Your teen’s begun the process of pushing away.

They’re ready to become their own person.

And with all the arguing, pretending like you don’t exist and wanting to spend more time with friends than family, your once loving child – now prickly teen – is making this unmistakably clear.

Your head tells you that it’s time to start letting go but your heart…

It wants to hold on tighter.

The very thought of your teen growing up and eventually going out into the big, wide, unpredictable world can set off a torrent of fear. Naturally.

“My child’s too fragile and not ready to be independent.”

“What if something happens? It’ll be my fault!”

“I still need my child in my life. I’m not ready to let go and begin a new chapter without them.”

Your maternal instinct starts to kick in.

There’s an indescribably strong impulse to protect your child – the same drive that’s made you such a loving parent.

This creates a problem though. Your instinct to protect and control may be in direct conflict with your teen’s instinct to grow at this stage of their life.

As Dr Kenneth Ginsburg, author of Raising Resilient Children and Teens, explains:

“Young children feel secure when their parents are protective and do what it takes to gain as much attention and oversight as they can. (That’s part of the reason they’re so darn cute!) Then after puberty, another force begins to take hold – a deeply ingrained need to leave the nest and create one of their own.”1

They embark on the messy adventure of maturation and individuation – a rite of passage every teen eventually goes through.

To fight this is to fight a losing battle as it may get in the way of your real goal…

Propelling them towards becoming successful, well-adjusted adults (who still love their moms).

So in support of this vision, here are 6 tiny tweaks to slowly begin the painful but necessary and unavoidable process of letting go.

 

  1. Start small

My mom was really good at this. As a typical teen, I would insist on more freedom but without all that sticky responsibility stuff and she would tell me, “Freedom is earned”. But Mooooooom…

Start honouring your teen’s need for independence by giving them freedoms in a measured way. Whilst keeping an eye out for safety, these could be around making plans with friends, organising themselves for school or deciding what they’d like to do during their holidays.

As they show that they can manage the responsibility, you can increase privileges and extend more freedom as you see fit. This slowly allows them to develop their decision-making skills and ability to navigate the world on their own, whilst still having you there as a safety net should anything go wrong.

 

  1. Let them fail & make mistakes without punishment

As terrifying as this may be, it’s healthy for your teen to take reasonable risks and make mistakes. After all, character is built by learning how to make decisions and living with their consequences.

If you give your teen more freedom and they mess up – this WILL happen – by punishing, constantly picking up the pieces or over-parenting, you may be robbing them of the opportunity to learn from the natural consequences of their actions… A vital step to raising self-aware, self-sufficient, critically-thinking teens ready for adulthood and all the challenges that come with it. Chances are they’ve already learnt their lesson so for your peace of mind, without the “I told you so” (they know!), just state the facts and move on.

 

  1. Become more mentor than manager.

This one can be tricky – slowly letting go of the authority figure and caretaker role you’ve been playing for years. As your teen is becoming their own person and your authority doesn’t have the same sway it once had (like a magic wand losing its power), it can be hard to move away from hands-on guidance to hands-off availability.

This is especially frustrating when they’re demanding their independence but still want you to do all the little things like cooking, cleaning and bankrolling their activities. Grrrr…

Tim Sanford, Clinical Director of Counseling Services for Focus on the Family, reminds us that for both moms and dads, the key phrase is “be there”. If your teen knows you’re there for them, it gives them the courage to explore the world with more independence. And when the time comes, they know they can turn to you when they need a little guidance or advice. Just don’t expect them to always act on it!

 

  1. Learn to recognize your teen’s needs vs. your own

If you’re struggling with the letting-go process, it may be worth exploring where your need to hold on is coming from. As one parent put it, “Parenting has been the greatest job ever, how can we be expected to look forward to working ourselves out of it?”

Many parents talk about the strength of love and the bond between a parent and child – a special one that often fulfils the parent’s need for purpose, love, affection and companionship.

Because of this beautiful bond, it can be incredibly difficult to separate from your teen. Before you start beating yourself up about this, this is normal and common among moms. But remember, so is your teen’s need to “break away” and become their own person. In this case, letting go isn’t abandonment but an act of love serving their growth.

 

  1. Face the fear of them leaving head-on

You may be counting down the days with a special bottle of champagne stashed away, ready for the big move. However, for many other moms, the thought of this transition stirs up more fear than joy.

My life will be empty. Who am I without my kid? What am I going to do with all my free time? What will my partner and I even talk about when we’re together? Will we even like each other?

The antidote to all this fear? (And no, it ain’t wine!) Whilst your teen is still at home, plan, plan, plan.

Schedule regular “dates” with yourself and start planning for your new life now. Only rule? Make it fun! You have the opportunity to rediscover who you are and recreate a fulfilling life for yourself. One that is rich with adventure, new intellectual pursuits, fresh challenges, more time with friends and whilst you’re at it, a spicier love life too.

More than modelling what a healthy adult looks like to your teen, you also send them the message that you’re okay. And this allows them to start their difficult journey into adulthood with more peace of mind and excitement.

 

  1. Understand teen development

It’s not personal.

I know, what a ridiculous thing to say, right? Like that’s just going to make the eye-rolls, harsh comments and repeated rejections feel better?

It won’t. They’ll still hurt. But knowing that their need for independence is a normal stage of development at this age2 – a healthy sign that things are on track – can help you put some distance between them and their hurtful actions instead of taking them too personally.

Of course, this is not an excuse for bad behaviour. Your teen is just trying to figure out who they are without you. To better survive this stage, remind yourself that it doesn’t last forever and when it does eventually end, they will emerge more responsible and resilient. Job done! Bring out the bubbles!

As Dr Kenneth Ginsberg says, “Our challenge as parents is to understand that while holding on tight feels so good, letting go is a profound expression of love.” Whilst heart-wrenching and terrifying, these 6 tiny tweaks will allow you to let go with love and stay meaningfully connected with your teen as they journey along the path of maturation.

And when they successfully launch into the next stage of their life, flourishing into their own being, you can look on with a full and proud heart.

 

References

  1. Ginsburg, K. (2011) Letting go: The greatest challenge of parenting teens, Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/raising-resilient-children-and-teens/201107/letting-go-the-greatest-challenge-parenting-teens.
  2. Wood, D. et al. (2018). Emerging Adulthood as a Critical Stage in the Life Course. In: Halfon, N., Forrest, C., Lerner, R., Faustman, E. (eds) Handbook of Life Course Health Development . Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-47143-3_7