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Why does your college kid act that way?

Sherri Kuhn writes about raising teenagers, the perils of a clean home, wistfulness over babies, and anything else that makes her laugh (or cry) in the years between changing diapers and wearing them. With a son just starting college and...

Breaking away one step at a time

Your teenager is home from college this summer and you expected things to be just like the old days, but they are far from it. While some of your time together has been enjoyable and fun, there has also been tension and behavior that you hadn’t expected.

Keep reading for why your college-aged kid is testing the limits and why you may need to change your frame of mind.

Remember what it felt like to reach your 18th birthday, or the first time you lived or traveled on your own? To a teenager who has grown up with rules, curfews and obligations to parents, that feeling of inching closer to grown-up status is indescribable. We can remember these feelings from our own teen years, but our view as a parent is completely different.

How to deal when your teenager hates you >>

Who is this kid?

Parents may be shocked when their previously easy-going teen starts acting like a toddler again. Your teen’s behavior may swing from moodiness and irritability back to being pleasant and mature. For parents who are expecting a young adult, the apparent regression can be unsettling.

"Although teens always need their parents — and even though that need may change over time — as teens get older, they may experience an inner struggle with it,” says Nancy Lamberty, LCSW-R and staff social worker in the Binghamton University Counseling Center. “On one hand, they want and/or need their parents’ involvement, advice and guidance but on the other hand, they want to be independent and are all too eager to cultivate a sense of not needing anyone.”

What is normal teen behavior, anyway? >>

Teen or 2-year-old?

As your teen struggles to find his own identity, he will experience a range of emotions. His unique views and opinions are forming and might not necessarily conform to yours. This can cause strain between parents and teens, but is a natural progression toward adulthood.

“Older teens often have an attitude that parents felt they left behind in the Terrible Twos because the adolescent phase of psychological development parallels that of toddlerhood,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Teens must return to wrestling with their autonomy and independence in order to emerge with their own ideas, points of view, and opinions on life including relationships, religion, politics, education and all topics.” Like a toddler venturing away from his mom, your teen is striving to find a balance between budding independence and staying connected to the family.

How parents can help

It is important to remember that the ultimate goal of parenthood is to raise a competent, capable individual who is able to make good judgments on her own. The fact that your teen is struggling with these independence issues highlights the fact that she is on her way to autonomy — and your parenting is right on track. While your teen navigates these new waters of freedom, she is also redefining her relationships with parents and siblings. “For parents, it can be very confusing and difficult to understand what their child needs or wants from them and how to be helpful without being controlling or intrusive,” says Lamberty. Stay firm and consistent with family rules and expect there to be difficulties — but don’t take them personally.

Being a sounding board for your older teen will help her make a smooth transition. “Parents can be helpful to young people by allowing them the freedom to try new roles and activities, while communicating that stumbles are expected and can be overcome,” says Dr. Lisa Greenberg, a psychologist in Madison, New Jersey. It may take some time to get through this phase, but the rewards are worth it.

More on parenting teens

Understanding your teen's nutritional needs
Teen depression or normal mood swings?
Does your teen have an eating disorder?

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