Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ask the Faithful Readers #4 - Learning to Let Go

Dear Faithful Reader,

Parents often claim that their relationships with teenaged children can bring unique challenges. The desire of young people to spread their wings and become independent adults creates a natural source of conflict. Parents who have been used to giving direction now face opposition when they attempt to do so. We often worry when we must let go, knowing our children might stumble but that they need to take on new responsibilities. I have had people tell me, "I became good friends with my parents, but only AFTER I moved out of the house."

What are your experiences with this situation, either with your children or from your own days as a teenager? What obstacles can make this particularly challenging? What strategies can help ease the way?

Signed, The Inquiring Advice Guy

Comments are preferable for this one (rather than emails), since I'm sure everyone would like to see the responses. I will post my personal favorite next week with a link to the winner's blog.


  1. Well... some people think I'm waaaaaay off base -- including my eldest! (who is now 30) But, my philosophy has always been when they get to the age where they are POSITIVE they know everything (around 16)... I give them nearly free reign! (we still have curfews and a few general rules - but not many) My feeling is if you've spent 16 years laying the basics as far as morals and manners go, then they SHOULD be able to go out into the world and make a mistake or two (or ten) without causing TOO much harm! There are a LOT of evils and temptations out there in the world -- and I guarantee you there is not a responsible parent alive who says "YES Son, go smoke pot and try coke (the powder not the liquid) and while you're at it, here have a beer!" ... Nope. Most of us preach and preach and preach the evils and dangers. But does it STOP our kids from trying them? In most cases no. Same story with sex... right? We teach them what's right and BEST... but if a teenager WANTS to have sex, they are going to find a way to do it! Now... not ALL teenagers want to. Nor do they ALL try drugs. But... MY philosophy is to "back off" after I've laid the ground work. When they think they know more than I do, then I let them try out there ideas. And when they fall on their face at least they still live at home, and have the love of family and a safe harbor to return to. I believe some folks refer to it as "natural consequences"... And the "consequences" that the REAL WORLD teaches our teenagers is often MUCH greater than the trumped up consequences that we can come up with as parents!

    I am Mom to 4 children - one adult and 3 teenagers. My girls were VERY easy to raise. (although the eldest got into some things she shouldn't AS AN ADULT after leaving home -- but she has since straightend herself out too - I'd like to think that's due in part to the BASICS she learned as a child) My young daughter is strictly by the book, will NEVER try ANYTHING and will probably be a virgin when she gets married! (maybe...) My BOYS??? Holy cow! They have tried everything and WILL try anything! And I kept a MUCH tighter reign on them than I ever kept on the girls -- but it didn't work! And when they got to the point where I would say "You're grounded" and they would say "NO I'm NOT!" and walk out the door, that was when I realized that THEY were taking MY power away from me. THEY knew it ALL! Okay. Time for "natural consequences". My boys have learned some VERY hard lessons. And I have struggled through some very tough times with them. But do you know, to this day their teachers still tell me what WONDERFUL boys they are -- kind, respectful,... perhaps not the BEST students... but GOOD boys. (do you see me sorta rolling my eyes?) Well... the fact is is that for all the trouble they have given me - they really ARE good boys. And they will be GOOD men ... and I think GREAT fathers one day. But they have to get SOME things out of their system first. And so at this point, they are learning from the school of hard knocks (for hard heads). And MY philosophy is that THIS is best! Because THIS way we are not constantly fighting and they still respect me. And they know that when "shit happens", I'll be here to say "I TOLD you so!"

  2. Hey andrew thanks for the advice and I will try it when I get a chance, I saw you on my blog and thought I would come over and say hey and check you out...

    WOW I have 3 teenagers now and an 8 yr old. My oldest is pregnant, and will chat more about that later... but I will definately come back
    thanks again

  3. I really can't give a right or wrong answer here. Except to say, that besides discouraging bad behaviors - there should equal if not greater encouragement for a teens goals, achievements and good behaviors.

    Deep down every teenager wants to make their parents proud. They also feel a need to make their peers applaud them. Ways of doing both are as individual as each teenager we're dealing with.

