Advice & Features Articles

Whose Kids Are They Anyway?

Good Parenting is Filled with “Letting Go” Moments

by Susan Sugerman, MD, MPH | Contributor

One day I woke up and suddenly realized my child did not “belong” to me anymore. It happened with all of my three boys, each at their own time and their own developmental stage.  I imagine it is similar to aging, where one day you look in the mirror and ask, “Whose wrinkles are those?” But with my kids, the change was both as sublime as the fading of winter into spring and as abrupt as being hit by a truck.  These were the days when I realized I no longer “owned” my children, but that they belonged to the world instead.

These are the times when your 15-year-old asks to go to a concert at Fair Park. And no, you are not invited. It happens when your 8th grader forgets to ask permission to download music; you figure it out after the fact when obscenity-laden rap music blares from speakers behind a closed bedroom door. (Because, by-the-way, the music is no longer downloaded but streamed live using the data on your cell phone plan. And you thought you were in charge of the iTunes account!) You feel it when your freshman makes plans on a Friday night without consulting you first and when your senior turns in an application to a college you never heard of.

These are both the best of moments and some of the most frightening times of a parent’s life. These are the times when your baby grows up and away from you. It’s what we want and what we dread all at the same time.

What are the upsides?

Teens have a duty (let alone genetic predisposition) to separate themselves from their parents and to figure out who they are (and whom they would like to become). Margaret Mahler called this phase “adolescent separation and individuation.” Just as during early life, when toddlers begin to figure out they are distinct physical bodies from their parents, teenagers go through this process all over again, this time in an effort to prepare for adulthood. Their goals are to answer those key questions of growing up — “Who am I?” and “Am I normal?” Little do they know, the first question sometimes takes decades to answer (or more). The second question is a proxy for “Am I valued?” or “Do I matter?”, not just to their parents, but to the greater world of their peers. (Of course, if they didn’t feel loved by their parents, they couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. But a parent’s love won’t help them secure a date to homecoming, let alone a place to sit in the middle school lunch room.)

It’s a teenager’s job to reach out and try new things.

Things we didn’t plan for them, things we didn’t know they were interested in, things we didn’t know they could do. This is when it begins to feel as if our children belong to the greater world and to their peer culture. They are not our “little babies” anymore.  It’s also their job to test their parents’ limits, to find out where their decision making starts and ends, and where you, as the adult, are going to draw a hard line. This is when they prove to us they have their own minds, and that while we have a voice and certainly the most votes, they figure out that they truly belong to themselves.

Inevitably teens will make mistakes.

This is how they learn to self-correct, to do it differently the next time. It is our job to let them — except when safety is at risk.  This is the crux of effective parenting — how a parent can be, as my colleague and author Dr. Ken Ginsburg says, “a stable point from which they can differentiate themselves.” A good parent is the lighthouse, providing a beacon of guidance to safe passage along with warnings to avoiding crashing into rocks.

Is it safe to let your child attend that concert without you?

The answer is, “It depends.”  It depends on your child’s likelihood of making potentially dangerous decisions and his or her savvy with social skills to negotiate safety concerns that may arise. Do you let your child have access to download music or other content off the internet without your supervision? It depends on your child’s sophistication in recognizing inappropriate content and willingness to self-police or notify you if he or she stumbles into problematic situations. Do you allow your child to make plans for the weekend without consulting you? It depends on your child’s willingness to honor your personal family traditions first and ability to meet your standards for completing school work and other obligations consistently. And that college application you didn’t see coming?  What an opportunity to learn about your child’s interests, priorities, and values! Finally, do you let your child go with the homecoming group to the lake house overnight after the dance? That depends on too many factors to enumerate in this article. (I sympathize with anyone struggling to make that decision in 2015!)

Probably the most important question to ask yourself is not how you will make sure everything goes right, but rather how your child is likely to handle herself (or himself) if it goes wrong.  Are the downsides manageable? How severe are the potential risks? How likely is your child to ask for help if things don’t go as planned?  How likely can your child recover from a mistake in this particular situation?  What safety guards can you put in place to minimize the damage, “just in case”?

At some point or other, the child you held in those first few moments of life becomes the property of the greater world you cannot control. Your job as a parent is to help make that child competent to explore that world as safely as possible. Certainly, it is comforting when our kids make those forays into new territory a little later than earlier, when they have more development (and hopefully wisdom) behind them. But each child is different and operates on his or her own timeline. If we can be mindful of the unique personalities and skills of our own children and support them to match their exploration to their emerging competencies, we will go a long way to making the transition as smooth as possible. In the end, they belong to themselves. But we can remain the safe place they come home to for guidance, love, and comfort.

Reach out to Dr. Sugerman at Girls To Women Health & Wellness, www.gtw-health.com.

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