All animals grow up and leave the nest. They go through their playful phase, practice adulthood, and then are on their own. Human children just play longer and their parents worry more. When children are ready for college, parents want that last time at home to be so special. It’s the last opportunity for family togetherness. It should be a perfect time. The last family vacation before the child leaves home should be idyllic. Why then does your daughter say, “Mom, I hate you. I’d rather be with my friends. It’s a good thing I’m leaving in August because I couldn’t stand one more minute in this prison”?
Because she is ready to cross a chasm, and it’s so much easier than saying, “I love you so much that I can’t even find the right words. You’ve done every thing for me. I’m petrified. Do you think I’m ready to go off on my own? Do you think you’ll miss me as much as I’m going to miss you?”
Adolescents challenge parents because they need to loosen one kind of connection—the one that involves parents’ assuming full responsibility for them. When challenged this way, it’s completely understandable for parents to feel hurt or even angry. If they don’t understand what is happening, parents may push harder to keep control. This only breeds resentment and ill feelings. But if they recognize that their teen is struggling for independence and learn to celebrate it, everyone will be healthier and less tense.
Every time kids behave badly or speak meanly to parents doesn’t necessarily reflect their growing independence or their conflicted emotions. Sometimes they might just be acting mean. They know a parent’s vulnerabilities.
Whether they are justifiably or unfairly angry, they can be masters at saying hurtful things. Often it’s a way of shouting, “Listen to me!” Perhaps they’re testing the waters to grab attention before they can bring up something that’s troubling them. If parents respond with anger and shut them down, they may feel justified for not sharing their concerns: “Remember, I was going to tell you, but then….” When parents listen and reserve judgment, their teenagers’ stories unfold.
But it’s OK to tell them when they hurt your feelings—not in a way that makes them feel guilty, but just a clear statement of fact that their behavior is inappropriate and hurtful. That is an important part of a parent’s job in building character. Even when kids challenge the parental connection, parents need to be consistent about one thing: Their love is unconditional and they will always be there for their children. With this clear message, parents say, “Go ahead—grow. I’ve got your back.”