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Creating Teen Independence and Identity

When she picks on you, avoids you, argues with you, criticizes you, teases you, laughs at you, ignores you, blows up at you or in other ways grinds your last nerve to paste, your teen is working on mastering two crucial developmental tasks: gaining independence and developing her identity. Understanding those tasks will help you care for yourself while parenting your daughter.

Teen Task 1: Gaining Independence

Your daughter needs to push away and be less close to you. Yes, you can be an important and stabilizing force for her. No, she isn't super interested in you, your feelings or your life. She mostly doesn't consider the impact she has on you. And when you feel the need to share your feelings, you may be greeted by a decided lack of enthusiasm. Every now and again she may "beam in" to share, connect, compliment or criticize, but for the most part she focuses her attention elsewhere.

When your daughter pulls back from you, she's not being cruel. Her reaction is natural, age-appropriate and healthy.

If being her parent has been your main source of identity and value, her need to separate will be extremely painful. It's therefore very important that you take your own self-care seriously and allocate energy back into your own life and personal development. If you resist, you'll grasp your daughter tightly in order to maintain your parental identity—only to see her recoil from you.

When your daughter pulls back from you, she's not being cruel. Her reaction is natural, age-appropriate and healthy. In fact, if your daughter doesn't recoil but instead tries to accommodate your need for her, she may sacrifice her own healthy development. She may be more attuned to your needs than her own, and such accommodation has a price. Acting as emotional caretaker for a parent requires sacrifice from a teen girl, who should be developing a sense of herself as separate from mom or dad. Although this can be a father-daughter dynamic, it is more common between mothers and daughters.

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What's the bottom line? Teen girls don't want to be emotional guardians for their parents. They don't want to meet our emotional needs so that we can feel warm and fuzzy about ourselves. They don't want to give advice on whom parents date or how parents should handle personal problems. They are driven by a biological mandate to create the separation they need to become adults. Now your daughter is a teen, and healthy, effective parenting involves allowing her to need you less. A typical course is for your daughter to need you less in general, punctuated by spasms of desperately needing (or demanding) your help or attention: "MOM! I FORGOT MY BOOK AT SCHOOL AND NOW I'M GOING TO GET A ZERO ON MY HOMEWORK, AND YOU NEED TO HELP ME NOW!"

When you learn to be available while also letting go, you enjoy the payoff: She won't perceive you as needy or lacking a life. When you support her separation process and also develop yourself and your own life, you make it interesting and emotionally comfortable for her to circle back around to connect with you.

Teen Task 2: Developing Identity

It's been years since your daughter declared she will marry dad when she grows up. She now denies ever vowing to live with you forever and ever. Just as her early identity was based on being close to you and similar to you, her teen identity involves bending away from you (and some of your values) toward her peer culture. She needs to identify with her social circle in order to create her identity.

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You go from being the "star" of her universe to being the rain on her parade. How can she create a unique identity if she's a pea in your pod? Her teasing, ignoring and articulation of your numerous flaws help her see herself as different from you because (apparently) you are often lame, embarrassing and overall ridiculous. Instead of taking her behavior personally, see her as needing to devalue you so she can feel big and independent. When she was two, she walked around saying "NO!" and "MINE!" and you were able to giggle, knowing she was working on boundaries, power and seeing herself as a separate entity. Guess what? Here you have the same scenario, only minus the diapers.

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When you refrain from taking your daughter's behavior personally, you resist blurting out things like "Wow, if you treat your friends the way you treat me, you won't have any friends!" There's no benefit in "lash outs;" they model poor impulse control—which you need to save for the really, really bad days! Unless she has big social problems, your daughter definitely treats her friends better; that's typical for this developmental stage. When you remember her underlying developmental tasks, you will be able to observe her behavior without becoming her victim.

Reprinted by New Harbinger, fromParenting a Teen Girl: A Crash Course on Conflict, Communication and Connection with Your Teen Daughter, by Lucie Hemmen, Ph.D.

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