Dear Therapist:

Our daughter (she is 17 years old and a bit moody) has recently begun complaining to us that we don't understand her and that we have no relationship with her. This seems to be a common teenage complaint but she is being very persistent that this is a problem. To be honest I can't say that she doesn't have something of a point, but I don't believe that the fault lies completely with us. We are seeking advice from a few sources but I was hoping you might be able to provide a few quick tips for developing and maintaining a relationship with a cranky teen?



Of course, each situation is different. Just as no two children or adults are alike, no two teens experience the same thoughts and emotions. Though there may be similarities in certain areas, this certainly doesn’t mean that there are any hard and fast rules that determine parents’ actions.

Your daughter’s complaints are comprised of two facets. She claims that you don’t understand her. She also claims that you have no relationship with her. Of course, these two can go hand-in-hand. Also, you agreed that she has a point. Does this mean that you recognize a lack of understanding? Of a relationship? Both? Are they connected?

Working on the assumption that everyone agrees that the relationship and mutual understanding are lacking, what caused this? Did your daughter begin distancing herself from you? Did you distance yourself from her? Did both occur simultaneously? Is it possible that you each distanced yourselves because you felt that the other was distancing themselves? If this is the case, were you each simply giving the other person what it appeared they wanted or were you content with a more distant relationship?

These are some of the questions that can help you each to begin the process of becoming closer. It is likely that the distancing is directly related to the decrease in mutual understanding. If your daughter feels that you don’t understand her, she will tend to separate from the two of you. As this happens, your natural tendency may be to give her space, feeling that she doesn’t want the close relationship that you may have had when she was younger.

Although you may have been giving her what you felt she wanted, this could easily have reinforced your daughter’s sense that you don’t understand her, thus making her further distance herself from you. As with any cycle, until this cycle is arrested, it will continue to strengthen. These types of cycles can resolve naturally over time. However, there are times when they don’t. And even when they do, there are usually some lingering negative effects.

As discussed, relationships and understanding often go hand-in-hand. As a relationship grows, the sense of mutual understanding grows as well. This could be viewed as a positive version of the distancing cycle. The more your daughter feels that you understand her, the more connected she will feel. The more connected your relationship is, the more likely she is to feel that you understand her.

As with any cycle, the best way to reverse direction is to work on all aspects of the cycle. With regard to understanding, open and non-judgmental conversations can go a long way. As far as the surface relationship is concerned, can you (together as parents or separately depending on the relationships) set aside time to reconnect? This can take the form of a casual conversation, going out for brunch, or even a road trip. This could address both aspects of the cycle. As you build the external relationship, the sense of mutual understanding will likely grow as well. If you specifically focus on the fact that your daughter feels misunderstood, you can better take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to help change this.   

Generally speaking the best time to approach your daughter would not be when she is complaining, but rather at a neutral time, or—better yet—when you are getting along well. Although when things are good you may instinctively want to leave well enough alone, this is usually the best time to approach the issue. It seems that you all want the same thing—a closer and more thoughtful relationship. If you can keep this goal in mind, many of your actions will probably come naturally.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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