Foster Independence: Don’t Fix The Pain

The hardest thing in the world is to know your child is in pain, and walk away. While it applies to anyone you love, really, it's especially hard when it's your own kid. And yet, sometimes, the best thing you can do to foster independence in children and teens is... absolutely nothing.

I remember when my eldest child had to have their wisdom teeth removed during a Thanksgiving break. Adding insult to injury, they flew into town at 10:00 at night in order to make it to the dentist at 10:00 the next morning. Talk about a cruel joke.  If that wasn't hard enough, their Dad was out of town, and I had to be at a long-standing work commitment at 9:00am, ready to spend the day teaching and basically out of reach.

Clearly, the circumstances were not optimal.

But we rallied the village. Their Aunt was taking them to the doctor, and their grandmother was meeting them there and would spend the rest of the day with them. On the one hand, they were on their own. On the other hand, they were never alone.

As I sat on the side of their bed at 8:00am, running my fingers through their short, spiky hair, I wanted nothing more than to cancel my plans for the day. I wanted to be there for them. Eighteen or not, they're still my baby. But as I gazed into the worried look in their face, I realized that it would be better if I would just walk away and go to work. Oy, the truth hurts!

That year was all about helping my pseudo-independent teenager learn to manage the challenges of life with less and less input from me. Sometimes it was about ‘forcing' them to coordinate their own logistics, or direct themselves through LA traffic (no small feat).

At other times, it was about managing the emotional roller-coaster of the teenage existence. (Now that they have a social life, it's a whole new world to navigate!)

In circumstances too numerous to name, I started to pull back, empowering them to fumble through life to their own successes, one little victory at a time.

They weren't always pleased with me at first, but in each instance I noticed a moment of acknowledgment, that glimmer of recognition when they realized that I wasn't going to do it FOR them, that I was only going to support them through doing it for themselves.

Wow, it was hard! For both of us. But it was just what my kid needed. And it took every ounce of self-restraint to give it to them. I think it's one of the great tests of parenthood. Seriously, can you be self-less enough to do what's best for your child by NOT helping, NOT doing, NOT rescuing?! Geez, this was DEFINITELY not in the baby handbook!

So I looked at their face on the morning before the surgery, and I knew that they would rise to the occasion with their loving Aunt and Grandma at their side.

My presence would certainly have given them a shoulder for their anxious worries. Without it, they would muster the maturity to walk into a dentist's office and take care of themselves. With that under their belt, in the future they'll be able to take themselves to a gynecologist, or a breast care specialist, or a psychiatrist, or... whatever specialist or medical care is needed. They'll own their health care in a way that they never did when I was the one signing all of the paperwork.

Ultimately, THAT is what kids need to learn to do, more than anything else. My eldest did rise to the occasion, by the way. Chipmunk cheeks notwithstanding, they crossed through another rite of passage, this time a step more independently than the last. They weren't terribly happy – but then, they had wisdom teeth removed!

Meanwhile, did I rush home that afternoon, as soon as I was free, to make chicken soup and egg salad, and nurture my child back to health? You bet I did. I massaged my remaining guilt with a bowl of coffee ice cream – which even brought a smile to their eyes, so worried only hours before.

Bottom line: my teenager made it through a difficult ordeal on their own emotional fortitude, and I made the difficult choice not to rescue them from (all of) their pain.

Once again, I danced on that delicate ridge with my child, who was both child and adult. I fostered independence for my child, my teen -- and for us both. We are, each of us, better for it.

Only one thing left to say: pass the coffee ice cream!

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