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Where Did My Son Go?

by | Jul 1, 2024

The day has come. Though it was inevitable you really didn’t think it would be this soon! Your boy no longer wants to hang out with you. Gone are the days when he would wake up on a Saturday morning and the first words out of his mouth would be, “What are we gonna do today?” Because your world was his world. You were inseparable. But now he no longer has time for you. How did this happen? Did you do something wrong?

While much of this is a natural part of the maturation process and teenage brains work differently than young boys and girls brains do, when they functioned on a more concrete level. But for some this distancing can lead to a completely disconnected young man leaving parents in a bind. 

Now your teen is pushing the limits, challenging your rules, your curfews, questioning your judgement, gives you the silent treatment, won’t let you touch them let alone hug them, and just try and take a picture of them! Forget about it! You are no longer the authority on anything and anything you might say is going to be questioned if not outright rejected in favor of something they heard from a friend or read on their social media. And there you are- walking around on eggshells.

When To Worry and When Not To

When we see our teenage kids disengaging from us and the things we used to do together in favor of spending more time alone, with friends, or on the internet, it’s easy to grow concerned about whether this is natural or a cause for alarm.

Much of this behavior is absolutely typical adolescent growth as they test out the waters of their budding and future independence. Letting them grow will mean you have to grow a bit as well. However, if your teen has withdrawn from everyone, friends included, isn’t interacting with people during their screen time,  sleeps excessively (even for a teen) or can’t sleep at all, skips meals, is visibly depressed, having uncontrollable crying spells, or is displaying any form of self harm then an evaluation for some professional help is warranted.

How To Grow With Your Teen

One of the biggest mistakes parents find themselves making with their teens is talking to and treating them as if they were still seven years old. Back then, with their concrete operational thinking, things were quite a bit more black and white, right and wrong, good or bad and your parenting style reflected and worked well with that. You were the authority and your word was accepted at face value.

Teens brains have evolved into what Piaget referred to as Formal Operational thought. During this time they are able to consider things abstractly. Now there is room for gray between the black and white. They have an ability to consider things in the light of ethics, morality, philosophical, or even political filters. So when they are exercising their newfound thinking abilities this is exactly the same time they will start to challenge previously held beliefs – many of which you may have taught them. Here the journey into independence begins and how you change your parenting style to meet the needs of your teen will have a great impact on your relationship with them during this time.

Here are some ways to consider altering your parenting style during this time:

Give Them Some Space

Not seeing your son for hours on end as they are sequestered in their room with a closed door can worry any parent. The urge to knock on their door and see what they’re up to is a hard one to manage for most. However, barging in on them will be one that you’ll want to avoid. Let them have their space and privacy. Give them a shout when something is happening – you’re leaving, have returned, a meal is ready, etc. All of these will provide you and them an opportunity for some quick communication letting them know that you’re thinking about them and including them in your plans. By giving them this space you are indirectly telling them that you trust them and respect their privacy. Doing so will allow them to feel more comfortable in sharing things with you.

Meet Them on Their Terms

It’s more than likely that your sons interests have changed from when they were little. Even if they still have some of the toys and remnants of hobbies you may have enjoyed together with them back then, chances are they are around simply as a reminder of some fun they had earlier in their lives. 

Take some time to find out what interests them now. Ask them what game they are playing or what artists they like to listen to. Go a step further and ask them what it is they like about that game or artist and then ask what other games or artists they also like. You may be surprised how your normally quiet teen suddenly finds his voice again and wants to tell you a lot about that topic. 

Listen to them genuinely. Don’t pretend you like something they do if you don’t. The fact that you are showing interest in their hobbies is showing them you have interest in them. That alone will speak volumes with your teen.

If they let you, watch them play their favorite game for a while. Keep your mouth closed, listen and learn. Suddenly you found yourself spending time with your boy and neither of you realized it would happen.

Change Your Communication Style

Somewhere along the way your communication style no longer works for your teenager. The simple, hard-no just won’t suffice anymore. Neither will, “Because I said so.” Give them some credit for being older, for understanding the why and why not of things, and approach them with a more open dialogue. 

This is not to say you need to sacrifice the things you know to be true and to keep your kid safe. The act of engaging them in the conversation, asking them why they feel the way they do, etc. lets them know you see them as older, more mature, and capable of providing some input into these decisions. 

