Recently, I have been upset with my oldest child who is one week away from her high school graduation. The specific situation that had been frustrating was her lack of willingness to complete some tasks that are being required by her college in order to enroll in the fall.
I could focus on her choices and what she needs to be doing differently, but at this point I want to explore my role (the parent role) in this dynamic, with the intention of finding a more empowering perspective for both myself and my child.
When I am in situations where I see my kid making choices that I don’t feel are serving her, I usually feel some degree of fear around what is happening, and more importantly what might happen if things don’t change. In this case, I fear that if my child doesn’t take care of these tasks, then it will delay her enrollment, which may prevent her from getting the classes she wants, which means that the fall semester will more difficult, which means that her entire college career will be a DISASTER!!!….you get the point. It is not logical and gets really out of control very quickly…at least in my own mind. But we get hooked into a negative cycle of thoughts that bring up a lot of fear.
So what are some empowering changes that parents can make in these types of situations?
Loosen your attachment
We all love our kids and want the best for them, but often our attachment to a desired outcome interrupts our ability to be available to our child. In my case I was getting angry because she was placing more importance on socializing rather than preparing for her 1st semester of college. My anger created distance between her and I, and then this distance made it impossible for us to be able to communicate. When I am able to loosen my attachment to how the fall semester of her freshman year will go, or even better, my attachment to her even attending college in the fall, then I can be available to interact with her where he is at and help her navigate the situation that she is facing now.
Invite a broader perspective
Teenage brains are not fully developed until the mid-20’s, so teens and young adults often make decisions that seem blind to the complexity of the larger context and potential negative outcomes. It is just the way their minds work at this stage of their lives (link to video). This being the case, one of the most helpful things parents can do, is to help their kids see and understand the larger context. The best way to do this not be preaching, but by asking questions.
Ask more, tell less
Young adults will often bristle when older adults tell them what they should be doing, so a better strategy to help your kid better understand their situation and find solutions and choices that better serve them is to ask thoughtful questions. In the situation with my daughter and her lack of motivation to complete her pre-registration requirement for fall, I could ask her the following types of questions. Is there a time later today when we could talk about the pre-registration requirements for fall? (asking permission) If you get a no, or a “HELL NO!” then try asking, “What is your frustration in talking about this?” Once you can get your kid to talk about the subject, you can start asking questions like. Do you think it matters when you get these tasks for college completed? If so, what do you think the consequences might be? If they miss any potential consequences, you can always ask them something like, “Do you think it might effect when you get to register and this may affect what classes will be available for you to take?” You get the idea. Ask lots of questions that will help your child better understand where they stand and what they want/need to do for themselves.
Help structure a plan
Again, by asking questions, you can help them to figure out what they need to do and when they want to do it. Do they need or want your support? Do they need other forms of support? Ask permission to check in with them after a period of time to see how things are progressing.
Let them go
This is the hard part because your brain will likely drift back to negative “What If” scenarios, which if you are not careful, will pull you back into micromanaging your child and trying to control their behavior and the outcome. When you feel yourself getting pulled back into your old parenting pattern, it is helpful to remember that unless/until your child manages his own life, you and your child will both be stuck in your old roles, and unfortunately the only way your child will learn how to manage their own life is by starting to do it. Mistakes will be made. Balls will be dropped. But there is no other way for a child to become a responsible adult. Whenever you fall into your old pattern (controlling, micromanaging, cajoling to create motivation), you are slowing the process down.
Take care of yourself
The choices our children make sometime bring up fear and anxiety for us as parents. Our job is not to make our children behave in such a way that we don’t have to feel these feelings, but to learn to take care of ourselves when these feelings arise. The only way we can start to parent differently is to manage our own fears so that we can be available to support our children in their process. Breathwork, meditation, exercise, spending time in nature, talking to wise friends are all helpful ways to manage our feelings and not fall back into old patterns.
Whenever you start doubting what you are doing in this new mode of parenting, it is your fears and anxiety trying to pull you back into your old patterns. Keep taking care of yourself. Keep inviting and supporting your child to take responsibility for their own life, and keep loving them without doing IT for them.
Don’t expect perfection
Neither you nor your child will make this transition without setbacks and errors. It’s OK. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Acknowledge your mistakes and recommit yourself to the process!