Adolescents, Independence, and the Sadness of Success

The great hardship of Detachment Parenting adolescents is loss from letting go

Posted Oct 20, 2014

The last of the four stages of adolescence, Trial Independence (about ages 18 – 23), roughly the college-age years, generates some very taxing adjustments for older adolescents as they step off more on their own. I described eleven of these challenges in my book “Boomerang Kids” (2011.)

What I did not describe, however, were some of the parenting challenges at this most difficult stage, specifically coping with the sadness that can come from successfully preparing a young person to move out, set up, and operate more independently of parents, family, and home. This is the last letting go in the process of Detachment Parenting of adolescents, and it can feel very hard to do – forsaking the old management role, the sense of purpose, the accustomed authority, and the daily association.

Suffering from separation anxiety, hovering ‘helicopter’ parents are often only defending against giving up the older child’s dependency on them and of their central role in the life of their growing (now more grown up) child. The last battle between holding on and letting go is not just between parent and adolescent, but agonizingly unfolds within the parents themselves. For a while the empty nest can result in the empty parent. This is why successful launching of their older adolescent into young adulthood feels like loss. 

What helps them to let go is the young person becoming more ruthlessly independent and, in three common ways, acting accordingly. First, parents find themselves Dethroned as they lose ruling influence over decisions the young person makes. Second, they are put more at a Distance as socially and geographically the young person “moves away” and communication becomes less frequent and complete now that as she or he are busily focused on building a new life. And third, they are Demoted as the young person creates a new system of relationships that are given a higher immediate priority than attending to family.

“Missing” is what parents often report now, and it doesn’t feel fair. “I miss my grown child more than she misses me.” “He doesn’t call as much or return my calls.” “She doesn’t keep us filled in on what is going on.” “We don’t get to weigh in on his decisions.” “She doesn’t ask us for advice any more.” “He doesn’t come by and see us much or invite us to visit.” “She’s so busy with her new life she doesn’t have much time for us.” “His friends matter more, particularly his girlfriend, than we do now.”

Successfully helping grow their adolescent to independence creates some lessening of traditional parental standing in the young person’s life as now she or he begins the tough job of building and leading a life apart from parents, family, and home. What is extremely important for parents to understand about the dethronement, distance, and demotion that to some degree occurs with the older adolescent, and continues with the adult child, is that this change does NOT mean they are less loved; they are only less necessary.

To a degree, the return for their self-sacrificial investment in parenting an adolescent to independence is this sweet sadness of success, just as once upon a long time ago the little girl or boy’s entry into adolescence caused parents to give up the precious childhood time together they would never have again. The great hardship of Detachment Parenting is enduring loss from letting go. 

So now, with the end of adolescence, the great adventure of life continues as parents get to watch the young person’s path into adulthood begin to unfold, over good times and hard. They get to cheer and comfort their daughter or son on, hopefully enjoying these less frequent opportunities for connecting together, precious times when their importance to each other can be lovingly affirmed.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Teaching Adolescents