Teens Want 'Potted Plant Parents' – Here’s What That Means

by Alicia Stein
Mom and her teen son sitting leaned against the wall
Heide Benser/Getty

When your kids are little, and spend hours on end literally clinging to you, people tell you to enjoy it while it lasts. “Once they become teenagers, they’ll want nothing to do with you,” they say.

This is true. My 14-year-old was the clingiest baby in the world. He would scream every time we put him down, and was pretty much Velcroed to my body for his first two years of life. But now, I’m the one vying for this attention. He spends all his waking hours either hanging out with friends, or holed up in his room chatting with them.

“Can you get out of my room?” is his most frequently used sentence these days.

I knew to expect all this, and I know it’s perfectly normal and healthy for him to assert his independence this way. I don’t take his “I don’t want to have anything to do with you” stance personally. I think it’s really awesome that he has friends and that’s he’s finding himself, his voice, and his way in the world as a young man.

But I will admit I’m a little heartbroken about something.

Maybe it’s selfish, but as his mom, I want to be needed. Yeah, I sure complained about being on call 24/7 when he was a baby, but wanting to feel like you have something to offer your kids is something I had no idea I’d miss as much as I do right now.

According to Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist specializing in teens, my feelings are normal and so is my son’s behavior. But, contrary to how I may be experiencing it, I am very much still needed by my son.

Even those times that I’m just sitting at home doing absolutely nothing—waiting for my son to grace me with his presence—I’m giving him exactly what he needs.

Well, that’s a relief.

“By their nature, adolescents aren’t always on board with our plans for making the most of family time and they aren’t always in the mood to chat,” Damour writes in The New York Times.

However, she says, that doesn’t mean that kids don’t need us around. In fact, she says, they need us just as much as our little kids do, maybe more. But instead of doting over them, playing toys, reading books, etc., they need our simple presence more than anything.

Damour cites research showing the psychological benefits for teens of having at least one parent around during the after school/dinner hours. “Importantly, the studies of parental presence indicate that sheer proximity confers a benefit over and above feelings of closeness or connectedness between parent and child,” Damour explains.

Really, you don’t need to do much of anything to provide what your teenager needs: just being there is enough.

Our teens need us to be just like a potted plant sitting on the windowsill, Damour concludes.

“[Q]uality parenting of a teenager may sometimes take the form of blending into the background like a potted plant,” she writes.

I absolutely love that metaphor, and it makes so much sense when you think about it. Our teens may act like they don’t really need us, and they don’t need us to sit on the floor playing Lego with them anymore (and honestly, thank goodness for that).

Instead, they need to know that we are there, kind of watching over them, and ready to leap into action if they need us. It’s like we are “on call” parents more than anything.

I recently witnessed this with my son. This month, he was in a play (outside, masked). After being in virtual school all last year, this was the most social and active thing he’d done in a year. It was a total blessing for him. He spent his afternoons and evenings rehearsing with his friends, and spent his days messaging them (well, after sleeping till almost noon).

My usually chatty son was pretty much silent. I’d be like, “Are you having fun? Did anyone say anything funny?” My questions would go completely unanswered. I knew he was generally happy, but I started to wonder if maybe something was wrong. Even during the days when my son spends all his time cooped up in his room, he almost always checks in with me at night, before bed. But not during those few weeks of the show.

I worried that he was slipping away from me, and that fear that I was no longer needed in the way I’d always been was starting to overwhelm me.

Then, on the last night of the show, he came home, crashed into bed, and texted me, “I feel bad. Can you come?” My son was fine, just tired and depleted from acting in a show in 90 degree heat for three days. Plus, he was crashing from the high of performing and socializing intensely for a few weeks.

He wanted me to sit in bed with him for a bit, bring him some tea and oatmeal, and just chat. He went to bed early that night, and woke up, back to his normal self. I was now again barred from his room again all day, though the late night check-ins were, thankfully, back.

It warmed my heart, of course—because, hello, I’m a mom and I need to be needed, damnit. But it also reminded me that, yes, parenting a teen is like being a potted plant, and that you kind of just need to fade into the background sometimes.

But, whether consciously or not, our teens notice that we are there. And they need us to be there.

They need to know that they have that stable person in their lives. They need to know they have a safe space they can fall back on when they need it.

And as parents, we need to have faith in all of this. If we just step back and let them be, we will watch them bloom.