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Does your teen want to do their own thing? How to respect their independence — and why 'it’s important to have time for family bonding'

Teens crave independence — but it's important for them to make time for Mom, too. (Photo: Getty)
Teens crave independence — but it's important for them to make time for Mom, too. (Photo: Getty)

It was not all that long ago I was attached to a child almost all day, every day. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without a forlorn toddler following me and asking to be let in. I yearned for even a little time that I could reliably have to myself. I finally got that when my children were, at last, all in school.

Nevertheless, I was not prepared when my children started to enter the “tweenage” years and wanted nothing to do with me. Now, it’s almost impossible to get my son, 15, and daughter, 12, to spend any time with me at all. At times I feel more like a walking wallet than a parent. The only time I can count on them coming to me is when they want new clothes, video games or money for fast food.

Even though my children may be content to see me as nothing more than a source of hot meals and an ATM, I still enjoy spending time with them and want to be sure they don’t pull away too far too quickly.

And so I’ve come up with some ways to get my big kids to spend time with me. I try to find one-on-one time to spend with each of them at least once a month, doing something they choose. Sometimes it’s seeing the latest blockbuster or going to their favorite restaurant. Other times we binge-watch a series they really like. The nice part of my kids getting older is that there are more activities we all enjoy. However, I also learned long ago that if my tween or teen asks me to do something, I never say no, even if it sounds incredibly dull.

What other ways to navigate the complex issue of teens pulling away while keeping them part of the family? Here's what experts recommend — and what works for other parents.

It’s not you — it’s them

As painful as it can be for parents to watch their children go from a sweet sidekick to a surly teen who wants nothing to do with them, it's all part of the growing-up process. "It’s incredibly important to feel a sense of control over our own lives, and this is why independence is so important for teenagers," says Lin Sternlicht, a therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist, "Independence breeds success and happiness."

"The process of gaining independence is a healthy part of development because teens are becoming their own person and developing skills that will make them an independent [person] outside of the family," adds Danielle Selvin Harris, clinical director of Oaks Psych Services and a psychologist who specializes in working with teens.

If parents resist giving teens enough independence, Sternlicht cautions that their attempts to keep them close will probably backfire. “If teens are not given independence they can rebel, and may resist parental advice simply out of spite,” Sternlicht tells Yahoo Life.

But it's important to find a balance

As much as they crave independence, teens also need to maintain some connection with their family. “It’s important to have time for family bonding in order to nourish family relationships,” says Sternlicht.

Dr. Ross Goodwin, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente, stresses that maintaining a relationship with a teen is essential because “a major difference between teens who develop normally versus those experiencing significant mental health problems is the degree to which they feel they can confide in their parents. While a teen’s independence and peer relationships increase in importance as they develop through adolescence, the parental relationship remains crucial, even if parents don’t always receive this feeling from their teen.”

So how do parents strike this balance?

One way is to “maintain a dependable and constant listening relationship so that your teen knows he or she can confide in you.," says Goodwin. "Ask open-ended questions and create space in which conversations can happen. Show curiosity in your teen’s interests and support your teen participating in clubs or extracurricular activities that cultivate their interests."

Harris adds that it’s important for parents to set expectations for family time and to involve their teen in decisions about how that happens. Harris says that some families in her practice choose a day of the week when they agree everyone will be home for dinner. Others set aside Sunday mornings for family time.

“If you have some sort of routine and expectations that are reasonable for your teen, they are more likely to comply with it,” she explains. Families that adopt this type of system need to set clear rules and be consistent. “Teens have a hard time complying when the rules are not clear. For example, if you let them stay out all one weekend and then tell them the next weekend you want them home because they were gone all last weekend, they aren't going to understand or think it's fair,” Harris tells Yahoo Life.

Mother of three Kimberly King took this approach with her children when they were teenagers. “Our goal was three sit-down dinners a week. Phones are put away. Everyone helps set the table and prep. And then we sat down and chatted about our day,” she says.

