What to do when your teen withdraws from you

Teenage girl with red hair looking upset

Written by Elana Benjamin.

My 16-year-old daughter spends hours in her bedroom with the door firmly closed, using her phone and watching TV. And when she does emerge, she can be anywhere from uncommunicative (sitting down for breakfast with headphones on) to downright hostile (‘CAN YOU JUST LEAVE ME ALONE?’). I keep reminding myself that this is how it’s supposed to be, and that the goal of adolescence is separation from parents or carers. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to deal with.

Why is my teenager withdrawn?

Psychologist Dr John Townsend explains that teens need a certain amount of time and space to pull away from their parents or carers – not totally away, but enough to form their own opinions, identity and values. So, it’s important to realise that your teen withdrawing from you is a normal part of their emotional development.

At the same time, having your teen withdraw can be frustrating and worrying. (What’s my child up to behind closed doors? How will I know if they’re in trouble if they’re barely talking to me?) Teens withdrawing can also produce feelings of grief, as you realise that your child is growing up and that you are getting older, too. So, how can parents respond when their teen withdraws from them, and when do we need to worry?

Tips for dealing with a teen who is withdrawing

  • Don’t take it personally: Your teen withdrawing is not your fault, and it’s not a personal rejection. It’s just a part of adolescence.

  • Manage and let go: Teens may say they want you to totally leave them alone. That’s unrealistic. You still need to keep an eye on them, but you also need to know when to keep quiet and let them handle their own lives.

  • Take care of yourself: Take time out and do something you enjoy – perhaps surfing, meditating or hiking – to make you feel good and replenish your energy.

  • Get support: Get as much support as you can to help you through this challenging stage of your child’s life, whether that’s talking to other parents of teens, or heading to your local library or bookstore and finding some reading material on parenting teenagers. You could head to the ReachOut Parents Forum to talk to others who have been there too. ReachOut also offers free professional personalised support to help you support your teen through a tough time.

  • Manage your own stress: If you’re having trouble in your own life, it’s even harder to manage a teen and the negative emotions they can trigger. Try to address your own relationship, work or other life issues, and consider seeking professional help to do this.

How to help a withdrawn teenager

  • Stay in touch: Find creative ways to connect with your teen. Try to find some common ground, such as talking about something you’re both interested in, or doing an activity together that you both enjoy – even if that’s just watching the same TV show.

  • Pay attention to the positive: Ensure that you have some positive interactions with your teen, instead of just asking them to unstack the dishwasher/do their homework/go to sleep.

  • Don’t push them too hard: Work out what’s really non-negotiable in your family and choose your battles. For example, is it really necessary for your teen’s bedroom to stay tidy?

When to worry about your teen

It can be hard to know when your teen needs professional help, and you might be wondering whether their behaviour is normal or something more serious. Dr Wendy Mogel writes that it’s trickier to know when to worry about teenagers than it is about younger children, because teens can be so secretive. In her book, Dr Mogel lists the following as possible questions to ask yourself to determine if it might be time to seek professional help:

  • Has your teen been isolating themselves in their room more than usual?

  • Do they consume a lot of social media or games, or are they mostly just observing? (‘Just observing’ is an issue because even though they aren’t using the sites to connect, they are still comparing themselves to others.)

  • Are they participating in class?

  • Have their school marks dropped?

  • Have they withdrawn from friends?

  • Have they become distant or hard around younger siblings and extended family members?

  • Are there signs they could be injuring themselves?

  • Are they losing weight or going on extreme diets?

Seeking professional help

If you’re concerned about your teen – or you’re struggling to cope with them pulling away from you – there’s no shame in seeking help. Be aware that Medicare helps with the cost of some mental health treatments. You can visit your GP and see if you and/or your child are eligible for a mental health treatment plan, which lets you get a rebate on up to 20 sessions each calendar year with a mental health professional, such as a counsellor, social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist.

A close friend of mine recently saw a psychologist about her teen’s behaviour. Her advice to other parents of teens? ‘Ask for help if you need it. Even a few sessions of having a professional listen to you, and work out how you can respond to the issues in your home, is priceless.’