My Teen: A Live-in Boarder?

Anna Freud once wrote that teenagers “live in the home in the attitude of a boarder, usually a very inconsiderate one so far as the older and younger family members are concerned” (1958). This quote describes how a teenager’s developmental work of separating from the family to become an independent person is perceived by others in the home. For many parents, this often feels like a teenager abruptly withdrew from the family and now spends all their time with friends. When they do come home, they immediately sequester voluntarily into their room. Suddenly, they seem embarrassed by a parent’s presence. They appear to desire time with friends more than family. They frown, sigh, and scowl in response to family attempts at interaction but light up with a smile as soon as a friend comes into sight. But who wants a scowling boarder in the home, especially one that doesn’t make any contribution to the household? How can a parent respond to this in a way that will promote their teenager’s growth?

  • First, understand that, as frustrating as it is, this is not unusual behavior. It is normal. Teenagers are preparing to leave the security of home and enter the world of adults. The teenage years of pushing family away allows them to practice leaving before they actually do. It allows them to pretend like they live alone with the safety net of family to catch them if (and when) they make a mistake. They can practice “adulting” from the comfort and safety of home. I like Lisa Damour’s analogy that the teen years of separating from family and practicing independence are like learning to ride a bike with training wheels (found in her book, Untangled). It’s preparation for the real thing. Give them the opportunity to practice adult decisions, adult debates, and adult lifestyles while in the security of your loving and watching eye. Let them have some independence.
  • Allow them some privacy. Let their bedroom become their sanctuary. You can still set limits around technology to help them internalize healthy limits of their own. But let them have their space. Respect that space. Knock before you enter. Don’t go in uninvited.
  • Provide opportunity for increased responsibility. Let them begin to practice some adult skills. Let them contribute to the household in a meaningful way. This may require that you explain how some task or chore you ask them to complete is meaningful. For instance, you might let them wash their own clothes, feed their dog, get a job outside the house, help cook meals, run to the store for you, or volunteer to help the younger children in church. Let them have some adult responsibility. These responsibilities will have to be adjusted as your teen’s schedule changes. But, let them have some responsibility.
  • Enjoy family meals.  I know it’s difficult to get the whole family together every day for a meal. But try to get as much of the family together for a meal on as many days as you can during the week. The research suggests that dinner with one parent has the same positive effect as having dinner with two parents. The important thing is not forcing everyone to come together but getting as much of the family together as often as you can for a family meal. Aim for 5 of 7 days a week. The benefits of eating family meals (What a 10-year-old Gains Eating With Family and the benefits of The Lost Art of Family Meals) will serve as a great motivator for you to encourage family meals. 
  • Take advantage of ideal times talk with your teen. Car time is one such time. When you drive your teen to various places, let them pick the music and spend the ride talking with them about the things they enjoy—their friends, their struggles, their relationships. Another great time to connect with your teen is bedtime. Before you go to bed (or before they go to bed, whichever comes first), spend 10-20 minutes touching bases. Share about your day and listen to them share about their days. Talk about your plans for the coming days and big plans for the coming months. Make this time of connection a simple routine and you’ll be pleased with how well you connect during this time. (Learn more tips to Connect with Your Teen.)

The teen years offer the teen a time to learn how to live on their own, to discover their place in the world, and to learn to trust in their ability to navigate the world independently. What better place to practice than in the safety and comfort of their parents’ loving gaze and care?

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