  4. Interesting question today....hmmmm. Let's see I was afraid of my dad so I did not dare try smoking or breaking the law because I thought he might kill me. Mom's parenting style was pretty much we learn on our own. We were not a family that communicated much.

    I will admit I have shared some things with my now 11 year old daughter so she would not have to go alone with these things.When I was her age I thought deoderant went on your arm like the commercial and mom never showed me how to do makeup or shave etc. We never talked about realtionships such as a true friend does not treat you a certain way. I had to find out these things the hard way. Her main thing was keeping the house clean and filing her nails.

    I guess I am a litrle apprehensive about when my kids become teenagers so I will be reading a lot of books!

  5. I raised my children in an easier time and now they are faced with the problems of having teens in their homes, who are just about ready to spread wings and fly the coop. We are sincerely hoping that our adult "children" think of us as friends. My very strong belief is that teens who are able to support themselves and take the consequences for their actions can be allowed to fly freely. However, if they are living in your home, driving your cars, using your health and car insurance, eating your food, using your lights and heat and probably going to school with funds that you have provided--- then, they are still children and subject to the rules of the house. They owe you the respect level that you have earned by being a good parent.
    At this time, teens who get into trouble are the responsibility of the parents. How are you supposed to feel when the kids drive your Beemer into the local 7-11 right through the plate glass and need to be bailed out of jail? Who pays the bill for these free spirits? I really believe the people who said that they weren't friends until the kids moved out on their own. It is then that we can decide whether or not we want to be friends with the people we have raised.

  6. Hi Andrew,

    I'm afraid I have nothing to contribute here, having small children, and therefore yet to deal with the teenage years (as a parent, anyway!)

    I did want to say hello, and thank you for commenting on my blog. Your blog strikes me as intriguing and addictive.... I'll definitely be returning!


  7. My experience is this:

    My parents fulfill their role by having this inner conflict of how much they should allow, how much they should instruct, how much they should expect and how much they should step back, while being completely overburdened.

    I fulfill my role by trying to consider what they say, but ending up doing whatever stupid thing I think is a good idea at that given moment.

    I'm 20, but the walls of teenagery can bend a bit.

  8. I see a lot of wisdom in the posts above. I have four children also, the eldest is 20 and has been on his own for two years now. In some respects, I am still grieving the loss of my little boy. I miss him so much. I see the separation starting in my next oldest, a 16 year old daughter. She still lives at home, but I am seeing her work through her own separation issues. It's hard for us both at times. I know, with my oldest, he had difficulty coming home for visits initially. He was always defensive and tense. Instead of being fun, these visits were actually more painful for everyone. Finally, my son and I had a heart to heart talk. He said that he was having trouble asserting himself as an adult while in his mom's (my) presence. So we came up with one simple rule. Whenever he was over for a visit, and he felt I was being overbearing or "motherish" he could walk right up to me, shake his finger in my face and declare "Hey! You're not the boss of me!" And you know, it worked...and it made everybody laugh. He needed me to give him permission to be a grown-up even when his Mom (me) was around.
    Ah! I love that kid!

  9. As a young adult, one of the best choices I made was to move away from home and continue my university studies in another part of the country. At the time, I’m sure Mom and Dad had their parental concerns (visions of watching Mom’s horror as we walked around campus, searching for a “suitable” rental accommodation in the student ghetto). Although I wouldn’t disclose to them every part of my university experience (<-let’s be honest), I’m sure both parents would agree I came out the other end a better, more rounded, adult male. *patting myself on the back*

    As an added bonus, moving away from home allowed me to see both my parents as individuals: their strengths, weaknesses, eccentricities … Things that I wasn’t able to appreciate until took many (many) steps back to see the entire proverbial forest. I can honestly say that moving away from home helped enhance (and re-define) my relationships with my parents and siblings.

    To steal from an old saying: “If you love [your kids] let them be free”. Hopefully they’ll come back more whole, independent adults.

