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Holding On While Letting Go

How to remain connected as your children get older.

Key points

  • The natural separation between parents and their older children is challenging.
  • Independence and boundaries are a healthy and normal part of separation.
  • Holding on to your connection while letting your child go towards independence is important.

In my 20+ years of being a parent, I’ve never asked for a specific gift on Mother’s Day. My family has always known that all I ever wanted was to be together, even though I always loved and appreciated their thoughtful gifts. This year, however, I have requested a particular gift—a Meta Portal. As it naturally happens when our children grow up, our relationship has shifted as they’ve transitioned into adulthood. One of my kids lives on the opposite coast, which makes our distance feel that much more difficult. I asked for a Portal as a way to feel more connected to each other since all of our lives are busy, and we’re not able to spend as much time together.

The parenting paradox

Recognizing and accepting that our emerging adult children have separate lives that we are not a part of, yet wanting to maintain a strong connection with them, is a balancing act that many parents of teens and young adults know all too well. As I am personally trying to honor the complexities of this paradox while navigating the nuances this stage brings, I am also working with several of my teen and young adult clients to help them understand and manage their changing relationships with their own parents. These clients are learning how to become independent, self-assured young adults and occasionally struggle with the other side of this dynamic time in life. They report feeling like their parents are not letting go and are not trusting their decisions. Or they express frustration with how much contact their parents need, which often feels to them like too much.

Holding on

One of my college-aged clients sent me a screenshot of a text from her mother. Her mom had been tracking her daughter’s phone, and then exasperatedly texted her (from my client’s perspective, seemingly out of nowhere), condemning her restaurant choice and opposing what food she was going to order. Another client told me that while she was studying abroad and recently went on vacation to another country, her father asked her to be in touch with her mother more often as her mother was missing her and felt sad.

Both of these situations, while coming from a place of love and genuine concern, are examples of parents who are struggling to understand the stories they tell themselves, which create these feelings.

  • “I need more connection so that I don’t worry.”
  • “If I don’t hear from my daughter at least (insert amount of time) per week, then we will lose our connection.”
  • “If my daughter doesn’t reach out every day, then I won’t know what’s going on in her world anymore.”
  • “I need to know where she is and what she’s doing so I know that she’s OK.”
  • “It’s my job as her parent to protect and help her make healthy decisions.”
Leah Hetteberg/Unsplash
Source: Leah Hetteberg/Unsplash

Letting go

Is it our teen’s or emerging adult’s responsibility to help us manage our sadness or worrisome feelings? I would argue that as parents, it’s our job to lean into whatever we are feeling as our children separate from us. Get curious about these feelings before choosing what actions you want to take. Ask yourself:

  • "What am I feeling about this stage in our relationship?
  • "What thoughts are creating these feelings?"
  • "How would I rather feel about this time in our lives?"
  • "What can I choose to think instead that will enable me to feel more connected and hopeful about our relationship?"
  • “What would enable me to manage my mind better so that I don’t feel so worried?”
  • "What can I do/not do that will respect my child’s boundaries while still maintaining a connection?"

As parents, we work tirelessly to help our children transition to their next life stage. We look for and hope they will reach each milestone and face the next stage, prepared for the challenges and obstacles of adolescence and beyond. We are preparing and teaching them how to successfully separate from us from the first moment we leave them with a babysitter, drop them at school or daycare, and then at college. When it’s time for a true separation, however, the ones often unprepared or surprised by this challenge are often the parents. The parenting paradox—simultaneously holding on while letting go—looks different for everyone. Understanding that separation creates an opportunity to develop a new way of connecting gives parents new meaningful possibilities for growth within themselves and with their emerging adults.

Our children can be our best teachers if we let them. Mine certainly have been.