Identity in Adolescence

When Teens Push Us Away, Let's Get Creative With Connection

“I know that I want to raise an independent kid who eventually goes off into the world,” a parent recently shared. “But I just don’t like this in between part.” 

“What part?” I asked. 

“Oh just the part where they wrench themselves away from the family and treat me like an unwanted roommate,” they replied laughing (in that way that might turn to crying and then laughing again). 

“Oh yeah. That part,” I said. “No – that’s not easy.” 

Parent talking with teens

The road to independence can be bumpy

The words that this parent used to describe this part of growing up, of “wrenching themselves from the family,” is a pretty accurate description of a process that is key to adolescent development. Psychologists have a more technical term. They call it “separation-individuation.” 

Whether you experience it as wrenching or individuating, one of a kid’s main jobs is to form an identity in adolescence that is separate from their parents. This can involve trying new things, jumping into new experiences, or experimenting with different forms of expression. Especially in early adolescence, it can also involve testing boundaries, pushing back against authority, and generally trying to widen the distance between themselves and their parents. 

The parenting challenge is that renegotiating our relationship with our kids isn’t always easy. We don’t exchange pleasantries, agree on the new terms of our relationship, and carry forward. Instead, most young teens (and adults) experience a push and pull that can be as confusing on the inside as it appears on the outside.  

Plus not all young people navigate this gradual shift from dependence to independence in exactly the same way. Some jump at it with gusto and others dip their toes in more gradually. No matter what it looks like though, forming their own identity in adolescence is an important developmental stage. 

Loosen, but don’t let go

The art of raising a teenager is figuring out that delicate balance between independence and connection. They often ask for the former. The latter not so much. Yet a mountain of research shows that our capacity to stay connected to teens as they figure out who they are is a major protective factor for their mental health and wellbeing. 

Teenagers may not always know how to ask for it or thank us for our efforts, but they still need connection.

Does this mean that we try to connect with young teenagers in the same ways as when they were in fourth grade? We could try, but we shouldn’t be surprised to get some pushback. Our kids are going through big changes, and our connecting opportunities need to change too. Keeping three things in mind can help us hang together when the road gets rocky. 

Change our expectations

Expecting our teens to want to connect with us in the same way that they did when they were younger tends to backfire. I have fond memories of taking early morning walks with my kids when they woke up with the sun. Those walks tended were filled with observations and conversations. Since I am a morning person, we were perfectly synchronized. 

For most teens, early mornings are no longer the ideal times to create positive memories. In fact, the times that work best for us may not be ideal for them. Instead, young people are eager to connect with adults on their own schedule and their own terms. This mismatch can lead to frustration on both sides. 

It’s easy to get discouraged when our best attempts to spark conversation are dismissed. For tweens, our mistimed invitations can feel intrusive or annoying. 

But given a little time and space, most teens will take small opportunities on their own terms to start the conversations that they want or need to have. It could be in the car, well after our bedtime, on their way out the door, or while we are watching a show side by side. The catch? We have to be ready to take their invitation.

Maintain rituals

Just because we change our expectations doesn’t mean we sacrifice rituals and tradition. Young people need to know that they are still part of a family and that we don’t give up on the unique things that make our family ours just because we are all growing and changing. Maybe it is a family movie night, a special recipe, a family ritual, or a cultural tradition. 

Since my kids were little I’ve shared their “important things” with them at bedtime. It is a sweet bedtime ritual I learned from a friend. When my kids were young they would ask for their “important things,” sinking back into their beds as they listened attentively to my words. These days, our kids are a lot older and bedtime looks really different. Some nights I am not even sure my middle schooler cares if I am around.

In the past month though I’ve been traveling for work and have missed a number of bedtimes. Now that they are fairly self-sufficient this isn’t nearly as big of a deal as it would have been years ago. But when I got home last week I knocked on my kids’ door and quietly let myself into their darkened room. “Oh good you’re home,” my middle schooler said quietly. “You can say our important things now.” 

I’m not sure that I will get many more direct acknowledgements that this nightly ritual still matters. And it will likely need to change and grow alongside them in the years ahead. But holding on to the things that hold our families together is often just what they need as they break away to figure out who they are.

Nurture a network of relationships

It is important to remember that your kids might not want to connect with you at any given time, but they might want or need to talk with another caring adult. You might be too close or the issue might feel too loaded. The good news is that young people benefit from a wide variety of relationships that they can lean on as they grow up. 

Summarizing decades of positive youth development research, Search Institute uses the metaphor of a gingko tree to represent youth thriving. The visible leaves and branches represent the positive outcomes we want for all teenagers. These outcomes are certainly influenced by the quality of soil, the supporting structures, and community context and conditions. But developmental relationships are the “system of roots” that help young people grow. Importantly, these trees don’t have just one taproot. Instead, young people benefit from relationships with many adults in many different spaces.

In other words, we don’t carry the responsibility for connection alone. Cultivating a network of relationships for teens – including teachers, coaches, teaching artists, neighbors, bosses, mentors, and extended family – provides much-needed stability during times of big change. 

Parenting teens requires taking a long view

It can be emotionally exhausting to maintain connection with your teenager while their job is to push you away. Forming an identity in adolescence can be overwhelming and if your kid is in a particularly rough spot they aren’t likely to thank you for your efforts. But the work we put in to maintaining connection is well worth it for all of us. Getting creative with with connection helps buffer tweens and teens from the challenges of adolescence. It also gives them the security they need to step into their lives and figure out who they are without us. The good news? They tend to come back. And when they do, we get to keep marveling at who they are becoming.