    If not … well … have your credit cards handy. They may have left a mess behind themselves for you to help clean up.

  10. My kids are 15 1/2 and 17. I've worried all the time about letting my boys go...when is the right time? what if something happens they don't know how to handle? What if they get in with the wrong crowd? God forbid, what if they decide to experiment with drugs? The list is endless.

    I feel I've done the best I can at teaching my teens the differences between right and wrong, good and bad. As far as I believe, we instill these traits into them from a very early age. It's been a rocky road for me to let them slowly go over the years. But I grit my teeth and try to show that I have absolute faith in their decisions. I have to trust that I've taught them well, and I have to have faith that they will follow through with that, putting their own unique spin on it.

    I say "It's not something I would do, but if that's how you want to do it, then ok, it's up to you." I think this lets them know I'm not keen, but they have a right to do it their own way....if they fall on their faces, they know it happened because of their choice and hopefully learn from it...and it stop me from coming out with "I told you so". Because by twisting the words a little, I didn't lol

    Besides the 'typical' teenage changes and angst, and the battle of testosterone going on between my boys during their respective puberties...we haven't done so badly really.

    And saying that, I don't think I've ever questioned my own parenting ability more than I have in the past 2 years.

  11. I have three adult children, a daughter & 2 sons. As Melli said, I had a much easier time with my girl than my boys. They have all done all kinds of crazy things but now are married and good spouses & working hard. I think maybe one of the things I did was to let them know that even if I did not like what they had done, I loved them and was there for them. Another important factor (at least in our culture) is not to be too self-righteous and feel 'my child will never do that because I brought him/her up so well'. It can lead you to being blind to what your teens can be upto and sometimes to disguised pleas from them for help.

  12. My brother and I were never behavior problems and people were always asking my mother for discipline advice. She always had to tell them she didn't know anything about it because we never acted out (well, not on a regular basis).

    My parents were "structured" but didn't nit-pick and never pulled the, "because I said so" line. There was always a rational reason we weren't allowed to do something. I was always amazed when my friends' parents blew up over punk hair, tattoos, shredded clothing (I grew up during the grunge era). My mother was opposed to tattoos for health reasons, but beyond that, as long as our grades were OK, our nakedness was covered and we weren't wearing things with drug slogans or pictures of guns, and she knew where we were, she was OK.

    I know I would have disappointed her had I done something really big--flunked out of school, gotten pregnant, gotten into drugs, etc.--but since she didn't complain about my weird (to put it nicely) fashion sense, didn't panic about my gothic interests, or ban my brother's migraine-inducing music, we didn't feel stifled and didn't need to rebel. We outgrew it, too, once the novelty wore off and we realized that Metallica really was just a lot of noise.

    Mostly, though, they really did pay attention to us. Not just going through the motions, but genuinely listened to us. I don't have children but I've tried to do this with my First Day school kids (who are little but will be teenagers someday) and it has made a world of difference with a few of them who are potential behavior problems.

  13. I don't know if I should even attempt to answer this question. I left home at the age of 14. I did so to save myself, but ended up falling into the "bad seed" type activities. My children are still very young, my oldest living child is 9.

    I don't believe in giving teenagers a free reign, yet it depends on the child. Some are very responsible and are able to handle situations on their own, while others stumble along, frantically grasping for any one that is willing to show them a way, any way.

    Paying attention to the little signs is important. Those things will tell you more than what your child is willing to reveal. A teenager wants to feel trusted, yet still want you to make decisions for them. Even the ones that are very vocal about being an adult. You shouldn't hold them too tightly though, as sad as letting go can be.

    Allowing a child to be eccentric, allowing them to make bad decisions, letting them know you will be there when they fall, is the best advice I can give.

    I know it won't be easy when I have to let go.

  14. Teenagers think they deserve all the rights and priviledges of adulthood...without any of the responsibility. Once you realize that...the rest is a walk in the park!

    Gammie--mother of 7 "grown" children!

  15. Thank you for visiting and commenting on my blog, Andrew.

    Regarding your question about teenagers, I have no children so what I know about teenagers comes from observation, and teaching classes that were predominantly teenagers.

