There’s a point in the life of every parent when you realize your kid is no longer a child. That the adorable baby you once cradled in your arms has gone from toddler to grade-schooler, from missing her two front teeth to embarking upon double digits, and from the pinnacle of the teen years to being knee-deep in young adulthood.
Realization and acceptance, however, are very different beasts. With that in mind we asked experts for advice on how parents can learn to let go and nudge their children toward independence. Here are their words of wisdom.
Make time to talk
If you zone in on one area of parenting during the teen and early adult years, make it communication, says Sherri Hull, a retired psychiatric nurse from Alberton, PEI. “At a time when kids may be pulling away and spending more time with their peers than parents, it’s key that you take time to reinforce the bond you’ve spent their childhood building,” she says. Parents should also focus on honesty, which helps lay the foundation for fostering your child’s development and the parent/child relationship, as well as positive reinforcement.
“Make an effort as often as you can to give your child positive feedback,” says Hull. “Look at a scenario they’ve handled themselves well in and take the time to say something like, ‘I think it’s great how you handled X,’ even if you would have approached it differently,” Hull says. Beyond making conversations easy, regular communication also helps you understand (and influence) their rationale and approach to situations, making letting go a little easier.
Land your inner helicopter parent
Yes, parenting invariably means caring about and for your child in a myriad of ways, but things can get sticky when parents become so over-involved that they show up at university to talk to their child’s professors about marks, or are texting their high schooler non-stop when they veer out of sight.
Whether you’re worried your child is not yet capable of making good decisions, struggling with loss of control or are concerned about what to focus on once your child is independent, one of the best ways to undo helicopter tendencies is to start giving your child more freedom, says Nancy Peters, a family service worker from Hamilton, Ont. Think later curfews, unsupervised sessions behind the wheel or letting them go away for the weekend with friends, and understand that mistakes are normal and part of the process. Give them room to grow without scrutinizing every fashion decision they make — or photo they post on Instagram — and remember, says Peters: “It’s a parent’s job to raise kids to be adults – not to remain kids forever.”
Model what you want to see
Want your kid to go out into the world with self control and confidence intact? Be the example.
“Everyday parental behaviour plays a large role in how children learn to govern themselves now and in the long term,” says Dr. Ralph Hull, a retired child and adolescent psychiatrist from Alberton, PEI. “Parents who are calm, cool and consistent impart those characteristics to their child, while those who are quick to anger and make rash decisions do the same.” As such, do your best to maintain composure in every situation. This way, as your child emulates your behaviour, you’ll feel more secure that he or she will (hopefully) do the same in emotionally heightened situations. And, ultimately, it will build confidence in both yourself and your child, allowing you both to grow.
Prepare for mixed emotions
Letting go isn’t easy — for you or for them. According to Dr. Hull, parents can expect to feel anything from pride at their child accomplishments, anxiety about whether they’ll be OK, and possibly both at the same time. As for teens, they face an emotional roller coaster of their own, and he says this is mostly due to endocrine and hormonal changes, but it’s also a reaction to the ever-changing landscape of growing up.
How to help? Try to remember that emotions are high on both sides of the fence while also offering unconditional love and support to your child. And when it comes to your own emotional battle, allow yourself to experience the shock and unpreparedness for an empty nest, but also keep in mind that it’s expected — and normal — that a part of you may even look forward to your child’s increasing independence, says Dr. Hull. “Being aware of the normalcy of these emotions is integral for parents, otherwise they might question their own sanity.”
Build your village
Another key component for loosening your parental grip? A good support system. “Having people you can talk to and keep you grounded is so important, particularly when dealing with rebellious and trying behaviours,” Peters says. So are friends and family members because “they’ve known your kids since they were small and will be the ones to remind you in difficult situations that you’ve raised a great child who will eventually find their way.”
Gaining support from parents who have survived these years is another must as they’ll provide encouragement through
the highs and lows, and offer the benefit of their experience and wisdom. “Parents who have been through this part of parenting give you hope,” says Peters. “And sometimes having someone who will listen to you vent without judging can make all the difference.”