My 13-year-old has given up on me.

I pride myself on being the parent who listens and connects, but she shut me down, and it stings. 

All of you parents of 13-year-olds probably see this as par for the course, but for me it was a bit of a shock. We were walking back from some outing and started arguing so intensely that my son picked up his pace so he wouldn’t have to walk with us anymore. 

Our journey, at that point totally miserable, I told her that I hated how we fought so much and said we had to find a different way to communicate. “Both of us,” I said, and admitted that I knew I had to change the way I was dealing with her if we wanted things to get better. 

I thought that was so big of me, offering to accept half the blame. But she didn’t agree, and she was done, both with the fight and what she saw as my empty promises.

“You always say that,’ she told me, “but you keep doing the same thing every time, so I’ve given up. You’re not going to do anything.”

“But don’t you think it’s worth trying to figure it out?” I asked, shocked.

“No. I’m done.”

She shut me down. Me! Her open-minded, you-can-tell-me-anything mom, the one who remembers being 13 like it was yesterday. Days later, my head was still spinning as I tried to figure out why she saw me as both unapproachable and beyond redemption. What had I done?

Was I too serious?

Maybe my 13-year-old isn’t ready to look at the bigger picture of our mother-daughter relations and doesn’t want to look for patterns in our conversations. She also might not be ready to own up to her own contributions to our conflicts in an analytical way. I gravitated towards this option first, since I still got to pat myself on the back for a good attempt and blame its failure on her age.

Was I too lighthearted?

My attempts to keep things from getting intense may be having the opposite effect. A joke that I use to lighten the mood can easily be seen as mockery by a 13-year-old. Hell, I’m pretty sure I saw almost everything through that lens when I was her age. (Confession: sometimes I still do.)  

Is this temporary?

I keep wondering if she really meant it. Is she FOREVER not interested in avoiding our bad patterns together? Does a kid her age have any concept of forever anyway? Should I just wait a while and try again?

Is she right?

It may be time for some serious self-evaluation here, because something’s making her see me as not particularly trustworthy in the promises department.  It’s so easy to blame everything on her age and her hormones, but I’ve got some emotions and hormones of my own to wrestle with. Parental righteousness may be getting in the way of seeing things clearly.

Did she mean it?

That’s the big question. I was upset after that conversation and fretted that our relationship was going to shut down. But that very day, a few hours later, she popped her head into my office to say hi and tell me she loves me (as she often does), and I’m still her go-to person in the house when she needs to talk. 

I’m the one who sympathizes when my husband and son don’t get what she’s talking about, and the one who tries to answer her more difficult questions. Does giving up on someone mean to a 13-year-old what it means to me?

Where do we go from here?

I decided that more talk wasn’t going to help.  My new strategy is to just be present, and resist the urge to “fix” everything.

Last weekend, her grandparents were visiting. She came to the kitchen to say hi, then went out to the living room by herself, clearly feeling left out of the group conversation. A few minutes later, I went out to join her. She had the TV on, so I just sat on the other side of the couch and waited… silently. 

Within a few minutes, she’d moved over to my side and was resting her head on me while she watched. That feeling of isolation she had was, I hope, replaced by acceptance and love. And when you’re 13, as I recall so vividly, feeling accepted and loved doesn’t come easy. One more key piece of wisdom: Conversation mucks things up.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. She’s not ready for analysis, she’s not ready to own half of our communication struggles, and she’s not interested in talk that (she thinks) doesn’t go anywhere. 

The advice I have to parents who are also being shut out by their teenagers, then, is to be patient. You may not be able to resolve specific issues right away, but just show them that you’re there, without demands or needs or to-do lists. (I say this as someone who has “ruined” many a conversation, according to my daughter, by constantly reminding her of the clean-up she hasn’t done yet.) When I see her by herself watching TV, I sit down beside her, far enough away to give her some space but close enough to invite her in. Even if it’s icy cold when I arrive, just being there in silence starts the melting process, and it doesn’t take long for her to start talking to me about what she’s watching—she’s hooked on Grey’s Anatomy these days—or to just slide over and snuggle. 

She’s growing up fast, but sometimes I think she just wants to be a little kid again, flopped over on me, judgment-free. I want that too, so maybe we’re doing it for each other, and hopefully, that will open the doors of communication when she’s ready.

About Laurie Ulster

A transplanted Canadian living in New York, Laurie Ulster is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She writes about pop culture, lifestyle topics, feminism, food, and other topics for print, digital, podcasts, and TV.

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