    My siblings and I were raised in simpler times, when moms rarely worked outside the home. Speaking personally, the safety and structure her daily presence provided in our home 24/7 remains a warming memory today. Her kids came home from school to the scent of cookies baking, or pot roast simmering in the oven. From kindergarten on, she helped us with our homework or other school projects so by the time we were teenagers that was part of our routine.

    Our father was an abusive alcoholic. Mom's four children were never alone with him. She took the brunt of his abuse while keeping her kids safe and nurtured. We respected her rules as teenagers without question because they were never unkind or unreasonable. She encouraged our creativity, accepted our fledgling flights of independence, and beamed proudly at every accomplishment.

    As an adult nurse and educator, the problems I saw around me with rebellious teenagers were related to children whose lives had little structure or guidance. I realize mine is a simplistic viewpoint, but it comes from personal experience.

  16. My comment/answer comes from my perspective as a former teenager. I'm now 30, and expecting my first baby in December.

    Sadly, I chose to live with the non-disciplinarian (a.k.a. "fun") parent after their divorce when I was ten. My mother tried desperately to be my friend and to be the "cool mom." She burdened me (at age 12-13) with stories of the drug-and-booze-addled exploits of her high school days- not for the purpose of teaching a lesson, but for the purpose of identifying with me. She was acting out her own needs for validation and approval while screwing up her daughter in the process. Because of her own issues with self-image, she scrutinized and picked at my preteen pores, and made not-so-subtle hints that I was fat.

    As I got into high school, there were no rules. Technically, I had a curfew, but she was out of town nearly every weekend, and I was home alone.

    When I left home at 18, I had received very little real-world instruction that teenage girls should get from their parents. The knowledge I lacked ran the gamut from the simple things- like how to budget, cook for myself, pay bills, go to bed and get up at decent times, and live within my means- to the complex, like how to tell the difference between guys who just want to get into your pants and genuinely good guys.

    The lesson I take away from my experience is that it's not a parent's job to be a child's "friend." As I venture out into my own experience as a parent, I hope to create (with my husband) an environment with firm but fair discipline, sensitivity to my child's needs, abilities, and insecurities, and selfless love and affection.

  17. Parents often believe that their children are a direct reflection of themselves. Allowing them to find their own path or behave, dress, act, talk, whatever in a different way than themselves is sometimes scary. You can't be sure what will come next if you allow something strange to you to go on. As adults there are certain standards that apply in the work force and around other adults. Those standards do not and should not apply to children but often they do. What counts in a family is trust, communication, empathy and encouragment. Those qualities are not diminished by how someone dresses or what kind of music they listen to. My children are still tiny, just 5 and 2 and I am apprehensive about what will come in the future. Instilling a belief in themselves when they are little I think (hope?) will go a long way as they mature into adults. If you believe that you are a worthy person you will come to expect good things for yourself and will not want to hurt the people you love.

  18. Anonymous12:34 PM

    I am a parent to three daughters, 19, 14 & 12. I think one of the keys to successful parenting, no matter what the age, is to ask lots of questions. I ask them how they think we should handle different situations. Life is learning, so I try to use every situation as a teaching tool, such as, if someone at school gets in trouble for something, I ask what different choices that person could've made, and what the different consequences are, and how would they handle that situation and why. I read to them from a very early age, which also helps develop critical thinking skills. And as they get older, we are able to negotiate more.

    My 19 yr. old had some difficulty early on, last year, when she first went away to college. She called me every day, a lot of times in tears because things hadn't turned out as she had expected, and I listened for hours, until I realized that I wasn't helping her by listening so much. She needed to reach out to the girls around her and start connecting with them. So, I started cutting her off, at about 20 minutes, and letting her know that I was confident in her ability to handle whatever situation she was confronting, that she has a sharp mind and has made lots of good decisions in the past. It was difficult emotionally, but ultimately it freed both of us. I had more energy to put into the younger two and she came home for the summer a much more confident young woman, who left a couple weeks ago for her second year, much more happy and excited about her future.