Sometimes there will be non-negotiable events, such as a wedding or younger sibling’s school play, that require a teen’s presence outside of the normal routine. When this happens Harris recommends telling your teen why the event is important and telling them about it as far in advance as possible. However, Harris adds that "if they really do not want to go, ask them their reasons why and listen to find if there is some sort of compromise you can make. For example: Can they leave Grandma's dinner by 8 p.m. to go to their friend's party?” Harris explains that if you find a compromise that works for everyone, you are also helping your teen develop “problem-solving skills and showing that you respect them.”

How to get teens to agree to spend time with you

Developing a strong relationship with a teenager is the best way to get teens to want to spend time with you. Sarah Rollins, a clinical social worker who specializes in adolescent mental health and the owner of Embodied Wellness Therapy, says that parents need to regularly focus on the good, even if it’s difficult. “Sometimes it's hard to notice the positives or successes when there are a lot of problems … but it is important for parents to validate their teens and celebrate their successes, or else their teen is not going to want to spend time with them.”

Kerri Cooper, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Holistic Therapy, stresses that when trying to convince your teen to spend time with you it’s important to consider their preferences. “Let your teen give suggestions,” she says. “What is their favorite place to go to dinner? Most teens love a free meal and if they get to pick the place, they are likely to go. Get involved in their interests whether that be hiking, skiing or maybe even a cup of coffee at their favorite place. The key is to schedule it and try to accommodate their needs.”

Linda Nguyen takes this approach with her daughter. She makes it a point to listen to the same music as her daughter so that they can “bond” and says that “when it comes to spending quality time together, I give her options to choose from so she feels she's included in the decision-making process and not forced into it."

Harris also reminds parents that sometimes teens and tweens want to spend more time with their friends; it's not about not wanting to spend time with their parents. Jenna Carson, who has a 12-year-old, tries to balance her daughter’s desire to hang out with friends with her own desire to spend time with her daughter. To make them both happy, Carson allows her tween to invite a friend along to some family outings. If she can’t think of any fun ideas, she waits until her tween’s best friend comes over and asks the two of them what they would like to do.

What not to do when teens agree to spend time with you

If a parent does convince their teen to spend time with them, it’s important to spend that time wisely. Rollins recommends that parents stay away from stressful topics. “A lot of parents want to enjoy a movie or ice cream with their [teen] while simultaneously bringing up the 13 missed homework assignments they have," she notes. "If parents talk about unpleasant topics during pleasant activities, teens will not want to spend time with them.”

Instead, focus on light topics and having fun. Rollins stresses that parents still need to bring up the missing homework assignments, but they should choose a different time to raise the topic. And if a teen brings a difficult topic up, parents should discuss it because the teen is ready. However, Rollins advises parents to refrain from being judgmental. “Teens do want to share with you about their lives, but they fear you will judge them or their friends. If you can listen, be supportive and stay neutral, you will become their confidant,” she says.

How parents can deal with teens no longer wanting to spend time with them

Parents can look at the time their teens spend away from them as an opportunity for teens to learn important life skills and make mistakes before they fly the nest for good. According to Goodwin “parents should … cultivate opportunities [for teens] to grow and practice independence while having safe support in place for when things don’t go as planned.”

According to Harris, parents can take heart that when teens start to separate from their families “it is a sign that they are maturing and can be successful as an adult without you.” She urges parents to remind themselves “that your teen is pulling away from your family because you did a great job as a parent in helping them develop into their own person.”

Harris also says that parents should not give up on getting their teen to spend time with them. “Remember your teen still needs you, even if they act like they just want to be with their friends all the time," she says. "The more you show up for them and show them respect, the more they will want to open up to you and spend time with you too.”

There is a silver lining to teens pulling away. Harris encourages parents in this stage of life to explore more of their own interests with their newfound free time. Woodworking or hot yoga, anyone?

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