May 14, 2001
Facing the parental dilemma of letting go
From the American Counseling Association
Communication between teens and their parents are often strained and sometimes almost non-existent. As noted in a previous column, the teenage years are a difficult period of change for virtually every child, yet it is hard for most teens to share their anxieties and uncertainties with their parents.
Teens need and want their parents' love, respect and permission in order to gain independence and responsibility. Yet they fear sharing their problems, or feelings of uncertainty, since they realize it may stop their parents from seeing them as ready for the responsibility and freedom they desire.
Parents' own lives can also be a barrier to communication with their teens. Parents with teenage children are often at a developmental stage in their adult life where attention to their own careers is vitally important. They are in what is called "mid-career." They may well be reassessing their chosen field, their marriage, their life in general, and asking themselves, "How am I doing?" Financial issues, including the prospect of upcoming college bills for that teen, may also be adding stress. All of this can combine to leave us, usually unintentionally, with little time or sympathy for the problems and worries our teenagers may be facing.
It is also important to note that the very real fears we have for our children's safety and well-being as we grant them more responsibility may contribute to the communication problems we have with our teens. While we may recognize that our teenagers need increasing amounts of freedom and responsibility, we also are constantly being bombarded by news reports of teenagers killing one another, teen substance abuse, teenage pregnancies and much more. We realize that even if these things aren't happening to our kids, they easily could. Parents have a natural instinct to protect their children.
Our natural tendency is to hang onto our teenager a bit longer, feeling that we need to teach our children just a little more before granting them more freedom and a chance to test their responsibility. Then, in the midst of this struggle, our teenagers begin pulling away from us, not confiding in us like they used to, and we feel even more stress.
Although none of us want to abandon our teenagers prematurely, it is essential that we grant our teens increasing amounts of freedom and responsibility if we expect them to mature successfully and if we wish to avoid unneeded conflict. While this does not mean blindly letting your teens go, it does mean finding even small ways of showing your teenagers that you do have trust and respect in his or her growing levels of maturity and responsibility.
It can also help to communicate your own fears and anxieties about granting increased freedoms. If your teen can hear you explain why you hesitate to say yes to his or her requests for greater responsibility, it may not win acceptance and total understanding of your decision, but it can help open up a meaningful dialogue and lead to compromises where you both feel more accepting of the outcome.
How much to let go? How much to trust? How much responsibility to grant? Although all are decisions that can have a huge impact on the rest of the teenager's life, there are never absolute answers. These are judgment calls based on who you are and who your teen is. It helps to understand the difficulties your teen is facing, and to understand you own anxieties in beginning to let your teen go. And it is perfectly normal for your decisions to worry you or upset your teen. Some mistakes will surely be made, but many more things will turn out just fine. Remember, no one ever said being a successful parent was going to be an easy job.
The Counseling Corner is provided as a public service by the American Counseling Association, the nation's largest organization of counseling professionals. You can learn more about the counseling profession at the ACA Web site, www.counseling.org.