  19. As a mother of a high schooler, I’ve been there. Trying to let go is one of the hardest things we can ever do. The kids tend to think they are too cool to hang out with their parents, and of course, grownups know nothing. But I really think it’s okay if your kids aren’t your friends until they move out of the house.
    In reality, we won’t know if what we are doing is right, until our children are grown and building their own families in a happy healthy and financially stable environment. Or until they are calling us from the 12th precinct at 3 a.m., asking for us to bail them out... again. Over all, we do the best we can with what we have. Then we hope for the best.
    To let go means to give the child enough growing room. Tell your internal control freak to back off and let your child grow. It can be done in a safe and fun way if you are willing.
    Trying to find a bonding ground with a teen doesn’t have to be a huge struggle. For us, we began with what bonded us when my teen was a baby; food. Ask your teen what their favorite dish is and then teach them how to make it. They will feel a sense of accomplishment. It is also a great way to get them ready for adulthood.
    My son has learned how to make nearly every dish I know how to make, and then some. When he wants to learn how to cook something I’ve never made, we learn together.
    I have also had him sit with me while I write out our budget and bills. Now, he writes the checks for those bills, and realizes why that extra pair of jeans he wants isn’t going to happen this week. We have less discussions and heated debates about frivolous things since he has been taking part in that part of our household.
    My son also helps clean the house. Sure he hates it but like I tell him, that’s part of growing up and being a responsible person. As he cleans, his music blares. Even though my eardrums bleed and my head pounds, it is what motivates him to move, so I say nothing. But if I really want the noise that he calls music to stop, I start singing along.
    There have to be rules but they don’t have to be set as if you are a drill instructor. Open communication is the key to every relationship. You have to be able to talk freely about sex, drinking, smoking, drugs and all of the other dangers. Openly admitting that you are afraid is okay. It’s all in the way you say it. If it comes across like you don’t trust them to make the right decisions, you may as well hand them a crack pipe and a 40 ounce.

  20. My soon to be 19 year old daughter is finding that life on her own can be difficult and heartbreaking and she still turns to her family for support. She's survived her first year of college, been fired from her first job, and has broken up with her first serious boyfriend. She takes meds for bipolar disorder and she cuts herself.
    She and I have been trying to let go of each other. We do it in fits and starts. We let go a little, and then we cling a little. We let go a little more, and then we cling a little more. Sometimes I'm reduced to keeping my fingers and toes crossed that all goes well.
    I'm here for her if she needs me, and I try to stay out of her decisions when she tells me to stay out. I make my opinions known, but let her know that I value her opinions. I've raised her to make her own way in the world, to spread her wings and fly, because to do anything else would be a betrayal of the love I have for her. If you give your child life, you have to eventually let them live it. No matter how much that scares you.

  21. I am a mother of 5, and this is EXACTLY where I am now! 1 has moved out, and 1 is 1/2 way thru the door.


    If you raised them properly, taught them right from wrong & instilled them with manners and respect, They will do FINE.

    I am in now looking for a 3 bedroom house, down from a 6. YIPPEEEE!

    I love and treasure all 5 of my children, but enough IS enough.
    Spread U'r Wings and Fly....

    I can't wait until my husband and I buy a Motor Home and take off.....

    I have 7 yrs. left... and count every one....


  22. First, thanks for visiting my blog, Andrew!

    This is an interesting question because it's so timely for me - something I've been thinking a lot about, lately. I have an almost 22-year-old (b'day, soon) and a 14-year-old (15 in December). Both consider me "overprotective" but here's how I look at things. You're only young once, yes, but teenagers need limits imposed on them in order to prevent going so wild that they risk their own lives.

    So, with my eldest, things came to him very slowly. He wasn't allowed to drive to school until he'd had his driver's license for at least a year and we felt like he understood and obeyed the rules of the road. Breaking rules or lying led to the loss of privileges, such as going out with friends on a Friday night or use of the car. And, as to those out-with-friends things . . . well, nobody else was allowed to drive him anywhere for a good, long time and he was told repeatedly that if he drove someone, the car was not to move till everyone in it was buckled - and he should buckle up in other people's cars. We held to the same rules in our car, so there were no mixed signals about safety.

