Do you kind of hate your teenager? Do you sometimes wonder how it’s possible that the sweet little toddler you loved so much has turned into a monster? Are you out of ideas for how to make things better – or at least not so bad – at home?
The good news is that you don’t have to hate your teenager. The bad news is that it’s going to require significant effort on your part. You may think that they are the one who has a problem. But if you want things to improve, it’s up to you to take action.
Please understand, parents are not to be blamed for their kids’ behavior. Our kids are their own people, with their own temperament, their own experiences, and their own free will. But when parents complain about their children, they have two choices.
This first is to keep complaining and feel hopeless about ever getting along with our difficult child(ren). The second is to look inward and see what changes we can make ourselves to improve our experience of the relationship. When we choose the second path, there is a chance for change, both in ourselves and in our kids.
But remember, this is not coming from blame. It is not meant to suggest that you haven’t tried your very best and given your child everything you could so far. It’s just that if you kind of hate your kid, then what you’ve been doing isn’t working so well for you. Read on if you want to consider one possible way things could get better.
Bad behavior is a reflection of the relationship
One of the hard lessons we need to learn as parents is that “bad behavior” in our kids is not a result of our child being “bad.” It’s more often a reflection of the state of our relationship.
From a parents’ perspective, it often seems like the child has a problem. Perhaps they are “too stubborn,” or “a jerk.” But a child’s behavior towards their parent is almost always an attempt to communicate.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time our kids’ “communication” seems rude, condescending, and tests our boundaries. But these behaviors are always our kids’ attempt to get our attention and ask for our help.
It makes sense to blame our kids for bad behavior. It also makes sense to feel angry and ashamed when our kids act out. But if we actually want to stop hating our kid(s), the only possible path forward is to look inward and seek to change our own behavior, which is often the only way to change our family dynamics.
Why teenagers are so difficult
While hormones and maturation tell some of the story of why teens are difficult, they miss a major element: parental attachment. Without a healthy and secure parent-child attachment, teens become increasingly difficult to parent as they age.
How do you know if you and your teenager lack healthy attachment? Well, the most obvious sign is that you don’t like them very much, and they don’t like you.
We live in a society that says this is “normal.” Parents tell each other that teenagers are just difficult. And teens talk about what a drag their parents are. But just because something is considered normal in our society does not mean it is healthy. The authors of the book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers say that we must continually work on our attachment with teens.
Attachment in the parent-teen relationship makes the job of parenting easier. It’s a lot easier to teach our kids and help them become healthy adults when they are attached to us. Kids who are attached care what their parents think.
This makes them more likely to treat us with respect. It means fewer shouting matches and slammed doors. And for our teens, parental attachment is a powerful protective agent against dangerous behaviors and mental disorders.
What is attachment?
Attachment theory is a well-established and deeply-researched psychological concept. The idea is that all children develop an attachment style with their parents or primary caregivers. There are four main styles of attachment associated with childhood development:
- Secure attachment: a child who is securely attached feels they can rely on their caregiver to meet their needs. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they seek their caregiver’s attention and are soothed by their caregiver.
- Anxious-ambivalent attachment: a child who is ambivalent feels insecure about their caregiver. Although they will behave in ways that attract their caregiver’s attention (e.g. yelling, crying, being rude) when emotionally dysregulated, the caregiver is typically unable to soothe the child.
- Anxious-avoidant attachment: a child who has avoidant attachment does not seek their caregiver out when they are upset. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they tend to go inward and avoid the caregiver and brush off any attempts to draw them out of their shell.
- Disorganized attachment: a child who has disorganized attachment does not rely on their caregiver for any reliable care. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they may exhibit ambivalent or avoidant attachment patterns, but it is inconsistent, and they are rarely (if ever) soothed by their caregiver.
The attachment style a child develops with their caregiver in infancy typically continues for life and impacts their adult relationships and their ability to parent unless it is disrupted through intentional therapy.
Most people who were raised to have secure attachment will go on to have children who are securely attached to them. People who had less secure attachments in childhood are more likely to raise children who lack secure attachment.
Many parents who complain that they hate their teenager are facing a child who is not securely attached.
Luckily, parents can always work to improve their parent-child attachment. Building attachment may be the best way to stop hating your teenager.
