is currently in the fourth stage of that cycle. This includes a family with adolescents where the goal is to expand the family’s flexibility to partly include a child’s independence.

It seems to me that you should do your best to give your child chances to express her independence, but only after she has proven to be trustworthy. For example, giving her small tasks such as watching her younger siblings or seeing if she can keep her room clean without needing a reminder can help you assess whether or not she is demonstrating the emotional maturity needed to be independent. Once you have done that, I would advise still being cautious with her independence. Parents should always remember that their vocation calls for them to be the primary educators of their children and to raise them in such a way that they can lead lives of adult virtue. Therefore, you have every right to exercise prudence in how your daughter progresses toward total freedom. It can be a tricky balance!

In addition to prudently giving her more independence and honoring good self-expression, I would advise you to reflect on your own development and growth. In that way you will begin to build empathy for her and seek a greater understanding for her wants and desires. An empathetic stance will help you focus more on hearing her out, which will help your relationship to grow and deepen through the conflicts, instead of trying to correct their behavior all the time. I wish there was an easy and straightforward answer that you could immediately implement to have her instantly start preferring you both again. But human beings are complex, and a simple answer would insult that complexity. One final thought: always remember that children can be resilient when handling life situations, and a good parenting attachment technique is to focus on providing warmth and structure as your children grow.

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