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When your child pulls away

Marlene Kern Fischer

If you had seen my middle son and me walking together when he was around fifteen years old, you might have noticed us holding hands as we chatted and strolled. People often commented how remarkably sweet he was for a teenager and how well we seemed to get along and I felt extremely fortunate.

Now that he is almost 22, you might get the same impression if you saw us together. But there were a few years in between…well, not so much.

Because my son and I had such a good relationship I got lulled into a false sense of security. I thought things would always be the same between us so it took me by surprise when it happened.

He pulled away.

You may have had some experience with this yourself. The child you were so close to becomes distant. They’re less communicative and more secretive. They recoil from your touch or pretend not to hear you when you speak. And when they do seem to hear you, they answer with as few words as possible — words spoken in a less than agreeable tone. The change in them (and your relationship) may happen all of a sudden, or it may occur more gradually.

You’re left wondering what you did to cause the rift. It can even feel as if your child doesn’t love you anymore, compelling you to try different (and sometimes desperate) tactics to get things back to how they were. I tried to bridge the gap between my son and me by spending more time with him, doing things I knew he enjoyed. If we were out shopping or having lunch together I'd sometimes see flashes of his former self, but any connection we made felt fleeting. And as I struggled to get closer to him, I alternated between feeling frustrated, angry and sad.

I  want you to know that your son or daughter’s behavior has little to do with you. You didn’t do anything wrong. This is all about your child.

Someone told me that, if your child was sweet once, they will be sweet again. It’s true. When your child has figured things out, they’ll eventually return to their default setting. It may seem like an eternity until they return but it will happen.

After living through the process, to varying degrees, with my own three sons, and watching my friends go through it with their children as well, I’ve realized this behavior is common. My relationship with my oldest son was always more contentious so the rockiness of his teen years wasn’t as abrupt or dramatic but it still happened. The good news is that by the time he graduated college we grew closer and now that he’s an adult our relationship is better than it’s ever been.

Of course this scenario doesn’t happen with every teenager. Some seem to transition to adulthood more easily. If you’re reading this and can't relate, consider yourself fortunate! But for those of you who’ve gone through it, or are currently going through it, know that you’re not alone. The timing may be different; some children pull away in middle or high school, others not until college. But whenever it happens, it hurts. A lot.

It can be especially difficult when your child pulls away when they’re in college because you aren’t with them and don’t really know what’s going on. You may not hear from them for days or even weeks, and when you do it’s only with superficial information. I‘ve learned that, although your student may not be confiding in you, it’s likely they’re entrusting their thoughts to others and building new relationships.

As hard as it is on us parents, this pulling away is part of the process of growing up. In retrospect, I understand my sons were worried — worried about their futures, relationships, etc. They were trying to figure things out and they needed to be independent of my husband and me to do that.

Someone told me that, if your child was sweet once, they will be sweet again. It’s true. When your child has figured things out, they’ll eventually return to their default setting. It may seem like an eternity until they return but it will happen.

Last year, my middle son seemed to shed some of the angst he’d been carrying. With a more concrete plan for his future and a better sense of who he was, he no longer needed to keep us at a distance.

These days he texts me just to ask how I am and what’s up at home. And when we're together, he often reaches for my hand, just as he did when he was younger. I’m grateful to have made it through to the other side with him.

If you are there right now, in that difficult place with your child, take heart. Although they may not always be able to show it, they still love you. Be patient. Let them know you are always there for them, ready to welcome them back with open arms.


Follow Marlene on Facebook, and read more of her wonderful stories on her CollegiateParent author page and her blog, "Thoughts from Aisle Four."


Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother of three sons and a newly gained daughter, food shopper extraordinaire, blogger and college essay editor. She recently published her first book, “Gained a Daughter But Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic.” A founding contributor at Collegiate Parent, her work has also been featured on Huffington Post, Grown & Flown, The New York Times (Modern Love), Kveller, Her View From Home and The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Find her on Facebook at “Thoughts From Aisle 4.”
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2 years ago

Thank you for writing this. I’m going through this now with my one and only child, my son. I’ve been racking my brain during the day when i’m alone and at night as i lie in bed, thinking about all the ways ive messed him that has led to this sudden detachment. I divorced his dad and remarried 7 yrs later to a wonderful man who loves him and has provided my son with a life that most kids would only dream of having. He’s been a wonderful, loving, easy kid but as soon as he graduated i rarely see him nor does he ever call me. it’s been super painful. This article helped put things into perspective.

Thank you again.

1 year ago
Reply to  Adriana

Adriana, I too have an only child (a son) that we had always been so close. I am also remarried and had a new baby. My son is leaving for school and our relationship is nothing like it used to be. I miss us so much. I totally understand your pains

1 year ago
Reply to  Bianca

Adriana and Bianca, thank you so much for your comments. I am with you both. I have a son in college and a daughter in her senior year in high school. For years, it has been the three of us - a very close-knit unit. Friends would remark about how lucky I was that my kids and I were so close. It seemed the love fest would last forever. Then, suddenly, between this year and last, both kids have pulled away in their own fashion. They don't confide in me as much, say and do (unintentionally) hurtful things, and seem to consider me mostly as a provider of goods and services. I keep quiet about the hurt, but end up doing a lot of crying when I am alone. The feeling of loss is deep and probably worse after my own childhood, in which I suffered the death of a parent and neglect by the other. I have faith that my kids will come back around, but I wonder how I will storm this sadness in the meantime.

1 year ago

Thank you, too, Marlene, for writing this post in the first place. 🙂

1 year ago

Thank you for this I am so grateful that i am not alone. It's hard and it hurts on my end, and yes I thought it was something I did. I gave him money, we went shopping, I got his favorite food....and he still stayed to himself. He's always in his room with the door closed. I KNOW he loves me. He hugs and kisses me so much I wanna puke😂 (joke) he tells me he loves me all the time. I know he's going through his process of getting older/finding himself/ finding his way but I still miss him. It good to know he will return😊😊

11 months ago
Reply to  Kimmy

This is the only article I read that gave me comfort. I’m going through the same thing right now and it hurts so much. He’s either in his room or with his friends and doesn’t spend any time with me or his siblings. I miss the old days.

10 months ago
Reply to  Michele

Hi, I am in the same spot as you with my 16 year old daughter.

This article has given me comfort as well. My mom was incapable of having a close and loving relationship with me, so of course I’ve tried so hard to make sure I do with both of my daughters.

So, at times it has felt like I’m failing as she rejects me, is rude, and doesn’t wish to talk or spend as much time with me or her little sister. Good to know this is all normal, that I haven’t done anything wrong, and what I need to still do.

It does hurt a lot, and I need to start taking care of me, and creating a new life for myself too, even though I dint want to, I know I must.

10 months ago
Reply to  Kimmy

You are not alone, I too am experiencing this with my 16 year old daughter. It is very hurtful, feels like rejection, but this article has helped, and what I must continue doing, without taking it personal.

This helped me understand what is happening. I miss her, our relationship, it’s painful because I love so deeply. Yes, good to know their love will come full circle some day, but I’m an older mom, 56, so my some day time, unbeknownst to her is limited. And life is short not to give or feel loved.

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