Adolescents need both a solid connection with us (attachment) and space to separate from us and discover who they are. Although these appear to be contradictory needs they’re really connected. One of our cultural myths insists that we’re meant to be independent, but human development culminates with interdependence, not independence. We need healthy, safe, close relationships with people at every age.
During adolescence kids have a developmental need to shift from more dependence to a growing interdependence with us. Each adolescent moves through this in their own timing, and often with a ‘two steps forward and one step back’ kind of process rather than a simple linear one. What they really need from parents is a steady, accepting and loving presence that they can trust enough to push away from.
Kids become more peer focused sometime during adolescence. This does not mean that they don’t need us, but it may mean that they reject or criticize a lot about us--how we look/act/drive/talk/etc. They model on their peers more and more. These peer relationships are pretty conditional and kids have to adapt themselves to fit in. It’s only with securely attached relationships that they truly feel safe and free to be themselves. Teens bring the most difficult, dark aspects of themselves home to us because these parts can’t be expressed in the conditionally accepting world of peers or school. If we can send them the message during this time that they are absolutely accepted, even though they’re acting like brats some of the time, it goes a long way to helping them accept themselves.
Our parenting task at this stage is to see and affirm their true nature. When the things they do are not acceptable (which is bound to happen), we can differentiate between who they are and what they have done. We don't need to let their mistakes threaten our love or acceptance (even though they may trigger our old stuff and bring up a desire to send them away, walk away, tell them they better shape up, etc.).
Just as they become more impulsive and less cautious or eager to please, teens need to experience the right to make choices, make mistakes and be responsible for their mistakes. Our parenting is tricky, like threading a needle through our newly middle-aged eyes! Ideally we talk with them about the 'why' behind choices rather than emphasizing the 'should.' When they mess up, we trust that they are strong enough to experience the results of their mess up and fix it when possible (with support and guidance rather than a rescue). Sometimes we need to sit on our hands rather than fixing things that they can handle, sometimes we need to keep our mouths shut instead of lecturing.
We can remember this passage from Kahlil Gibran’s poem On Children:
"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you."
As a mom (to 2 teenage sons), wife, and person in the world, I have been on a long imperfect journey. I have made many mistakes, but with mindfulness, emotional reflection, and lots of support I have learned enormously from those mistakes.