I am teaching an Adolescent Class this month, and reminded again how difficult it can be for parents to give their teens the freedom they so desperately yearn for. In the teens’ attempt to break free from their parents and create some autonomy, their parents experience increased stress and as a result, begin tugging at the little freedom their teens do have in an attempt to recreate the closeness they once felt when their teen was a toddler.
If you are the parent of a younger child, the time to start is now. Spend some time learning how you can start supporting your child’s independence in small ways over the course of many years so that when they finally reach the teen years and your instinct is to pull back the reins – you will have experience that tells you – your child can handle this exciting and exhilarating time of life.
At infancy, we are connected to our children – body, mind and soul – in a way that will never be duplicated again during their lifetime. We teach ourselves how to listen for small subtle changes in the babies’ cries, we spend hours holding, feeding, changing and just staring at these small wonders. At no other time will we be as connected to a human being as we are to our child during early infancy.
As they become toddlers, we are still close at hand, ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice if necessary. Imagine a rubber band tethered to both you and your toddler. They may travel as far as five feet away from you at any given time, but the truth is, you are close enough to scoop in, pick them up football style and remove them from any impending danger. And yet, they are beginning to experience the first thrill of freedom and independence. They are exploring, learning, and experiencing the world with just a bit of autonomy.
As they reach school age they enter what I call “The Grace Period”. They are old enough to understand certain dangers and how to avoid them, so we allow them to stretch the rubber band — and we even add a bit of extra slack, conveying to the kids that we trust them. Because we are more relaxed, and because the kids feel this loose line between themselves and their parents, they tend to check in regularly. No need to stay far away because they are certain that after a quick check in with mom or dad they will be allowed to travel back into the world and explore.
And then our kids reach the tween years and suddenly parents are acutely aware of how dangerous the world is and how one bad decision could lead to a ruined life, so they pull that rubber band in as close as they had it during the toddler years.
Because we are unable to articulate our fear in a sensible and respectful way and because our kids have no idea why we suddenly stop trusting them and begin hovering around them as if they were two-years-old, tensions rise.
Soon power struggles ensue. Our teens want parents who extend more freedom not less with even more slack so they can continue their march toward independence. What they get are parents who begin tugging and pulling on the metaphorical rubber band and with each tug the child becomes more determined NOT to turn and reconnect with their parents.
All for fear that if they dare to come close, to look for guidance from a parent, to feel a connection that reminds them they are loved and safe, their freedom will be taken from them and they will be forced to fight their way back to the independence they so desperately need.
After a few rounds of this, teens soon learn to stay away and parents. In the haste to be a part of their teens’ life, parents begin snooping, interfering, prying, and they stop honoring privacy. The relationship continues to suffer.
Here are 5 tips that will help you lengthen the cord, trust your teen and preserve your relationship.
1. Accept when your children are infants (or whatever age they are at the time you read this) that they are going to leave you and that you are charged with ensuring that when they leave they are ready to fly on their own.
2. Begin backing out of your job as your child’s “manager” the minute they arrive on the planet and by the time they are 18, you will both be ready for more physical distance without feeling emotionally distant from each other.
3. Be honest with your kids about any trepidation you have about their increased freedom. Ask them to help you be more reasonable and to accept that they can handle more responsibility for their world. If you do, you will inevitably create a bond that makes both of you feel closer and more connected to each other.
4. Make sure that you are talking with moms who have kids 3, 5 and 7 years older than your kids and ask for their perspective, their tips and what life is like when you accept that your children will move away from you and how to bridge that gap with grace and dignity.
5. Trust your kids. They love you. They want you in their lives. They do not want to be smothered or worried about or babied or saved. They want to prove to you, that they are strong, wise, and resilient. They want to prove that they can handle the next phase of life, so be their champion not their babysitter.