Offer them choices rather than hard and fast directions. While you may not want him to go to the house party his friend is hosting you may be able to negotiate around things like communication type and frequency (so you know they are okay), agree upon a time to come home, understand who else will be there and if you know any of those kids, etc. Let him know what things you are comfortable with and which you are not.

Let Them Hear ‘I Love You’

Saying these three words is more powerful than you may think. And some teens may cringe or even say, “How gross!” if you say it to them. But underneath that façade it resonates with them deeply. Even if they act as if they don’t, kids really want and need to hear these words from you. 

For some families and even culturally it may not be common. Even if it’s new in your family work on finding the simple times to add it to the end of a conversation with your teen. If saying it out loud is daunting start by simply adding it to the end of a text. Say it before you finish a call with them or when you say goodnight.

One thing we do in our family is a little ritual at the beginning of the day called Huddle Up. In the midst of the morning chaos, before everyone scurries out the door to their various destinations, we call, “Huddle Up!” Then we group up just like a football team does before they call the next play. In this little family embrace we wish everyone safe travels and let each know we love them. A simple gesture like that can carry throughout the day for your teen. And don’t worry if they seem to resist it. Again, underneath it all it means the world to them. 

Don’t Make Screentime the Issue 

Screen time is often a point of contention between parents and their teens. Every generation has their thing that parents want to limit. For many of us it was cable TV which, to the dismay of our parents introduced 24-7 TV entertainment at a time when they had grown up in the age of rabbit ears and stations going off the air by midnight. Between TV and the video games we played our parents complained and we resisted. Most of us turned out okay despite the dire warnings.

The teens today endured the pandemic, social isolation, and remote learning. It was a difficult time for us all but especially for them as they couldn’t interact with their friends and peers physically. Luckily the internet had grown up enough by then that bandwidth and accessibility allowed most to participate. Out of this the kids became tech savvy and in many ways the internet saved them as it allowed them to interact with others in a virtual social setting. 

Thus interacting online became the norm but now that the pandemic is over parents want to go back to the old ways. For the kids this is what they know to be the ‘old ways’.  Rather than struggling over screen time talk about what your teen is using their screen for, make sure they stay safe, and let them be a part of determining how much is enough and how much is too much. This self regulation is a critical lesson that they can only learn through practice.

A Family Meal

One way to help reconnect with your teen is to have one family event that occurs daily. Quality over quantity as the amount of time is not as important as how the time is spent. One of the easiest ways to do this is to be consistent around one family meal each day. Every family is different so you’ll need to find what meal works best for you. With a myriad of logistics and schedules typically lunch time is ruled out and it either falls to breakfast or dinner.

With teens often involved in afterschool activities, sports, etc. dinner time might be later than you used to have it in the past. It’s easy to fall into the habit of some family members eating earlier and others (the teens) eating later once they have returned home. Once again, see if you can flex your routine to meet them on their terms and maybe have dinner a little later so everyone can attend.

Once everyone is there keep the phones away – yours included. This is possibly the only time everyone will be together so use the opportunity to ask about their day. Not just, “How was your day?” as that will of course be followed with, “Fine.” Go a little deeper. Ask them what was the best part of their day? What made it the best part? What other parts of their day did they like? Then tell them about your day and what you liked about it. Ask what’s coming up tomorrow for them. Talk about the upcoming weekend.

You may all only be together for 15 minutes for the meal but those 15 minutes can really make a difference.

References

  • Disconnection, not teens’ screen time, is the problem (Ward and Crowe 2022)
  • What To Do When Your Teen Disconnects (Smith, 2016)
  • A Guide On How To Connect With Your Emotionally Distant Teenager (Hudson, 2023)
  • 5 Powerful Ways to Engage With Your Disconnected Teen (Earle, 2024)
  • Teen Disconnection: How to Stop Feeling Empty (Cote, 2024)

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About Morgan | View Profile

Morgan is a psychotherapist who specializes in working with clients to triumph over trauma, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, LGBTQI+ issues, couples, and stress. On weekends you can find him in his happy place tuning and racing cars at Road Atlanta.

We offer in-person and virtual services – contact us today to learn more!

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Where Did My Son Go?

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When we see our teen disengaging from us and the things we used to do together in favor of spending more time alone, with friends, or on the internet, it’s

Author Photo
About Morgan | View Profile

Morgan is a psychotherapist who specializes in working with clients to triumph over trauma, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, LGBTQI+ issues, couples, and stress. On weekends you can find him in his happy place tuning and racing cars at Road Atlanta.

We offer in-person and virtual services – contact us today to learn more!

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