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Letting Go & Branching Out - How Parents & Students Can Begin to Prepare for Independence

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Parents have held full control over their children throughout their young lives. Through the good and the bad, they have embraced this position and nurtured every aspect of the journey. Now your child wants to make their own decisions, and play a more meaningful part in their development. This is hard for parents to ‘allow’. When parents don’t encourage their teens to make and take responsibility for their decisions, teenagers rebel and lose trust in themselves. They don’t feel understood, trusted, or heard. and their relationship with their parents suffers. The even bigger concern for society as a whole, if parents remain reluctant to let go is what generation of adults are we developing?

Why is Teenage Independence Important?

Healthy, self-disciplined, motivated teenagers are those who have a strong sense of control over their lives, and belief in their abilities to analyze and make solid decisions. Teenagers need to try out new views, test their assumptions, develop their thoughts, fail and succeed, and learn from all experiences. How else will they learn what works and what doesn’t?

Research shows that agency (capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices) is one of the most important contributors to happiness. Professor Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of ‘Happiness by Design’, states that well-being isn't about how we think - it's about what we do through our own deliberate choices.

Independence is the ultimate goal of adolescence.

Even though it’s sometimes hard for parents to think about letting go, the best relationships are the ones where teenagers come back to as adults, recognizing how their parents have helped them into adulthood by getting the balance right. No one is suggesting that the balance is easy. As teenagers, gaining something you have never had is scary – what will happen when you make a mistake? What if you disappoint your parents? Or worse, what if you make a fool of yourself in front of those that matter to you? For parents the risks are equally high; letting go of control of your child whom you have nurtured for over 10-15years is extremely difficult. The scrutiny from family, friends and society is great for some, the fear of not having done the best job is at times soul crushing for others.

What Do Teenagers Want from their Parents?

There will come a day when your teenager will fire you as their management team, and hire you as their eyes on- hands off advisor. They will be the ones to come to you for advice and expect you to keep quiet until then.

Teenagers refuse to be micro-managed, and trying to do so only creates rebellion and friction, whether it be passive non-communication/non-acceptance or active, visible, and sometimes dangerous, rule breaking.

However, letting go and handing over the decision-making reins does not mean disappearing. As adolescents navigate the stormiest years in their development, they need support, coaching, good examples of how to behave in certain situations, and most of all understanding, and the knowledge that they have a safe place to grow and develop.

Moving Away from Hands-On Guidance towards Hands-Off Availability

Both sides need to be able to believe in themself – their abilities, skills, and passions. As the parents, you need to let go with grace, and as the student, you need to take the leap as you start that journey of independence for the first time.

Say goodbye to control and hello to influence. As a parent, you may feel more powerful trying to enforce regulations than when you’re simply giving advice, but know that this feeling is almost always an illusion. Your son or daughter needs to be motivated, supported, and respected, and not told what to do.

The movement of teenagers away from following parent rules to want to express their own advice is normal and necessary. Being aware of this can at least lessen the stress and anxiety, and help you embrace the fact that your new parent superpower lies in the positive influence you still bring to the party.

There are two parts to being effective parents without over-managing:

Part One: Establish age-appropriate family rules, agreed not through dictation but through discussion. Ensure everyone is on board, and the rules are clear to everyone.

Part Two: Hand over all further decision-making to your young adult, with the freedom to operate autonomously within the limits that have been set.

Like everyone else, teens learn from making mistakes as long as they are afforded the chance to. As a parent, you should make sure that the mistakes your teen makes aren’t life-threatening, like getting into the car with a drunk driver or setting the kitchen on fire.

To do this effectively, you need to focus your strength and energy on really focusing on what is important, and let the little things go. This is when as parents, we need to step back more and listen, only offering advice when asked for it. Working out their own problems is part of their journey, learning to guide and let go is part of ours. For teenagers, ‘respect the deal’. You agreed to it. When circumstances change, immediately ask to revisit the rules, so there are no surprises for your folks and they develop the confidence to loosen the reins in the future. These new rules and rule-making procedures quickly become tools for the whole family.

Top Tips for Hands-On Availability

1. Hand Over the Reins

This is the time when we are not doing either party any favours by being a ‘helicopter parent (tendency to hover - hyper-involvement in a child's life)’, or a ‘lawnmower parent ’(intervene or "mow down" any person or obstacle that stands in the way of them saving their child from any "inconvenience, problem or discomfort)’.

As they are developing their emotional strength your teen needs to learn how to control their temper, future ability to manage and learn from setbacks depends on it. By managing their anxiety, they develop the mental agility to step outside their comfort zone and take chances in life. Model for them how to deal with uncomfortable and complex emotions and situations in a healthy way, and support them in their pursuit to do the same. Over time, they'll gain confidence in their ability to do hard things.

2. Keep Communicating in the Positive

Open the communication channel in a positive way as you both prepare for the changing family dynamic. The truth is that just as the parent may be struggling to let go, the teen may also have conflicted emotions during the launch. As both parents and teenagers struggle with managing emotions and getting the balance right, it is important not to forget the impact of being positive during the process. When tensions are high, communications can feel terse and strained. Taking a step back at times and ensuring that information, advice and suggestions are given and taken in the most positive light will help keep the tensions at bay.

Although this is a time when opinions of friends mean everything to them, it’s key that they know that you are still there to help and to provide guidance or suggestions if they need it. Being genuinely positive will remind the subconscious that you are a positive safe space to come to when needed.

When they are out exploring the world and managing experiences, discuss how they wish to keep in touch and how to get the balance right for both sides. A quick message from them to say, ‘I have arrived’, ‘I am on my way home now,’ or ‘I have gone back to X’s house, so will be now home by X o’clock’ etc. is worth its weight in gold to prevent misunderstandings or overreaction due to worry and allows for freedom with safety and peace of mind.

Remember, this now works both ways! If you are unexpectedly out when you said you would be in, or returning later than anticipated, then you also need to let your young adults know. I was with a friend one evening when they received a very cross call from their son. ‘Where are you? We’re worried. You said you would be home by 8 o’clock, and it’s now 10. We thought you had had an accident.’ Sound familiar?

3. Focus on Practical “Grown Up” Skills that Can Make a Real Difference

Being a grown-up means knowing how to get a local phone organized, setting up a new bank account, learning to drive, and learning basic budgeting skills, including paying those bills on time! Just as important are the day to day skills. Basic kitchen skills and some core affordable recipes, how to mend a small rip or replace a button, dealing with a first-degree burn, how not to turn your clothes pink in the washing machine…learning basic survival skills can save time and tears when they do fly the coop. As parents, these hands-on skills are an invaluable link to continued communication with your teen and create and a whole new framework for conversation.

Take stock of where you as a family. How launch-ready is your teenager?

4. Be the Calm that they require

Providing your teen with a safe place to communicate, develop ideas, and brainstorm within your family is essential. This provides us with the important step of engaging in more active listening, and only offer advice when asked for it. Learning how to solve their own issues is part of our teens’ journey, as parents we must guide them and learn how to transition to letting go, and that is your journey.

Teenagers are constantly told by parents, teachers, coaches to take notice and worry about everything when all they really care about is being carefree. Provide the calm to allow them to reflect on what they are going through. As adults, parents need to create a safe place to reflect on the difficulties experienced when life throws curve balls. They need an advocate who understands how emotional and stressful it is being a teenager, and who not only lets them but helps them dial their stress down a notch.

At The Bedrock Program, our team of experienced and empathetic professionals work with teenagers and parents to make sure they are in the best possible place to enjoy and embrace the independence journey.

Let go and branch out with confidence:

Letting Go, Learning to Leap

(Preparing for University)

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