Adolescence, in essence, means change. Have you experienced it with your child yet?
The moment you notice they are struggling they turn away. They may even exclaim to you, “You just don’t understand!”—cue door slam. Whether you’ve already endured this scene, or you are anticipating it when your child enters adolescence, it’s essential to arm yourself with what to expect. This developmental change does not only impact the individual. The ripple effects of change spread throughout the family system. Adolescence presents families with the challenge of creating a new balance of maintaining close bonds while supporting your teen’s exploration. Navigating the adolescent phase of the family life cycle with flexibility and receptive communication can minimize fights, decrease teen rebellion, and equip your teen for the transition into adulthood.
What to Expect
The individual changes you may see shift in your teen may include: advancement of reasoning skills, abstract thinking, a need to challenge authority, questioning systemic structures and standards, and verbalizing personal individual views. Behaviorally, this will look like pushing back on your boundaries and rules, discussing the political and social climate, and asserting a strong opinion on which groups they will associate with or reject. While this all sounds positive for one’s psychosocial development, it certainly can result in some family conflict. Let’s outline how you can come alongside your teen, while maintaining strong bonds with healthy boundaries within the home.
Communication & Conflict
Let’s normalize conflict during this stage in your family. Your teen’s development requires them to challenge you and the world you’ve created around them. Expect them to push back. If you hold on to hope your teen will not pull away or challenge you, we may misconstrue disagreements as rejection. If you feel rejected, you may even perceive your teen does not see you as important in their world. This is not the case.
This perception will cause a shift in your interactions with your teen, likely creating rigid communication. Instead, let’s reframe conflict as an opportunity to grow and develop new patterns in your communication and relationship.
Research has shown teens will spend 20% less of their waking time with their family. This time away from home is allocated to seeking and formulating their independent identity. While this reduction in time may add to a parents’ sense of rejection, it is entirely healthy and appropriate. It is necessary to shift from caretaking and complete responsibility for your child so they may become more flexible with their boundaries and independence. This flexibility permits your adolescent to move in and out of the family system as healthy development requires. This adaptation shows how you can assist your teen by encouraging them to share their thoughts, develop their own ideas, reflect on their decisions, and set goals.
Parents’ ability to show sensitivity and support is critical. A teenager assumes no one understands their experience, contributing to a sense of isolation and potential abandonment. You can combat this false narrative by demonstrating emotional attentiveness, responsiveness, and engagement. Encourage your teen to express themself and to develop opinions and ideas while offering validation and empathy. This exploration will allow them to hear your perspective as you maintain appropriate boundaries. With a stance of curiosity, the goal of understanding can support a relatedness to exist between you and your teen during communication and conflict. This relatedness strengthens your connection. A helpful exercise for yourself can be tapping into your teen memories and distress. Allowing your teenage self to come forward in your mind will make it slightly easier to show empathy to your adolescent’s experience. Even though the world we live in looks quite different, you will find common ground on the underlying experience of being a teenager.
The New Balance
Your teen’s healthy challenge will require a recalibration of your family system. Let’s outline how to achieve this new balance in your family.
Connectedness and Separateness
In addition to maintaining a sense of relatedness, it is also essential to maintain connectedness. Despite your teen’s resistance, scheduling a regular family time to connect without distraction or demands is important. This planned time together will create a lot of freedom in your teen’s schedule to foster other relationships and engage in preferred activities. This set time will allow you to maintain flexibility with your teen’s need for separateness because there is a time for planned connectedness.
Belonging and Individuation
Supporting their individuation will strengthen their sense of belonging within the family.
As healthy development tells us, adolescence is about discovering individual passions, while challenging the status quo. Find your way to support this exploration and search for an identity. Show interest in their choices, even if they contradict your personal
values. If you protest their attempts to be an individual, it could result in a stronger push away from the family. Expression of unconditional support, even after poor decision making, proves to your teen they can always find belonging within the family.
Accommodation and Autonomy
Successful transition into adulthood is preceded by autonomous decision making and adequate guidance from healthy supports. As you move out of being the accommodator to your child and the supporter of autonomy, you allow the natural consequences of
independent decisions to be felt by your teen. These experiences will contribute to the resilience of your adolescent. Resiliency is a marker of healthy coping for future challenges and difficult circumstances.
Even though your teen will be bending boundaries and pushing limits, maintaining structure, and enforcing consequences when those boundaries have been broken are necessary. The structure should be enforced with nurture and understanding. Families that navigate this stage in the family life cycle successfully, make the appropriate shifts in their communication and problem solving by demonstrating
openness, attentiveness, and engagement. A balanced environment will provide your teen with the safety and security of the family, while engaging in the risk of exploration outside the home. Most importantly, ensure that you, as the parent, have a healthy
support system in place. These supports through your partner, your friends, and family enable you to create a new balance when adolescence offsets your status quo in your family.
Family Life Cycle. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2020, Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) with individuals, couples, and families. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. McGoldrick, M., Carter, E. A., & Garcia-Preto, N. (2014). The expanded family life cycle: Individual, family, social perspectives. Harlow: Pearson Education. Moretti, M. M., & Peled, M. (2004). Adolescent-parent attachment: Bonds that support healthy development. Paediatrics & child health, 9(8), 551–555.
Willard, C. (2017). Raising resilience: The wisdom and science of happy families and thriving children. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
About Melissa Callahan
Melissa Callahan, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Approved Clinical Supervisor. Melissa is currently the Director of Training and Residency at The Center for Connection, Healing, and Change in Fairfax, VA. Melissa has 10 years of experience working with families, couples, and individuals on their mental and relational needs. She holds a Master’s Degree in Family Therapy from the University of Massachusetts – Boston. She has advanced training in empirically validated models such as Emotionally Focused Therapy. She is mentored by one of the founding fathers of the field, Dr. Harry Aponte, on the Person of the Therapist Training Model. She specializes in working with couples, families, and individuals, repairing and restoring fractures within the self and relationships. Melissa has extensive experience in working with families across various cultures and backgrounds. She is incredibly passionate about working with adolescent families due to each individual family member’s layered and unique needs while caring for the family system as a whole. She believes true healing comes from an empathic connection between the client and the therapist. Her stance offers her clients compassion, authenticity, and intentional therapy in a safe and nurturing space. Melissa can be reached at: