The Real Reason Teenagers Find Parents Embarrassing May Surprise You

Based on the level of disgust your teenagers express about everything you do as their parent, you might think they simply hate what you do. But that’s only part of it.  There are several reasons teenagers suddenly become severely embarrassed by their parents around age 13. One of the key reasons for teenage embarrassment is both surprising and reassuring to their parents.

This week in Forbes, I wrote about what parents can do to understand and survive this teenage phase. The article is called Why Your Teenager Finds You Cringe: A Pediatrician Explains. In that post, I respond to Lisa Damour’s excellent piece for the New York Times, on why teenagers suddenly become allergic to their parents at 13 years old. Damour’s article gives some great insights from her psychology practice.

The bottom line? Teenagers are a lot like toddlers. They are going through a struggle to achieve their own independence. And they still need to know their parents are right there to back them up and love them.

Why Parents Embarrass Their Teenagers

Right around 13 years old, biology tells teenagers that it is time to form their own identities as a person separate from their parents. They find it exciting, stressful and tiring.

Most parents know that their teenagers are rejecting certain things about them. After all, their teenagers state this clearly. And parents may remember doing this with their own parents. How many of us said to ourselves, “Ugh, I will never do that when I grow up.” Or “I can’t believe my mom does her hair that way.” “My dad is so uncool.” Of course, these days our kids call us cringe instead of uncool, because the concept of uncool is so dated… and that’s cringe.

But the second main reason teenagers find their parents embarrassing is surprising. According to Damour, teenagers are also embarrassed by the things they like about or share with their parents. They have to find a way to make it their own, and they can be extreme about it.

In her article, Damour tells the story of a teenage boy who used to love going running with his father. When his own teenage allergy to his parents kicked in, he no longer went running with his father. But since he still loved running, he made it his own by doing it on his school team and running with his friends.

Losing closeness with our teenagers can be painful.

It’s not uncommon for parents to experience a special closeness with their kids right around age 12. I had that with both my sons. 12 years old was a lot of fun for me. They had developed to the point that they wanted to have interesting conversations with me using adult concepts. They shared my interests and viewpoints. And they were so affectionate. Which is why so many parents describe feeling like their child is they best friend during this time.

But I knew that age 13 was coming, while for many parents it comes as a painful surprise. Suddenly instead of spontaneous frequent chats, my kids’ doors were closed as they spent time alone becoming themselves. Instead of my opinions being wise and interesting they were irritating. “I already know that mom.” or “Uh, so cringe.” or “You don’t understand Gen Alpha mom.”

It’s not fun to be embarrassing to my teenagers, but I also had the advantage of knowing the value of this time in their development. The pediatrician in me was delighted by their progress.

Support yourself as a parent during this time

This rapid shift in our relationships with our teenagers can come with the pain of loss. Loss of them being little, loss of the feeling of being in sync, loss of companionship. So many of us as parents have put our own social lives on hold in order to prioritize and spend time with our kids. And that can leave parents lonely when their teenagers start spending less time with them.

It’s important simply to recognize the feeling of loss and sadness you have, even as you recognize the growth in your child. The more you allow yourself to feel that loss without getting stuck in it, the more you can make healthy space for your child to do the growing they need to do.

Damour also advises parents to find support by spending more time with their own friends. Or to invest more time in the interests and hobbies they’d neglected over the years. I personally enjoy knitting.

Teenagers have to distance themselves from their parents to grow

Most parents are aware of how their teenagers being embarrassed by them makes them feel. But how do the teenagers feel? It’s hard for them. This is really really hard.

As Carl Pickhardt writes in Psychology Today, ” embarrassment for an adolescent is not a trivial emotion. This is an age when developing adequacy on many fronts is what growing up is all about: adequate independence, knowledge, physical attractiveness, verbal quickness, daring, popularity, worldly experience, social competence, cool possessions, or athletic achievement, for example.” And that is a lot to handle.

They also feel regret about not being little any more. They may swing between behaving independently or in a needy way toward their parents. And they are generally embarrassed about themselves much of the time.

Knowing that this can be hard on our kids, which is part of why they get so irritable, can help parents plan to help their kids through this.

Some parents give up

Hopefully, by the time the kids are 13, parents have been supporting their emerging skills and giving them appropriate independence along the way. But in the hyper-anxious parenting culture of the ShouldStorm, many parents have not been able to do that. And that means their teenagers allergy to them will have to be much stronger in order to get the space they need. That’s when teenage embarrassment can become frank rejection of their parents.

Some parents who have trouble backing off their kids, get so overwhelmed by this conflict and rejection by their teenagers that they simply give up. This can be out of hurt feelings, or it can be out of overwhelm. If a parent doesn’t know how to give a little independence and hasn’t practiced it, they may overcompensate by simply dropping their parental involvement and authority.

These are the teenagers who become nocturnal over summer break, staying up all night on social media or online video games. They have no screen time limits. The combination of unlimited screen time, poor sleep habits, and lack of appropriate involvement from their parents is frankly bad for them. It doesn’t help them achieve true independence as a person, because to do that you need to find a way to be yourself while in relationship with the improtant people in your life. And it doesn’t help their parents with what their parents want most: a restoration of a sense of closeness with their kids.

Parents need to shift from helping to supporting

Rather than pulling away, don’t let your teenagers embarrasment drive you off. Instead, give them space for their emerging independence, express support for it, and stay close. Give your kids permission to tell you when they need space, but make sure they understand that they may not be rude.

And require them to spend regularly scheduled time with you. My sons are required to spend time with me every day twice a day, once at dinner as a family and a half hour every evening one-on-one. We also occasionally go out for ice cream and talk one-on-one in the car. Those car talks are the best times to hear their thoughts and learn about who they are becoming. I just love them.

There are six more strategies for navigating this time in the Forbes article, if you get a chance to read it. But for now, I’ll leave you with this. If you respect and support your teenagers embarrassment and growing independence, while still spending time with them and maintaining rules and expectations, they will come back to you. And it might be sooner than you think.

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Author: Alison Escalante MD

Alison Escalante MD is a Pediatrician, TEDx Speaker, Writer and Mother on a mission to help parents caught in the culture of criticism.

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