Bridging the Parent-Teen Divide

– by Jennifer Norstrom, MFT –

You raised a child who once sat on your lap and giggled at your jokes to a young teen who walks right past you to hang out on her phone alone in her bedroom. You feel as though a large canyon has grown between you, and you feel ignored or shut out. It may appear that you need a mega sound system in order to hear one another. Perhaps your pleas for cooperation seem to fall on deaf ears, and it is all you can do not to shout about it. You want to understand where she is coming from, but you also have limited time and need to be practical. Even though you may feel extremely frustrated and tired of repeating yourself, raising your volume and/or making threats most likely will not yield the results you are hoping for.

Check in with yourself

Are you feeling hurt that you are no longer receiving much attention or affection from your tween/ teen? Especially if you are a single parent, receiving affection and attention from your child may have been part of what kept you going through long work days or filled the gaps of affection you weren’t receiving elsewhere. If this is even somewhat true for you, married or not, then it is important to be aware of so that your hurt feelings don’t turn into anger or resentment. The shift to her growing need for independence and autonomy is going to be an adjustment, but it doesn’t mean you can’t develop closeness in ways other than you used to do.

Be Curious

What is your teen into? Sports? Music? The Arts? Science? Whatever it is, it may become central to her world for a period of time. Try to be open and curious about it by having her teach you what you don’t know. This isn’t the time to be an expert…you want to invite her to share more of herself by letting her be the expert this time. See if you can match her enthusiasm about the subject, even if just for the sake that she is passionate about something. Try not to be critical, even if the subject bores or annoys you. This is a great time to let yourself discover where your child feels inspired and motivated in the world around her.

Ask for her collaboration

Alright, asking your child nicely 10 times “will you please wash the dishes?” and waiting for a response seems ridiculous. I’m with you. You would like to think that if she wants autonomy so badly then she should be able to take initiative to help out around the house without you shouting about it. I agree. Yet simply expecting her to self-initiate and pitch in when you say so is likely to be met with annoyance and resistance. A better way to go about handling chore responsibilities is to have a clearly delineated list of what needs to be done on a weekly basis. You can even pose it as a problem that needs to be solved! Enlist her help for a solution. Have her collaborate with you by letting her choose her chores ahead of time for the week/ month/ year. Draw up the list together and then post it somewhere in her bedroom where she can check them off by the day or week. Have an allowance system in place that supports this behavior, and/ or reinforcement through pleasurable activities that happen once chores are taken care of.

Give attention to what is working

Show acknowledgement and appreciation every time she takes initiative, and if you are feeling proud or grateful for her contribution, let her know. Every time you acknowledge her efforts, you are naturally encouraging that part of her that wants to contribute, while emphasizing your trust in her competence. The more you can remain open, curious, collaborative, and appreciative, the more that she will want to do and share about herself. If you can give her space to explore her autonomy, while sending the message that you are still there for her, the greater the likelihood that she will seek you out when she really needs your guidance and support.


Jennifer Norstrom is a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist at Petaluma Family Therapy. Jennifer offers counseling to parents and teens to help the improve communication and resolve difficult conflicts. Jennifer also offers therapy for adults wishing to make healthy changes in their lives, heal from past trauma, and change negative patterns of behavior.






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