Separate Nest Syndrome: How To Cope When Your Pre-Teen Or Teen Doesn’t Want To Spend Time With You

There is certainly a lot written on the Empty Nest Syndrome – the period of grief that many parents feel after their grown child leaves home – but there are far fewer articles on how parents can best navigate their pre-teen or teen’s journey toward independence while still living at home.

Independent Teen

The journey from childhood to adulthood is marked by significant emotional and developmental milestones, one of which is the onset of the “Separate Nest Syndrome.” This term captures the essence of a phase in a pre-teen or teen’s life where they begin to assert their independence, often distancing themselves from their parents and family. The period can be challenging for parents who might feel a sense of loss, confusion and rejection as their once dependable and engaging child starts to pull away. It’s a natural evolution in the parent-child relationship, but it can stir up complex emotions for both parties.

It’s not uncommon for pre-teens or teens to spend more time in their room or with friends (in person or virtually) and less time communally as a family member, and that can occur in several ways. From pre-teens or teens not wanting to sit down for family meals or not wanting to participate in family activities, to their not even wanting to go on fun family vacations.

Ignoring parents

While this stage of parenting is understandably a difficult one emotionally for parents, it’s important to remember that the quest for independence in pre-teens and teens is a fundamental aspect of their growth – your pre-teen or teen isn’t selfishly doing this to you, they’re doing this for themselves as part of their development.

It’s during these years that our growing children start to carve out their identity, separate from their family. This process involves exploring personal interests, values, and relationships outside of the family unit. The preference for spending time with peers is a healthy developmental sign inasmuch as friends provide a mirror through which pre-teens and teens can see themselves as individuals, distinct from their role in the family.

In the era of digital connectivity, social media platforms like TikTok have become a ubiquitous part of pre-teen and teen life. These platforms offer more than just entertainment; they provide avenues for self-expression, community building, and identity exploration. While as parents, it might seem that your pre-teen or teen prefers these platforms over family time, it’s important to understand that they are using these spaces to navigate the complexities of social interactions and self-discovery in a digital age.

Teen in her room

So, how do we as parents manage the emotional bruising that can occur when our pre-teen or teen pulls away from us or the family? The separate nesting phase of parenting is a time for parents to come to terms with and accept their own feelings of loss or loneliness while appreciating that their pre-teen or teen’s independence is a sign of healthy growth. Recognizing and respecting this transition – and not over personalizing it — is the first step in maintaining a positive relationship during this changing time.

Keep in mind too that in any healthy and important relationship communication is key. Thus, it’s essential to talk openly with your pre-teen or teen about the changes you’re both experiencing. Approach conversations with empathy, an open mind, and a loving heart, ensuring that your pre-teen or teen feels heard and understood. Remember, it’s not just about voicing your feelings but also about listening to theirs.

Working together to create the new normal is also a good idea, so during this phase of development finding shared activities is crucial. Engaging in shared interests can bridge the growing gap for your pre-teen or teen and you, providing opportunities for bonding without forcing them into unwanted family time. Be it a shared hobby, a TV show, or a sport event, these activities can foster a sense of connection. As the old proverb goes, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” so inviting your pre-teen or teen’s friends to activities will also likely be a supportive and welcomed move on your part. As you strive to explore and discover activities that both you and your pre-teen or teen can enjoy, the closeness you were missing may likely return in satisfying ways.


It can also be beneficial to preserve family centered moments (e.g., family dinners), which gives you deliberate time with your pre-teen or teen. Car rides are also a great time to connect with your pre-teen or teen since you have them captive when dropping them off or when picking them up from places.

Family Meal

It’s also important to keep things in perspective. Although the separate nesting phase of development may feel bad at times, it doesn’t mean that you will no longer see or spend any time with your pre-teen or teen. Rather, it means that the amount of time and the ways in which you spend that time will change. Balancing their need for independence with the desire for family time can be tricky, but it’s important to give them the space and privacy to grow while also being there when they need you.

Also, as challenging as it might be to watch our children grow up and become more independent, this is also a phase of development where parents could encourage responsible independence as part of the changing narrative. Supporting your pre-teen or teen’s decisions and providing them with age-appropriate responsibilities could serve to foster a sense of trust, respect and renewed closeness. Asking your pre-teen or teen for help around the house, knocking down home projects together, or participating in community service opportunities or volunteering as a family are great ways to connect.

Mother and Daughter

Even with effort, patience and acceptance, the separate nest phase of parenting can still be a difficult time to get through. If you find it to be especially challenging to navigate this phase, seeking support from other parents is probably a good idea. Sometimes, gaining perspective from others in similar situations can provide comfort and practical strategies for coping. Seeking support from a mental health professional can also be helpful if needed.

Okay, okay just like the Empty Nest Syndrome isn’t a clinical diagnosis, the Separate Nest Syndrome isn’t one either. It’s a fitting term I’ve coined to describe the very real feelings and natural phenomena that occur when our children begin to outgrow childhood.

This phase of development is a pivotal phase for both a pre-teen or teen’s life and a parent’s life. It’s about adapting to a new dynamic in your relationship, where you support your pre-teen or teen’s journey towards independence while maintaining a meaningful connection. Embracing this phase with patience, understanding and good communication can transform these challenging years into an enriching experience for both you and your pre-teen or teen. Remember, whether your child is 2, 14 or 35, he or she will always need you; and, appreciating how they need you differently throughout their development is what’s most important.

It is true that the present is powerfully shaped by the past. But it is also true that circumstances of every stage of development can shake up and revise the old arrangements. And it’s true that insight at any age keeps us from singing the same sad songs again.

— Judith Viorst

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. “Dr. Mike” is a clinical psychologist in private practice.
He can be reached at 703-723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn