A mom wrote me recently, concerned that her fifteen-year-old son was pulling away from her, especially in terms of being affectionate and letting her do things for him. This is a common occurrence in the lives of parents and kids. This mother wondered, “How do you provide that same sense of security to your children as they start to break away from you?” My response offered words of comfort and advice that might prove helpful if you’re experiencing something similar.
It’s totally normal.
This is what teenagers do. What they’re supposed to do. They pull away so they can figure out who they are without you. Your child is becoming himself, which is what you want.
This is an important step towards self-exploration.
Your son is creating new attachments to his peers that allow him to become ready to be a "we" with someone else in the future. This shift in attachment—he’s still attached to you, but in a different way—allows him to take the secure base he has in his relationship with you, and use it as a launching pad to explore who he is apart from his family and in the context of his peers. This process is a crucial stage in his identity formation.
Find ways to connect, physically.
It’s still possible to be physically close with your son. Take his cues and respect his journey into adulthood, while still letting him know how much you love him. At times this may mean a simple pat on the back or the head, or an arm around his shoulder. But even if it's a bit uncomfortable, try to keep hugging him when you can—even it’s the dreaded “side hug” that can feel so awkward. As much as possible, keep up the affection, and the connection. You might even see whether he'd be willing to let you climb into bed next to him to read to him or have him read to you. If not, get the laptop and watch some funny YouTube videos together. You have to sit super close so you can both see the screen, and the laughter can create a shared moment of joining.
Be thoughtful while also observing boundaries.
Don’t be corny, but come up with gestures that show him thoughtfulness and nurturing without treading on his independence. Take him a Jamba Juice when you pick him up from school. Text him about something you’re proud that he’s done. Challenge him to a game of Ping-Pong. Take him to dinner and a movie. And when he's sick, baby him like you used to. He’ll love it.
Sometimes you just can’t win.
One moment he’ll tell you to back off, then the next minute he’s mad that you’re showing attention to his younger sister. It's very similar to his toddler years, when he’d say, "Me do it," and then get mad that you weren’t helping him. He's in between two worlds and wants what he feels like he needs—but only when he thinks he needs it. He wants to be treated like an independent adult, but secretly, he may have times when he just feels like being nurtured like a little kid. The best thing you can do is to assume he still wants you to nurture him and be a mom, while also communicating that he can tell you to give him space if he feels smothered.
Since you’re not a mind-reader, initiate a direct conversation about your uncertainty about how to interact with him. Talk about your desire to keep nurturing him and doing things for him, while still respecting his space and independence. Explain that you know how capable he is, then ask for his guidance and advice on this issue. If nothing else, he'll be aware that you’re trying.
Back off, but be available.
Self-sufficiency is so important, so you want to encourage it. But you need to still be sending signals that say, "I'm always here for you if you need me." Communicate this over and over, both verbally and nonverbally. Then he’ll know it’s true, whether his actions show it or not.