Freedom and Responsibility: What Changes in High School?–Separating from Parents

Have a teenager? Finding the experience not, perhaps, unending and pure simplicity and joy?

Well, you’re not alone.   Adolescence is a complicated and extreme time. It seems that, simply put, the developmental tasks of adolescence are accomplished by the teen going to the extreme before s/he can return to the mean.

There are three basic tasks a teen must accomplish in his or her progression. The first task is: separation from parents.

There are a number of components to this separation, and let’s just say they’re not all pleasant, for teen or parent. In this state, teens go from accepting parents as perfect to rejecting them as impossible. In a healthy family, this will ultimately lead to a deeper acceptance of the parent as caring and wiser–but still fallible–humans.  But the path to this final acceptance is painful and strewn with pitfalls.

Keeping in mind what is normal, and knowing what to do–or not to do–to assist this process can make it less painful.

Do keep this in mind–if you have a ben sorer u’moreh, the Biblical term for a rebellious child, a child who refuses to listen to either parent, well, that’s not a normal state  for an adolescent. The healthy adolescent seeks your approval at the same time that s/he makes choices of which you don’t approve. If you find your child so rageful and hate-filled that s/he won’t cooperate in any way, it is time to seek the intervention of a therapist.

So, what can you do? For one, and this is particularly for moms, you need to let your child individuate.  This may seem obvious, but you are not your daughter. Be very careful that you don’t let your old experience, say, of high school cliques, be a roadmap for hers.  Times are different, your daughter’s different–let her make her own way.


For all genders: your child can become secretive and sneaky to achieve his/her goals of separation. Don’t say: “I can never trust you anymore.” Allow privacy from the get-go. Provide a private place for your child to talk on the phone, allow plenty of time in the room with the door shut. In one case, a lovely family with seven children, the eldest child chose to room with a baby sister rather than the next in line, a sister close to her age. This is normal, and you should let your children have this distance.

Ok. That’s in the normal situation. But you may be wondering–when is it time to worry (= snoop)? Although in general I deplore snooping, there are situations that call for it. You should snoop when you sense real danger. Be honest with yourself about what should constitute ‘real danger,’ but certainly if you sense your child has an eating disorder, is meeting strangers online, is into drugs or alcohol, or is self-injurious, you have an obligation to take charge of the situation.

Be alert to certain signs:

Notice possible cuts on wrists or arms, and do not fall for those fishy excuses (as one girl I know tried, multiple times, with “I fell into some bushes”).

Eating disorders have numerous indications. Look carefully if your child is pushing her food around the plate without eating, talking a lot about food, taking on extreme food restrictions, like veganism (yes, it might be totally fine, but just be cautious), baking and feeding others desserts while forgoing herself, pinching her ‘fat,’ asking if she looks fat, wearing extremely baggy clothes when she has a beautiful figure, etc.

For substances, be cautious of your generally nice child has turned into a mean and angry beast with little explanation, or you notice that prescription medications are disappearing faster than they ought to be.  See http://www.teenswithproblems.com/drugabuse.html for more specific warning signs.

If your child begins suddently turning off the computer monitor when you come in, or is spending large amounts of time online, particularly at night, it is time to take action. Although some of rules on this next site seem like common sense, like keeping the computer in a common room, not your child’s bedroom, or using blocking software, too many parents don’t avail themselves of these opportunities–and then it’s too late.  So, even before you suspect something’s wrong, take the time to implement some of the steps found here, and hopefully you can avoid a horrible scenario: http://www.ferry-county.com/Courts%20and%20Law/Sex%20Offender%20Info/Signs_That_Your_Child_Might_Be_at_Risk_Online.pdf.

And remind your child who seems to be “up to no good,” as we used to put it: Parents always find out; there is no such thing as a permanent secret. Clients of mine who have met boys at airports thinking they could never get caught, changed their clothes once outside the house to avoid a parental-enforced dress code, climbed out their windows once everyone in the house was asleep–it all came out in the end.

As your child is busy doing all this separating from you, the parent, they are simultaneously occupied with  a second task of creating their own identity: Attaching to friends.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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