A lifetime of attachment
Ideally, our kids developed a healthy attachment with us when they were infants. But unfortunately, more than half of kids develop anxious or disorganized attachment with us. This is due to many factors, including the “fit” between the parent and child, the parent’s own attachment with their parents, and stressors that are present in the parent’s life.
If you don’t like your teenager very much, it is possible that you need to work on your parent-child attachment. This involves time, patience, and a healthy balance of trust and boundaries.
Teenage attachment problems
Insecurely attached teens don’t believe their parents understand who they really are. This means that we lose authority. Because if we don’t know who they are, how can we tell them what to do?
This is why insecurely attached children are harder to parent in every way.
Our requests quickly escalate to demands, punishments, threats, begging and nagging, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference: our teens won’t do what we ask them to do. This is annoying and infuriating. But doubling down on our attempts to control our teens rarely improves the situation. Instead, we need to build our authority by building our attachment.
Why we need attached teens
The more the parent-child attachment is degraded, the more kids turn towards their peers. And this is dangerous because peers are not as stable, reliable, or mature as parents. In a secure attachment, our kids retain a healthy attachment (which means they respect and listen to us) throughout adolescence. Sure, there are ups and downs, but they seek our advice and support rather than turning to peers who simply don’t have the skills to provide it.
The teenage separation that we believe is normal in our culture is actually unhealthy for our children. Instead of orienting towards the adults in their lives, today’s kids increasingly orient around their peers.
This makes parenting harder because kids who are peer-oriented don’t follow their parents’ advice or instructions. Parents may find some success using threats and punishments. Parents may resort to incentives and rewards. But these work only in the short-term and require constant vigilance. In most cases, peer-oriented teens end up ignoring or even actively acting against their parents’ wishes with rebellion.
The really scary part though is that teens who are peer- rather than parent-oriented are more likely to experience emotional disturbances, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, bullying, and suicidality.
Children who are not attached to their parents are very difficult to parent. They are often disrespectful and don’t respond well to any adults.
Kids who are peer- instead of parent-oriented are most interested in doing things their peers care about. They take action only when they know their peers will notice. And they seek rewards and attention from peers.
Peer-oriented teens are insecure in their self-worth. This is because they have an insecure attachment with the parents to whom they should turn for validation and support. Peers are not capable of providing the stable and consistent levels of attention, affection, and loyalty that parents can and should be providing. This leaves peer-oriented teens deeply vulnerable.
A teenager who is securely attached to their parent has greater stability. This is because parents are capable of loving unconditionally and sacrificing their own needs for the sake of their children. Unlike peers, most parents won’t reject their child for what appears to be no reason. And most parents will go to great lengths to help their children succeed.
Parent-oriented teens have peer friends, of course (often many!). But they are not dependent upon them as their primary source of care, love, and attention. They remain secure in the knowledge that their parents are their primary attachment figures for now.
Securely-attached parents are empowered as nurturers, comforters, guides, coaches, and so many other things. It may sound impossible to think that our teenagers can and should feel this way about their parents. But it is both possible and necessary for our kids’ healthy emotional development.
Peer-oriented teens live with deep insecurity. They often fail to mature emotionally. This leaves them vulnerable to emotional disturbance and disorders. When teens orient to peers, they must constantly strive for their position in the peer group and prove themselves worthy.
Instead of working to develop their own interests, character, and values, they instead try to please their peer group. As a result, they remain emotionally immature and vulnerable to emotional disturbances and disorders.
When a child is parent-oriented and well-attached to parents, they feel unconditionally loved and supported. They do not feel the need to prove themselves to their parents in order to be worthy of love.
This gives them the emotional fortitude to explore their individual strengths, desires, and passions. Parent-oriented teens are more likely to take the risks necessary to enjoy increased academic achievement and creativity. They find it easier to find meaning and purpose in life. A peer-oriented child simply can’t take the risks required for these activities.
We must build attachment with our teens
Our insecurely attached teenagers who are peer-oriented are at higher risk of dangerous behaviors. They are also awful to parent. This creates a self-perpetuating doom-loop in which we become further and further apart from each other. We must actively and immediately build a more secure attachment with them. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Peer-oriented children will perceive their parents as being in competition with their peer group. They believe their peer group is the center of their universe. This makes it very difficult for parents to assert themselves in order to rebuild attachment and parent-orientation.
They will also find it difficult if not impossible to be soothed by parents, and may even turn away from or ignore a parent’s attempts to soothe them.
