By Brooke Carson, MSW, LCSW

How Can Parents Help A Teen Who Seems Distant or Distracted?

Many parents are worried these days that their teens are spending too much time with technology. In addition to concerns about this leading to reduced social skills and “real” connections with others, parents often worry when teens seem very distant and distracted. A good place for parents to start when trying to evaluate this concern is the important fact that it is common and developmentally appropriate for teens to become more distant from parents.

In addition to the vague and one word answers to queries from parents, teens often present with a stance that is disconnected, convincing us that they are unmoved and unaffected by events in order to keep parents out of their private lives.

It is important for teens to do this- to have aspects of their lives that parents aren’t aware of and to be able to think their own thoughts and have ideas, opinions and experiences separate from parents.Parents often find themselves needing to adjust to this emotionally, because it is an important change, even though it is developmentally appropriate. Many parents find comfort reality checking and comparing notes with other parents about this phenomenon.

Breaking free from distractions

Meanwhile, teens can also get into patterns of distraction that are unhealthy. Under difficult circumstances or when they lack other coping skills, teens may overuse distraction to disconnect to avoid emotion and avoid acknowledging problems. Alcohol, drugs and sex have always been avenues for this unhealthy distraction. Technology may now provide a more insidious or gradual way for a teen to build an unhealthy level of distraction and disconnection.

Whether we view technology as a particular factor or not, there are some important ways that parents can help their teens with this. One very important way to help involves the fact that teens may have difficulty recognizing when they are under stress or going through something difficult. They can then be susceptible to adopting unhealthy coping patterns without being aware of what’s happening. They may drift into distraction and disconnection, leaving them even less aware and more alone with their problems.

Be sensitive and be sure to validate

As parents, an important job is to be sensitive to the many life events that are rough for young people and to help our children realize when they are experiencing  difficulty or struggling, so they can validate what they are going through and receive support. Some of these events are more obvious, such as divorce, death or illness. However, even if the significance of these events may be obvious to adults, younger people may not be as aware of the effect that these events have on them.

Others circumstances that may be very stressful for teens are less obvious, either because they are generally positive events or because parents can underestimate how much events that “happen to the parents” impact their children. We can also sometimes lose sight of how much more stressful change in general can be for young people.

A good idea for parents to assist with this awareness is to search for the many lists available that give research-based ratings of teen’s stress levels when experiencing various life events. Some examples of particularly impactful events include events that “happen to parents” like travel for work, remarriage, trouble with grandparents, parents reconciling, parent losing job, mom returning to work, mom becoming pregnant and change in the family’s financial situation.

Life changes very often are a major source of stress

Other significantly stressful events include changes like a new teacher or class, changes in responsibilities at home, move to a different house or part of town, older sibling leaving home, changing friends, starting a new extracurricular activity, changes in relationships with extended family, injury or illness of a close friend and outstanding personal achievement. Parents can help by labeling/validating the fact that their teen is going through something rough or stressful. They can offer to talk or help problem solve or find resources or ask the teen how they can help. It is also critical to validate the teens own efforts to manage/hang in there.

It’s okay if they refuse your help

Teens may be willing to accept help, but might also refuse that help. It’s important to remember that the refusal of help might be developmentally appropriate, even if it leaves parents worried. If parents are unsure where to draw that line, asking a professional can be helpful. Sometimes our kids need our help and sometimes they need us to let them manage by themselves.

One key variable for healthy coping is that they are aware of their own struggle which allows them to help themselves intentionally. Another key variable is that they are aware that their parent is there for them if they need it. If they go back to the Xbox while being able to maintain those two types of awareness, they will be in a much better place knowing that they have themselves and their parents to rely on if they struggle.