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Are You In A Pursuer-Distancer Relationship With Your Teenager?


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Mar 19, 2024
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Many parents, especially moms, struggle deeply with parenting teenagers, as discussed here. This stress is compounded if you, the mom, had a poor relationship with your own mom or dad, because you have always felt desperate to have a different, better relationship with your own child than the disappointing one that you experienced. When your teenager pushes your buttons and tries to individuate from you, which is developmentally appropriate, it can be very triggering, especially if they push back in ways that remind you of your own parent (or your spouse, if that is a difficult relationship).

In my post “Your Kid’s Personality And Why It Triggers You”, I suggest:

It can be extremely useful to figure out why you are triggered by certain of your kids, or certain behaviors in your kids. Ask yourself these questions:
  1. Who in my life does my child remind me of?
  2. How do I feel about this person (including, of course, how you feel about yourself if you’re triggered by a child whom you feel inherited your worst traits)?
  3. How can I see this child more objectively?

When your teenager reminds you of your own mother, or a spouse (or divorced coparent) with whom you have conflict, you start reacting to them not just because of their current behavior/attitude but, on a subconscious level, because they stir up old insecurities and sadness about your relationship with this other person. And keep in mind that if you have or had a difficult marriage, this is likely because you picked someone like your parents, as discussed here. So, it really is most useful to think about your family of origin when you are attempting to introspect about why your teen triggers you, versus the intellectual shortcut of “It’s because they are just like their dad/other parent.”

If you were never able to make your relationship healthy with your own mother or father, you can feel almost desperate to make the relationship with your own child into a loving and healthy one. When your teenager tries to assert their independence and move into the earliest stages of adulthood, including repudiating your life choices and making very different choices themselves, this can make you feel angry and panicked. You are experiencing attachment panic, albeit with your teenage child and not with a romantic partner, but it manifests much the same. In that post, I give an example interaction between an avoidant husband and preoccupied attachment wife:

All over the world, in many different languages, at this very moment (accounting for time differences), there are couples having a conversation that goes kind of like this:

Woman: Why didn’t you call me when you were going to be late?

Man: Something just came up at work. What’s the big deal?

Woman: I was waiting for you! We were all waiting. I made dinner!

Man: So, I always say eat without me if I’m not there. Why are you making a big deal out of nothing?

Woman: It’s not nothing! You promised me you would call! This is so disrespectful. I make dinner and it’s like you don’t even appreciate it or care. You just think about yourself.

Man: Jesus Christ, why can’t you just chill out?

This is exactly the dynamic that plays out between many teenagers and their mothers. The mother is begging for more time together, to be prioritized, and to be respected, and the teenager is asserting themselves by saying that they have different priorities now that do not include their mother/family. The more control the mother tries to have over her teenager, the more disrespectful and rude they may act, and the less time they will want to spend with her, because they feel that she is trying to keep them in a younger stage of life. (Ironically, this is how many of these moms feel about their own husband wanting her to act as though she is in a younger stage of life; I address these husbands here.)

I discuss the pursuer-distancer dynamic here and here. The more the preoccupied partner pursues the avoidant partner to have a closer relationship, the more smothered the avoidant partner feels. This is true whether the partner in the relationship is a romantic partner, a friend, or your own child. In fact, many moms and teenagers also also locked into a “Mr. Perfect and His Crazy Wife” dynamic with their teenager, where the teenager acts great with everyone outside the home, like friends, teachers, and coaches, but has a rude and dismissive attitude at home. The mother responds very poorly to this attitude, because it signifies to her that her worst fears have come true, and that her child really dislikes her in the way that she dislikes her own parents, and tries to micromanage and overcontrol the teenager’s responses and behaviors in the home, which of course pushes the child away even more.

The first step in getting out of this toxic dynamic with your teenager is to truly look at it objectively for the first time, a process that you are starting right now by reading this post and introspecting about how it applies to your own life. You need to think deeply and uncomfortably about how your own “pursuing” behavior may not actually be “good parenting” or in any way show your teenager that you love them. In fact, it may be anxiety-driven and make your teenager feel micromanaged, disrespected, or kept younger than they are. Here are some examples of ways to reframe your pursuing behavior and alternatives to consider instead.

  • “I check my teen’s grades every day to help them stay on top of things” —> “My teen perceives this as controlling and it’s likely stemming from my own anxiety and not knowing how else to start a conversation with them. I will start checking only once a week and limiting our conversations about grades to once a week as well.”
  • “I tease my teen about their outfit choices because we always used to have a joking relationship and they need to stop being so sensitive”–> “My teen may perceive this as critical of something very important to them. Maybe this is actually like how my mom used to make ‘funny’ comments about my weight that hurt me deeply. I will stop making any comments about how they choose to dress.”
  • “When my teen and I go to dinner, it is rude and disrespectful for them to be on their phone, and they should be grateful to go to a nice dinner with me, which is something my mom never did with me”–> “Given my teenager’s age and the tense status of our relationship, it is unlikely that they would choose to go to dinner with me, and likely that they find this to be strained, awkward, and something else they have to do to please me. I will lay off with the individual dinners out and hope that this is something we can do together later in life.”
  • “My teenager is so spoiled and doesn’t know how to take feedback, which I only give him to help him” —> “I have been told I have very high standards by others, and it is likely that my standards for my teen are higher than I realize. I will focus on small ways to connect with my teenager instead of verbal feedback about their choices.”
  • “It is disrespectful for my teenager to not say ‘I love you’ when I say it, or not to say it with enthusiasm” —> “I may be over-saying ‘I love you’ out of anxiety, because I want my teenager to assuage my fear that they in fact don’t love me. Nobody would want to be implicitly forced to say they love someone else, so I will lay off and only say this when I genuinely feel it and when I am not filled with anxiety.”

If you find that these examples resonate with you, but that the counterexample seems too difficult to do, therapy can help you. Sessions can focus on processing the relationship with your teenager, understanding why they trigger you so deeply, learning different coping skills and parenting strategies, and working through unresolved issues in your own family of origin. Even if you did this work in therapy earlier in life, new aspects of your childhood frequently become newly painful at the stage of parenting teenagers. And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Also Read This Book!
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