These kids will tell us they don’t want us “interfering” in their lives. But that doesn’t mean that we should go back to moping in a separate room, feeling sorry for ourselves. Nor should we start thinking our kids don’t love us and need us. They do.
It’s tempting, but it won’t help to blame our teens for being ungrateful brats who don’t appreciate everything we have given them.
Instead, we may improve our experience of our kids if we can build a more secure attachment with them. It is our duty as parents to actively seek attachment with our teenagers. We cannot force attachment, but we can establish basic systems that will be likely to build parent-child attachment. It will take time, it will be hard, but it will be very worth the effort.
To build secure attachment, parents must patiently assert themselves in the following ways:
1. Be together
Belonging to each other beings with being together physically. Find ways to increase physical proximity. Insist upon time spent physically together in the same room every day. A great way to do this is family meals. If you’re new to this and all you can do is ask everyone to be in the same room on separate devices for an hour each night, let that be your starting point.
Over time, you can find ways to be physically together for longer periods of time to build secure attachment. Plan activities on weekends and vacations to encourage physical proximity.
A parent’s physical touch can be very soothing for most children. But if it’s been a long time since you touched your child, tread very carefully here. See what happens if you gently brush the top of their hand while talking, or lightly bump shoulders while walking.
Pay attention to your child’s feeedback. If they draw away from you when you attempt to touch them, don’t push it or confront them. Never coerce them into physical affection or make them feel bad if they’re not ready for it. Just take it very slowly, and follow their cues while looking for opportunities to connect.
Don’t rush physical touch if it’s currently missing from your relationship, but do make an effort to slowly and consistently see if there are ways you can physically show your affection
2. Do things together
Parents should find ways to connect with their children over shared interests. It’s OK if it seems like you have absolutely nothing in common right now. You can develop new interests or reframe your kids’ interests so that they become more compelling for you.
Start by picking something your child cares about. For example, if your child is passionate about a sport, you could ask them to tell you about it. Let them be the authority and show you their passion and excitement. You don’t have to love the sport yourself, but can you find a way to love your child’s passion for the sport? Start there.
If things go well, plan outings to watch the sport live. Or just plan dates to watch it at home together on TV. The main point is that you are going to “show up” to participate in your child’s interests.
If your child enjoys video games, play together once per week. If you have an animal-lover, volunteer at a shelter together. Listen to your child’s favorite music group. Let them teach you the latest TikTok dance. No, your teen will not want to do this. Yes, you should do it anyway.
The act of doing something together is very powerful attachment bonding. It’s OK if your child doesn’t have a major passion. You can walk the dog together, cook together, color together, volunteer together, or go to yoga together.
Just find ways to do things together that you both enjoy. And if you don’t enjoy the activity yourself, focus on enjoying your child’s enjoyment. A peer-oriented teen will not join you with joy and excitement, but you must show up anyway. Find a way to do things with your teen.
3. Talk about feelings
Most of us want to quickly soothe our kids with statements like “you’re OK,” “don’t cry,” and “but I thought you would like this!” This leads kids to shut down their emotional expression. We become emotionally unsafe if we don’t allow our kids to fully express their feelings.
To build attachment, parents need to learn how to provide complete emotional acceptance of their children’s emotions. Almost nothing is as important to your teen as feeling heard, understood, and accepted by you.
When your child complains, yells, whines, stonewalls, or otherwise throws an emotional tantrum, acknowledge the feelings and emotions taking place. Let them exist without trying to change them. Work on understanding the breadth and depth of the feelings. Talk about the experience. Don’t give advice right now. Listen more than you speak. Just stay in the moment, with the feelings in real-time.
It may be scary, especially in the beginning. Until you build more secure attachment, your child’s emotions are going to feel overwhelming. Your teenager is going to test your love by acting out. As in: you say you love me, but can you handle all of me? Practice showing your child that you absolutely can and will handle all of their feelings.
Remember that expressed feelings, even horrible ones, are feelings, not facts. Often, once we accept and even welcome our teens’ raw feelings, they begin to trust that we can handle them. This, paradoxically, means that the feelings become less intense over time. In this way, we are providing a critical ballast to our teens as they navigate the rough seas of adolescence.
You don’t have to hate your teenager
It may seem impossible, but you don’t have to hate your teenager. You don’t have to white-knuckle your way through adolescence. More importantly, if you build secure attachment, your will find that life is much easier.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.
This article was inspired and heavily informed by Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate.