Preparation for Separation – Managing the Family Transition to Teenagerdom

It can be so difficult to connect and live comfortably with our teenagers. This is a struggle familiar to all families across time and culture. In Family or Systemic Therapy it is known as one of the family transitions that can feel very turbulent and difficult to navigate. In life before lockdown, I was having dinner with my friend (and fellow clinical psychologist) and complaining about my teenager’s recent harsh comments and general untidiness. He reminded me of the need for ‘Preparation for Separation’ – my teenager needs to safely push against me as she explores her identity and individuality in teenagerdom. He gently told me that in some ways we have to become annoyed and irritated with each other; we have to begin to plant the seeds of wanting an eventual separation, otherwise how could we ever bear the thought of them leaving? That felt harsh and very sad at the time, I was not quite ready to think of her leaving home.

But since then I have found it a little easier to understand and manage the tricky moments with my daughter. I remember that one day she will leave home and that needs a lot of preparation. I want to give her space to make mistakes and explore who she is and what she thinks. I want to coach her and embed values around how to treat herself and others. I want to make room for her to safely experience and manage conflict and disagreements. It doesn’t always happen smoothly mind you! There are times when I am more sensitive and respond like a teenager myself – but once I have calmed down, there is then opportunity to teach relationship repair….

Preparation for Separation in Lockdown

Since lockdown I have been thinking more about this transition and know many families out there are struggling with it.  Perhaps this family transition is more magnified during lockdown? The usual avenues for respite, release, distraction, and social support are limited. What previously may have just passed on by with only a little drama or upset and a label of ‘normal teenage behaviour’ is being felt much more intensely within our families.  

As parents we may feel more vulnerable and may be judging ourselves more harshly. We feel threatened.  We don’t have enough information to make confident choices. We struggle to balance the need to protect our families with ensuring our teenagers get the socialisation, freedom and responsibility they need.  We are comparing ourselves more than ever to other families and how they are coping – are we measuring up? On top of this, we may feel lonely and miss the opportunities for easy conversation with our parents or friends that previously enabled us to keep things in perspective. Any inadequacies we felt previously as a parent (or indeed as a human being generally) are likely to be flourishing nicely right now!  

Our teenagers have been cut off from their usual connection with their peer groups – their very lifeforce. They are relying more on social media, and we all know how tricky that can be. They have to make more effort and risk rejection as they reach out or connect with friends whilst previously they got to just hang out on the bus or at lunch. They are not getting the usual teacher praise or the buzz from playing a sport or doing something a bit naughty. They have less opportunity to be silly and banter with their peers; before, this would have kept them going and provided an antidote to reality. Like you, most probably they are struggling to form their opinions, find direction or feel any motivation in the face of the uncertainty; disagreeing with you is one of the few opportunities they have to stimulate themselves and assert their identity. 

Some Ideas for Navigating This Family Transition

  1. Stay anchored and keep your thinking brain online (see our other posts and Resources ‘Managing Your Threat Brain’ and ‘Anchoring in Storm’) – you need to use your thinking (prefrontal cortex) brain to hold you both steady.
  2. Your teenager’s brain is going through a lot of rewiring and remodelling.  Their thinking brain will not be fully connected until their mid-twenties.  Until then they will operate much more from their emotional brain, will think more slowly, and will struggle to be reasonable and empathic. If you are both operating from your emotional brain it will be like stepping into the storm without an anchor – it isn’t going to go well!
  3. Look after yourself and make lots of deposits in your emotional reserves – parenting a teenager can hurt and deplete! You may be grieving the cuddly, dependent, sweetness of the earlier years. You need to do whatever replenishes you: an activity that helps you feel competent; spending time with friends and/or partner; exercise; or anything that lets you switch off and relax.  
  4. Talk about what is happening with your teenager during calmer moments. Let them know that you understand what they are going through and that they have permission to push back without shame.  But discuss the parameters – maybe they can storm off or challenge your opinion with a lot of emotion/passion, but they are not allowed to swear at you? Maybe they need for you to try not and compete with them – they need a parent, not a cool friend?  Overall – be flexible and willing to adapt your approach e.g. gushing empathy may switch them off one day, on another day a shoulder to cry on may be just what they need.
  5. Hold on to the knowledge that they still need you as much as ever, just differently.  And potentially in a way that is less rewarding for you. Remember that phrase ‘when they need you most is when they seem least deserving’. They need you to hold stability, security, and normality for them. They need to know that you have their back.
  6. Keep things in perspective. This is a normal process and your teenager is working on an important developmental task. You are growing a healthy teenager! Navigating this phase sensitively and maintaining a connection throughout will ensure that they will come back to you for the next stage of your journey and relationship together.

At Pocket Family Psychologist we offer one off consultations which can be followed up with a further session or two if you would like. These are designed to provide support to families who are struggling with very normal and everyday family issues such as family transitions and changes.

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