“I’m really worried about her. I don’t know why she can’t put her phone down, it’s the only thing in the whole house she pays attention to. She won’t even eat dinner with us! She says she’s not hungry but then I see her eating chips late in the evening. And she spends all of her time in her room. I’ve tried everything to get her come out. What’s going on?”

When I’m meeting a parent of a teen for the first time, there are understandably many emotions that come out. Most parents have tried really, really hard to have faith in their child’s approach to expressing their emotions, reassuring themselves that everything’s fine and they just need their privacy, maybe dusting off and flipping through the parenting book, and taking lots of deep breaths.

And almost always, everything is fine. I cherish the chance to meet a new family and another teenager, offer some extra support, cheer everyone on, and say goodbye when the time is right because all they needed was an extra set of hands.

Being a teenager is not in and of itself a mental health issue (although that would explain some things about my teen years…..). We make it sound like one though. Have you ever heard “Boy, THAT one is going to give you some trouble when he’s a teenager!” or “You better lock her up for a few years until she knows better!” But when adolescence arrives, it’s new. And new phases tend to be unpredictable, inconsistent, in constant flux, and anxiety provoking.

Adolescence marks the beginning of a child’s need to individuate from their parents. That means they are starting to navigate thoughts, feelings, and actions on their own terms, with their own successes and failures, alone and with other people their age. One of the easiest, safest, and most comforting ways for a teen to do that is to spend time alone, and alone is usually in their room. Parents of teens might wonder how much time is ok, what times of the day they should require teens to join the family, or if they should monitor anything that might be going on behind that perpetually closed door.

Here’s five tips to guide you through staying connected with a teen who is always in their room:
  1. Anyone entering a new phase in life is facing uncertainty and change. Teens need unstructured alone time to digest the changes they’re experiencing. If you ask them what they’re doing or thinking, they’ll probably answer “I don’t know”. This is age-appropriate, and truthful! They probably don’t know why they are thinking and feeling the way they are, but more time spent in their room supports their developmental changes. And, spending time alone doesn’t equal spending time doing something corrupt or scandalous; most of the time it’s idling away the hours, doing mostly nothing but thinking and staring at the ceiling or out the window. Really.
  2. A day in the life of a teenager can be overwhelming. Many teens have overflowing schoolwork, extracurricular activities, social time, and family life. Hanging out in their room is relaxing. Lots of times teens tell me how relieved they are to go home and not have to think or talk to others, only to have their parents poke their head in their room and start a chat. Teens feel guilty when they snap at parents (really.), and the short fuse may mean time in their room is to decompress and to slow down the stimulation of the day.
  3. Teens are tackling big emotions ALL THE TIME. A not-yet-fully-developed brain means adolescents are far more likely to be processing and responding to stimuli from the limbic center of the brain, the area responsible for motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. Trying to understand the world largely from an emotional perspective has many teens thinking they’re crazy. They might even feel scared they’re going to get in trouble for yelling or being harsh to family members. Spending time in their room helps them to regulate those emotions.
  4. “Should I make him come to the dinner table and eat with the family?” Big developmental changes, overstimulation, and roller coaster emotions don’t stop on cue, even for dinner. I’m a strong advocate for family connectedness around the dinner table-and of timing. Consider making family together time the rule that has some needed time-to-time exceptions. Decide in advance as a family what reasonable exceptions look like.
  5. I worry about teens when time spent in their room becomes uncharacteristic or excessive, or is happening alongside a mental health issue that may indicate more supervision, like self-harm or suicidality (see my blogs on suicide and teens). Spending most hours of the day in their room, reducing or eliminating physical activity, refusing to leave their room for any reason other than for self care (trips to the fridge, bathroom), or multiple hours, typically into late night, spent playing X-box may signal there’s something else that teenager is struggling with that is above and beyond the expectable need for privacy.

If you’re looking for more information or support about parenting a teenager, or you have a teenager in your life you have questions about, don’t hesitate to reach out. Restoring Relationships is crazy about empowering parents and teens to create connection! And, we’re parenting right alongside you.