Many parents have asked me to talk about kids pulling away as they enter adolescence. One of the key issues for us parents is the sense of loss we encounter as our kids grow. And one of the best things we can do about this is to let it happen. But then what do we do with our broken hearts? Our kids lash out, reject and hurt our feelings as they establish their separate identities, but they also regress and need our unconditional love and comfort even though they were just recently cruel toward us. A child growing up is like a lover who we are madly attached to telling us that they love us but they're not in love with us. Ouch.
I recall driving along with my wife listening to Joni Mitchell's Circle Game as our boys each listened to their separate headphones in the backseat. It was so viscerally clear that our days are beautiful and fleeting and we both felt the bittersweet passing of time. How many more years will they be with us in our car, in our plans and in our way of doing and being? We both felt a little teary, but then a rock would get a bit moist listening to "Circle Game."
Times of separation are highly confusing to parents as well as children. Just as the newly venturing forth two-year-old needs to continually touch base with their parent's leg as they start to explore the sandbox, and they need to be welcomed back and not rejected for having "rejected" the parent by exploring, likewise, the adolescent needs us to stay welcoming of their returns and yet accepting of their needs to distance. They are all over the map: aloof and rejecting, and then suddenly, and out of nowhere, she gives us a two minute hug one morning… a closeness that vanishes again like morning mist.
Besides compassion and empathy, a few things to keep in mind as kids pull away include:
Loss is part and parcel of parenting. Love is about attaching, and then transitioning to the next stage of development, with more autonomy and more capacity to give love in both parent and child as we grow together. While parents help children develop emotionally, kids also help us parents to develop spiritually—toward more generous and abundant loving.
Happiness includes appreciation of what is, and not a clinging to what was. Still, for us parents, and especially for moms relinquishing the extreme closeness that they may have had with their daughters, this period can feel fraught with anguish akin to the break-up of our most profound soul-mate love relationship.
Kids pulling away may be re-framed as the start of a new time and new way of relating and not merely the end of our closeness with our children. If we allow the ebbing and flowing of separation and attachment to go at our child's pace, striving for accurate understanding of their shifting needs, we will be eventually rewarded with a deeper relationship with a more mature person.