Family Therapy: Navigating the Teen Transition

Amid the drama and need for independence, kids still crave parental reassurance.

Carl Grody
Carl Grody

Imagine you’re driving on a hilly country road, window down, tunes blaring. You crest a hill, expecting the thrill of a stomach drop, but your heart skips a beat instead because a truck’s barreling at you hugging the center line.

That’s what it’s like when your child suddenly becomes a teen.

It doesn’t seem fair, of course. You were in a good parenting groove. You knew your kid, you knew their personality, you knew their moods. You knew when to give them space, and you knew when to step in and help.

But somewhere in the tween/early teen years, your child changes developmentally. Suddenly, it’s their job to reinvent themselves separately from you. They want you out of their face, out of their room and out of their business. Except for when they don’t. And you’re supposed to know the difference.

It becomes, “Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Why are you leaving me alone!??”

Isn’t parenting fun?

Parenting teens often feels like the dark arts, but it doesn’t have to be mysterious. The experience is similar to raising toddlers, only with bigger feelings, more hormones and the ability to crash a two-ton hunk of metal into things for which you’re financially liable.

Again, fun.

Teens hate the toddler analogy when they hear it, but it’s not as disrespectful as it sounds. It just means that the two major independence leaps for kids are as toddlers and teens. Toddlers can finally communicate more easily, make friends and explore on their own. But if you watch a group of toddlers at the playground, you’ll see them occasionally look for their parents. That’s because they know they still need protection. Mom and Dad keep them from wandering off. Mom and Dad protect them from mean people. Mom and Dad keep them from climbing too high. Mom and Dad keep them safe.

Jump forward 10 years. Now your kid is 13, thinks they need more freedom and can argue you into hiding. But the world of a 13-year-old feels more overwhelming than the playground feels to the toddler, and even the most stubborn teen realizes they don’t know everything. (Really, it’s true. I wouldn’t lie to you.)

Parents end up in sessions with me wondering where their loving little darlings went. It seems the kids forgot every long-standing family rule as well as the manners that God gave a feral cat. It’s like puberty melted their brains.

But they didn’t actually forget the rules or their manners. (Again, I swear on my honor as a social worker.) They just don’t want to admit they still need them.

When toddlers feel anxious, they turn to you for protection. You create a “box” of rules and boundaries within which they can safely explore their world, and they’re happy with that. For teens, it’s not so simple. They want you to leave them alone, then wonder why you don’t care enough to make them do the right thing. When teens feel overwhelmed, they’ll often break long-standing rules simply because they crave the boundaries that protect them. And the more anxious they feel, the more they want those boundaries. When they stomp away screaming that you’re the worst parent in the world, they’re also relieved that you care enough to expect them to do the right thing.

The message is simple: Mom and Dad still love me.

As with all things in life, balance is the key. Sometimes our job as parents is to protect children from themselves and the world around them. Sometimes our job is to step back, let them stumble and then push them back out into the world again.

Figuring out that balance is one of the trickiest parts of parenting. But nobody knows your child like you do, and even though they’ve seemingly mutated into some kind of alien overnight, your baby is still in there somewhere. You’ll find them inside the box.

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling.

This story is from the Winter 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.