It's so hard when you can tell your teenager is struggling, but all they tell you is "I'm fine" or "I'm just tired". When a parent brings their teenager to my office, they themselves are often wrestling with self-doubt.
In a perfect world, maybe communication between parent and child wouldn't break down in adolescence. But then, despite the frustrations that can occur, there are reasons the relationship changes as our sons and daughters near adulthood, and that's a good reason to hope.
A Weird, Dual Landscape
It's easy for us to forget what adolescence was really like. Physically, emotionally, and mentally our teens are gradually transitioning into maturity. They're in for a long, confusing stretch of life with one foot in childhood and the other in grown-up land.
The hardest mix in this stage is the need for expanding autonomy in the midst of continued dependence. While most areas of their lives remain outside their ability to self-provide, it's natural for teens to emancipate what they can. Their thoughts and social behaviors become private. They might start being secretive of even trivial and innocent aspects of their life.
This works to satisfy the growing drive to manage one's own life, a drive that's so innate and strong (and good) that our pushing back on it only escalates tension.
They Want to Protect You
This one can really trigger parental guilt, but it's totally natural that kids protect their parents, even early on. You're the most important thing in their life, so they'll instinctively want to avoid anything they perceive might jeopardize the relationship--this can include their own feelings and struggles.
Teenagers are also becoming more aware of the stressors in your life, the sacrifices you make, and this same instinct to protect the parent often leads them to keep things solely on their plate instead of (what they see as) adding to yours.
It's just what developing psyches do. It's good to let them know that you don't see their needs and feelings as a burden, however when we try to force access to protected areas it more often builds a wedge in the relationship than improves communication.
They Need Outside Info
As our world expands we begin to comprehend more of life's nuance, and part of that is understanding parental bias. Our encouragement, affirmation, and even love may seem to lose some of their value. But it's exactly because you love your teen so much that they want to test their sense of self in the larger arena.
As we mature we naturally explore our identities, and in adolescence we begin to take the questions of "who am I?" and "do I have what it takes?" from the intimate arena of family (where perhaps we're viewed with rose-colored glasses) out into the larger world.
This can be anxiety-inducing for parents, but again, it's normal and necessary. The most helpful thing is to help guide them toward trustworthy voices dedicated to their flourishing in life.
Build Their Team
These are some of the things that can make it difficult as a teen's parent, but they're also what makes the counseling relationship so beneficial.
After all, what do people find the therapist's office? There's the safety of confidentiality, the comfort of a naturally empathetic person trained and purposed to use their gifts for your benefit, and there is the objectivity and knowledge that helps us get outside our sometimes inescapable thought patterns.
We let go little by little, and at times it is so difficult. But adding a counselor to your teen's support team is good for their need to grow and explore, and to do so in arenas you can trust.
And if the worried voice in the back of your mind has you almost convinced you screwed up somehow, or that it's impossible to let go--it's okay to build a support team for you, too.
Mike Ensley, LPCC, is a nationally board-certified professional counselor in Northern Colorado.