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Letting Go: The Greatest Challenge of Parenting Teens

Holding on tight feels good, but letting go expresses love.

Many struggles of adolescence occur because we parents are conflicted about our children growing up. The desire to keep them small and dependent doesn't make us bad parents; in fact, it might be a side effect of being a terrific parent. Parenting has been the greatest job ever, how could we be expected to look forward to working ourselves out of this job?

The problem is that our desire to keep things the way they've been, or an unwillingness to accept our adolescents' need for independence, may get in the way of propelling them toward a well-adjusted adulthood. It's hard to imagine that the intensity of the love we have for our children could actually hurt them, but if we feel empty without them, we have something to gain by preventing them from standing on their own. There is an inherent conflict of interest between what we intellectually know is best for our teens and what we emotionally feel might be best for us.

As if their wanting to leave our homes isn't painful enough, they sometimes make it feel worse because they act as if they hate us. Think about it though, why would they want to leave a warm and comfortable nest? If they are going to exercise their wings and ultimately fly - as their instincts say they must - they need to view the nest as practically uninhabitable, prickly at the least.

Your child might be sending explosive messages about being "ready" to be on his own. But the truth is that just as you have ambivalence about him leaving, he has strongly conflicted feelings about going. Sometimes our children act as if they hate us, precisely because of how much they love us. They tell us they can't stand the homes we provide for them because they long for the enduring security it offers. They sometimes act as if they don't care about our feelings to cover for how deeply thety worry about our well-being.

If your child senses her absence will leave you with a wound, she may sabotage her move toward independence and at the least will focus much of her energy worrying about you rather than learning to build a life for herself.

A first step to prepare our children for a successful launch into adulthood is to confront head-on the fear that our lives will be empty without them. How many of us haven't wondered what we'll talk about when our kids are out of the house? Sure the transition will be a challenge, but it will be easier if you start planning for your coming life when your teen doesn't live down the hall. Recreating a full life for yourself that is filled with intellectual pursuits, challenges, and rich relationships, will benefit you and send a powerful message to your adolescent. It models for him what a healthy adult looks like and that supports your real goal, which is to raise someone prepared to be a successful adult. Above all, it sends the message that you're okay. When your child knows that you'll really be okay, he can start his journey into adulthood with peace of mind.

Letting go may be a challenge - painful at times - but it is a strategic act of good parenting and is the first step of a healthy relationship that will last for years to come with our adult children. Teens who feel controlled rebel in adolescence and may seek lives separate from their parents as adults.

Once you know you'll thrive in this next phase of your life, the ambivalence that could have gotten in the way of your making the wisest decisions will vanish. You'll be better prepared to strike the balance of giving your child the guidance she still needs and the increasing independence she both demands and fears.

Our challenge as parents is to understand that while holding on tight feels so good, letting go is a profound expression of love. Even as the voice from your heart says "she's just my little girl," celebrate her growing independence. Trust that when your child is secure in her ability to stand on her own, she'll soon return to you for that loving interdependence that lasts a lifetime.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg and Susan FitzGerald are the authors of "Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century."