There was a time not long ago when you would turn your head while running into school, a Sleeping Beauty backpack strapped to your small shoulders, and shout the most beautiful words a mother can hear: “I love you, Mommy!”

“I love you too, sweetheart,” I would shout while blowing kisses until your tiny frame disappeared through the building’s double doors.

We said these three simple words often and without hesitation. There were I love yous at bedtime right before your tired eyes closed for the night. We told them to each other whenever I left you with the babysitter, so I could attend a business meeting or go out to dinner or when I simply ran a quick errand. We uttered them alongside apologies, and sometimes for no reason at all.

And then, one day, as your long legs exited the car to meet your friends at the fifth-grade door, I exclaimed, “I love you, sweetheart!”

But, you didn’t say “I love you” back. Instead, you flashed that beautiful smile and waved. You muttered, “See you after school, Mom,” and off you went.

That was a turning point for us—you pulling away and me trying desperately to keep you as that little girl with the too-big backpack. I’m not sure if it was embarrassment or a craving for independence or that you felt you were too mature to respond to your mommy’s adoration, but a subtle shift happened, and it had a seismic impact on my heart.

I hoped that as you entered the teenage years, our love story would be different. I imagined a relationship where we would have open conversations over hot chocolates at Starbucks or you telling me about your first crush during a shopping trip to find a new pair of heels for your homecoming dance.

Instead, our relationship often feels strained, and we choose to use fewer words instead of more. I fight the urge to take your actions personally, while you struggle to emerge from your parent’s shadow. The spontaneous hugs are less frequent, and the door closing to your room happens more often. You roll your eyes at my jokes, and I try to connect with you in any way possible.

Neither of us is wrong, and yet it never feels right.

It’s frustrating to parent a teenager, especially one who is strong-minded and independent. It’s so easy to feel attacked with their choice of words—or sometimes their silence—when all we want is their happiness. It’s difficult to remember what it was like to be them—to be so out of control with your emotions while simultaneously feeling everything so deeply. It hurts to be pushed away when all you want is to be close.

But here’s the thing, dear teenager. No matter how angry I get, no matter how hurt I feel, no matter what you say or do, I will always say I love you.

I’ll say it when you walk out the door. I’ll say it when you mumble good night. I’ll say it quietly as you get out of the car and school, and I’ll text it to you at the end of every conversation.

I’ll never stop saying I love you because if there is one thing that I want to remain steadfast in our bumpy existence, is your knowing my love for you is unwavering, no matter the current state of our relationship.

So, maybe I won’t shout it out the car window or say it in front of your friends as we carpool to practice or drop it in while we’re in the middle of having pizza.

But your growing up does not always mean my giving up. I’ll say I love you through a welcoming smile when your tired body walks through the door. I’ll say I love you by packing your lunch for the next day while you’re studying for a big test. I’ll say I love you by cooking your favorite meal or dropping off a gift in your room or welcoming your friends into our home. And in those rare moments you let me, I’ll say them with a gigantic hug and a kiss on the cheek.

And I’ll keep saying those words you can never say too much, because you never know what may happen in this life. I’ll never stop saying I love you, dear teen, because no one is too grown up to feel loved.

You may also like: 

I Will Always Love You Anyway

Dear Teenage Daughter, I Will Be Right Here Waiting For You to Come Back

Dear Teenagers, Be Patient While I Let Go

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Whitney Fleming

Whitney is the mom to three tween daughters, a communications consultant and blogger. She tries to dispel the myth of being a typical suburban mom although she is often driving her minivan to soccer practices and attending PTA meetings. She writes about parenting, relationships, and w(h)ine on her blog Playdates on Fridays