How to Cope With an Emotionally Distant Child

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Emotionally distant teenage girl looking sad and staring off

Do you ever wonder what happened to your sweet, affectionate, “glad to be part of this family” younger child? Did your child enter adolescence with a sudden cloud of distance, brooding, and sullen behavior? Is she desperate to be as far away from your family as possible?

It’s one of the more heartbreaking aspects of parenting. Raising a child means living through the loss of personal involvement and influence that we enjoyed in their younger years.

Emotional Distance Can Be Healthy for Your Child

The teen years are marked by explorations of autonomy, independence, and identity outside the family system: Kids might want to spend more time in their rooms. They’re going to think their friends understand them a lot more than their parents do. They’re going to push their parents away. To parents, it can feel pretty horrible.

This change is not personal or unique to your child. Indeed, this is how your adolescent is learning to be an adult. We call it “individuation” and, although painful for parents, it is normal and healthy for your child.

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As uncomfortable as it might be as a parent, your child’s distance from you is actually right on track: the teen years mark their transition into the adult world. Hopefully, they’ll take the skills you’ve helped them to learn into their lives as young adults.

Contact your pediatrician if you believe your child’s behavior changes are not normal. Depression, bullying, substance abuse, and other factors can also lead to sudden behavior changes.

Emotional Distance is Not an Excuse for Abuse

Remember that just because your child is stepping away from the relationship he had with you when he was younger doesn’t mean he’s allowed to be disrespectful. And he is not allowed to break the rules of the household. Healthy emotional distance means allowing and even encouraging independence while at the same time holding your child accountable for the rules and expectations of your home.

When living with the developmental needs of a teenager gets to you, remind yourself that your child’s needs for time with her friends, and time alone, are developmentally appropriate. Stay firm and clear in your expectations. And do your best to support her development as an individual.

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Take Care of Yourself

Be sure to take care of yourself. For parents, the grief of losing a younger child to adulthood is real. Allow yourself to be sad, to grieve. And don’t be too hard on yourself if you are having trouble letting go. The transition to adulthood is a learning process for kids and parents alike.

For more help on this subject, check out James Lehman’s article on Sudden Changes In Children. He does a great job explaining individuation and gives some helpful tools while also discussing sudden behavior changes that might point to another serious issue.

This is not an easy part of parenting, for sure. But giving our kids space to find out who they are, within a safe and respectful environment, helps them become healthy, well-adjusted adults.

Wishing you the best.

Warmly,

Denise, Empowering Parents Coach

About

Denise Rowden is a parent of two adult children and has been a parenting coach since 2011. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.

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