You know what captures the essence of parenting better than anything? It's that moment when you realize, just when you think you've learned a lesson well, that you have SO much more to learn.
It's humbling. It can be crazy-making. It's parenting.
I've had lots of these experiences, lately — opportunities to revisit lessons I thought I'd mastered. The one above all else that I'm challenged with again and again is Letting Go. It's a big issue with my clients, too — of kids of all ages. So I offer you, now, my humble solution to the art of parents letting go: 4 steps to guide parents of complex kids.
Parenting is not actually about controlling our kids…it's about empowering them to control themselves. When we hold on too tight, it is actually counter-productive to the ultimate goal of fostering independence.
But providing just the right amount of scaffolding to support our kids, without fostering a learned helplessness, is definitely more art than science. There is such nuance in the process. I've found that I handle this lesson best when I keep my own anxiety in check. The 4 questions below guide me in The Art of Letting Go:
- 1. Where is it Important for me to Let Go?
- 2. Where Should I Continue to Hold On?
- 3. How Can I Help?
- 4. What Do I Need to Feel Comfortable?
1. Where is it Important for Me to Let Go?
When fostering independence, we want to be absolutely clear on our focus. What is the issue that my child is working on? What does success look like for him/her? How will we know if s/he's achieved it?
For example, I'm in an extraordinary circumstance with my oldest daughter, who has gotten a job on a TV show and has had to re-locate to for filming for 4 months. Talk about Letting Go! At 18, she's never lived alone, and now she is responsible for working and going to school full time, living independently, feeding herself, etc. It's a HUGE expectation. And, as is typical of ADHD – thankfully! -- the motivation is strong enough for her to rise to the occasion. It's been incredible for her.
So we've talked about what she feels she can handle herself, and I've tried to step out of those areas. I may still ask occasionally – I'm a mom, after all -- but mostly my job is to help her set herself up for success in those areas, and constantly remind her that she can do it!
2. Where Should I Continue to Hold On?
On the other hand, there are still some areas of personal management that are clearly too much for her to manage right now, and are causing a lot of stress. When we talked about what she feels like she can handle, she was able to identify these stress points.
So, in order to empower her success everywhere else, I have agreed to keep those areas on my plate, for now, and she's quite fine with that. In other words, I'm choosing not to let go of something because we both agree that she's not ready for it. That choice enables me to let go of everything else with more confidence and ease.
Of course, it will change depending on the age and capabilities of your child – but that's the point, really.
3. How Can I Help?
When we get so attached to our kids' success that we force ourselves on them, we are holding on too tight. Instead, we need to turn to them for guidance. My favorite question to ask my kids is, “How can I help?” It teaches them to identify and ask for what they need. And it empowers them to do what they can, and learn to use support when appropriate.
For example, my middlest child was packing for a vacation with a friend's family, and she was getting nervous from the anticipated independence. I was not at home, and she was stressing. So I asked how I could help. She didn't really want me to pack her suitcase for her, but she did want to check to make sure she wasn't forgetting anything important. By asking the simple question, it set the stage for her to manage the process mostly on her own, without feeling like she was out on a limb.
4. What Do I Need to Feel Comfortable?
Ultimately, “letting go” is about letting go of the need to be in control. While that's harder for some of us than others, I find it's nearly impossible when I'm feeling anxious or uptight. So, letting go requires that I find a basic comfort zone in the process.
Inevitably, the four questions above help me find a comfort-zone with those areas of responsibility that are no longer mine to hold. I'm not always going to like it, but having clear expectations makes it manageable.
When I know what is on my daughter's plate to manage, and what is on mine, I'm more comfortable. Then, it's easier to let her get a “C” on the way to getting an “A.”
Raising kids requires that we apply old lessons to new circumstances. Much like the way they teach math to kids these days, we must take simple parenting concepts, and re-apply them to more complicated “problems.”
With every step toward independence our children take, we must re-calibrate our response to match their changing worlds. The secret to success is in the art of Parents Letting Go.
It's exhilarating. It's fascinating. Did I mention, it's parenting?!