Allowing Your Child to Grow Up
It's difficult for a parent to absorb the inevitable fact that there will come an age when their child won't need them as much. How does a parent prepare for the transition from child to adult, from tucking them into bed to seeing them tackle life on their own?
As soon as your child is born, you are letting go. The ultimate goal of parenting is to raise happy, healthy adults. We often forget our purpose during those years of care giving. It can be a wonderful feeling to discover your child has grown up and started on his own journey. It means you have done your job well.
"It can be hard for parents, especially moms, to adjust to having their children need them less and less," says Dr. Milton Anderson, a pediatric psychologist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, La. "The preparation for the child to leave the house really begins when the child starts school."
Dr. Anderson agrees that the more aware parents are that this is what we are preparing our children for all along, the easier it will be to accept the changes as our child grows up. "Parents can help themselves by participating happily in the rituals that go along with a child's preparation for going to college, grade school, getting ready for a junior prom or a dance," he says. "A huge amount of psychological work happens with a parent and involves a lot of thinking about the future together."
As children go through the various stages of childhood, celebrate in their growth and development. From riding a bike to driving a car, it's all about learning to do it on their own.
Jessie Raymond of Middlebury, Vt., has an almost-16-year-old in the house. "It has been striking me lately that the steps to adulthood come fast and furious between the ages of 16 and 18 in legal ways such as driving and voting, as well as in other ways such as working, graduating, going to college or moving out," she says. "It seems that a child who has just barely gotten over having a bedtime is suddenly able to be an independent adult. It's scary."
Raymond's feelings of anxiety at the responsibilities facing her own teenager are those shared by many parents. Do we only have these 16 years to mold them? Are we afraid we may have missed something in the parenting we gave them during those formative years? Or are we just not ready to give it up quite yet?
"It is all letting go ... from the moment of birth," says Shari Young Kuchenbecker, Ph.D., a research psychologist and author of Raising Winners: A Parents Guide to Helping Kids Succeed On and Off the Playing Field (Three Rivers Press, 2000) from Los Angeles, Calif. "Moms and dads should strive to build the child's skills and good judgment (self-efficacy) so the child grows up capable. To achieve this, as experiences unfold, parents monitor progress and provide support when needed, guidance when necessary and love always."
Kuchenbecker says that, as parents, we have to remember it is our intent to raise responsible individuals from the moment we teach them to walk. Unless we want them to remain in our house forever, there comes a point when we have to let them use the skills we have taught them in order to survive on their own.
"The greatest trick is to always let the child know that you care with all your heart, and they are learning these responsible behaviors for their own sake, not yours," Kuchenbecker says. "Parents need to care enough to monitor and provide ongoing guidance throughout growth and development. Even when the child leaves for college, the wise parents continue to 'check in' and see how things are going for the kids."
As much as we want our children to grow and mature, it can be difficult to allow them the privileges that go along with that growth. As they enter their teenage years, it can be a difficult transition for both parent and child.
"This age gives parents two feelings: fear that the child is going to mess up or get hurt and joy and amazement that the butterfly is emerging from the cocoon as if by magic," Raymond says. "There's pride and love in there, too."
A Parent's Role
Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and co-author of Raising Emotionally Intelligent Teenagers: Guiding the Way to Committed, Courageous, Compassionate Adults (Three Rivers Press, 2002), feels that it is important for parents to be clear about their own emotions. "Our own feelings of hesitation or trepidation need not be transmitted onto our children," he says. "Ideally, we want them leaving with a sense of confidence, excitement and enthusiasm."
Elias reminds parents that it is important for teenagers to know that Mom and Dad are interested in what they are doing, that they share in their accomplishments, but young adults will need to find their own way.
It can be equally stressful and emotional for teenagers to discover that there are a lot of things that are expected of them at their age. The cutting of the cord can go both ways. Some teenagers are hesitant to make decisions without a parent's help, and as parents, we have to be careful not to dismiss these feelings of apprehension.
"The fact is more monitoring is needed by parents as the child becomes a teen," Kuchenbecker says. "Parents need to listen and understand, then offer adult perspective, provide information, support and guidance where necessary."
Even though teenagers think they don't need their parents, deep down they still do. As they venture out and experience new things in their pre-adult lives, they still need their parents. It is our job to provide an environment that allows them to express their concerns without fear of rejection or disapproval. Teenagers who are learning to live in an adult world are sure to make their share of mistakes – how else will they learn? It is the nature of growing up, learning through trial and error. Be patient with them as they stumble through their new responsibilities.
No one ever said raising children was easy, and getting through the teenage years can be a challenge at best. When the time comes to let your child spread his wings, remember that this is what life is about. This is what you have been doing all along – preparing him for the privileges that come with being an adult. All the things you have been teaching him all these years will now be challenged in the real world.
What we must realize from the start is that the ultimate goal of parenting is to raise responsible, self-sufficient adults. If they don't need you as much when they become teenagers, then you have accomplished just that and equipped them with the tools to succeed on their own. Sit back, enjoy and congratulate yourself on a job well done.