Raising adolescents is one long, often agonizing, exercise in the hardest part of parenting: letting go.
At each stage of the way, parents find themselves under pressure to loosen their hold as the adolescent pushes for more individuality and independence, bent on becoming a unique person free to live on her or his own terms.
Why can letting go be so hard for parents? Letting go creates some degree loss for parents – for example, of companionship, closeness, communication, and control. Consider some problems of parental losses from letting go that come with each stage of adolescence.
During the first stage of adolescence, early adolescence (ages 9 – 13) there is letting go of childhood identity and companionship. Now parents lose their best buddy and tagalong who prized time with parents, communicating everything and sharing in whatever they liked to do. For parents who were given such a golden childhood time, this letting go can be particularly painful. They will never have their son or daughter as little child again. For these parents, this loss deserves honest mourning, appreciating the passing of a magical time they had together that they will never have again.
During the second stage of adolescence, mid adolescence (ages 13 – 15) there is letting go of social time with family for the increased importance of hanging out with friends. Now the double life of adolescence begins in earnest: the life about which parents are told and the one about which for privacy’s and freedom’s sake they are not. Parents tend to be told less as peers matters more. To protect social independence with peers, parents are put at a social distance. This letting go can be worrisome for parents when ignorance becomes a source of anxiety. The loss can be partly moderated when their home becomes a hosting place for friends, when their son or daughter is invited to include friends in family activities, when parents can develop friendships with their adolescent’s friends.
During the third stage of adolescence, late adolescence (ages 15 – 18) there is the letting go of younger restrictions as some older freedoms (driving, dating, and part time employment, for example) are allowed by parents and others, not necessarily parent approved, that are encouraged by peers (substance use, sex, and adventurous risk taking, for example). This creates a very scary letting go for parents who must accept that they cannot keep their teenager free of more worldly dangers that are associated with the worldly experience he or she is wanting. The loss of parental protection that was provided by older restrictions may be partly supplanted by adequately preparing the high school teenager to understand and manage new risks that come with acting more grown up. Parents have a duty to inform.
During the fourth and final stage of adolescence, trial independence (ages 18 – 23) there is the letting go from home and the chance to live apart from family. It takes a lot of fortitude to watch as the young person struggles to try his wings and keep his footing at the same time, sometimes falling victim to the errors of his ways. The last stage of adolescence requires a lot of parental letting go. What can ease this hard adjustment is a role change in relationship to their son or daughter. They can give up being managing parents (asserting authority and taking charge) and become mentoring parents instead (being available for consultation and advice should the young person ask.) Now the parents respect the adolescent’s right to make and live by her own choices, while she respects the knowledge from longer life experience that parents have to offer.
What is important for parents to understand about the loss side of letting go is that simply because this progressive release allows the adolescent to live more independently doesn’t mean parents are abandoning the child. In fact this is the great challenge of parenting teenagers: how parents can still stay lovingly and meaningfully connected to their son or daughter, and remain available, as adolescence gradually grows them apart.
They hope that as they let go their responsibility for looking after the teenager's welfare, that the teenager will be able to take the protection of that responsibility on. To this end, they are increasingly letting go and allowing the teenager to learn the value of freedom by paying freedom's price. “Remember, more independence is not free. When we allow you more discretionary choice, we hold you accountable for the decisions made.” This, of course, is the only way responsibility is taught: by parents letting go so the teenager can take new decision-making on and learn the hard way by accepting and sometimes paying for the consequences.
There are some parents who have great difficulty with this second aspect of letting go. They confuse responsible behavior in their teenager with responsibility. I work in a large university town, and I see cases like this from time to time. Parents come in wondering: “We can’t understand it. All the way through high school our daughter was so responsible. She did everything we asked, she never got out of line. But now at college, it’s one episode of trouble after another! She’s lost all sense of responsibility!”
This is when I suggest that maybe she never had much sense of responsibility to begin with. Perhaps her responsible behavior in high school was really just social obedience to strict parents who she wanted to please, or at least feared displeasing. In high school, she let them set all the limits and make all the freedom choices for her. But now in college, she is living away from them, on her own, and for the first time must set limits and make freedom choices for herself. If they want her to learn to take responsibility at this late date, they must let go control, not interfere, and allow her to confront the consequences of her actions.
“But we can’t stand seeing her hurt herself!” they protest. So we end up talking about the parental pain that can come with letting go and letting children learn from the errors of their ways.
Finally, consider the parent who stated her loss at this last letting go in very human terms. “Is this the return I get for all I’ve invested in my teenager? Now she just puts me aside, ignores our relationship, and leaves home to focus on her own life after all I’ve done?”
“Yes,” I replied, “that’s the reward parents have been working for all these hard adolescent years. It’s called ‘independence.’ Holding on, guiding, and providing support to their growing child was a great labor of love; but at the end of adolescence, the greater loving is to let the loved one go.”
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE” (wILEY, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week’s entry: Talking to Graduating Seniors about Independence