    I've been thinking about this because my youngster will be in Driver's Ed in the spring. He has friends who own cell phones and chat constantly on them; we simply loan him one of ours if he will need to contact us for a pick-up from a school event. All of the other swim team members ride in carpools to the pool (no other moms drive, as they all work); my son rides with me. I can't see any reason to let him ride with a less experienced driver, particularly knowing that the higher the number of teens in a car the more likely there will be an accident.

    As he ages, I'll slowly let go of my youngest like I did with his big brother. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I did a pretty good job with the eldest. He's a senior in college and has already been offered a permanent position after graduation at the software company that employs him part-time. He did some risky things and sometimes I wondered if I was too strict, but it really has been such a gradual release process (now, I don't tell him how to run his life at all, apart from the occasional advice on money or reminder not to drive and talk on the cell at the same time) that it's hard to believe I was ever so strict with him. We butted heads quite a bit during high school but he is now really appreciating my guidance. He comes to me for advice more than I'd ever dreamed he would and he's exhausted from balancing school and work but happy.

    The biggest obstacles we faced with our eldest were his stubbornness pitted against our own and peer pressure. Our youngest is more of an independent thinker, but I'm sure peer pressure will effect him, as well. I think the best thing parents can do is stick together (in case of marrieds) and in every case not cave in to begging or "everyone else is doing it". That doesn't mean flatly refusing to allow your child to wear the "in" thing. That was one of my mistakes. I still shop sales but I buy my youngest at least a few of the cool things so he won't feel like a total outcast. But, being firm and setting limits has a subtext: we love you and we want you to stay safe.

  23. A healthy child naturally wants to become a healthy adult. He/she merely needs parents to show the way. Simplicity works best for us. We have comparatively few rules for our children, but each one of our family understands them, the reasons for them, and the consequences for disregarding them. There is no need for drama or anger in relation to the rules, because they simply are what they are, and you choose to comply or not. Everything else flows from that.

    Of course, that is in the context of time and attention spent together, and requires that the adults model the very lifestyle and behavior they are expecting for the teen to develop. There is no disciplinary substitute for that, and in fact, in our experience, most attempts to apply discipline will fail without it.

  24. I have a 22 year old daughter and a 16 year old son. At an early age. My 2 children were brought up experiencing 3 different cultures, my asian-filipino culture, kiwi(new zealand) culture of my hubby- who is their step-dad and the australian culture within which we live. I had absolutely no parenting skills when i became a mother but in crisis times i tried to recall what my parents would do in situations. I thought that my kids will be much better when they become teenagers as they will then be taller than me, could help me with the chores, communicate better and therefore will have a better relationship. That wasn't the case. They became lazier, moodier, talk back, act like they are better than me and have taken over my house. With my Filipino culture, i have always emphasised that I AM the parent and they are my children and so therefore they just have to act accordingly. The Kiwi culture has a permissive parenting style- and my hubby being a stepdad tends to give in to them. In Australia, physical discipine such as smacking is a no-no but parents tend to shower their children with material things. I already had a vision of how my children should be when they grow up- the basic person I wanted them to become would be one of a productive citizen who can participate in society and at the same time enjoy the things this world has to offer. I have always told them that life is hard if they are not in control. While they were living in my house they should act like adults if they wanted to be treated as such. Tantrums never worked for me- if they start on one, i give them activities like how about helping me water the plants? I ignore their bad moods and let them have the space. I don't even ask them why they were acting wierdly but sometimes they come up to me and tell me. I humour some of their mistakes- praise them when they achieve- better still i bribed them- I'll give you $10 if you get a certificate this week. My 16 year old was really smart he had a certificate every week- until i've given up. I challenged him if you become Dux i will take you to the U.S. to meet your cousins. He took it seriously so I had to borrow money to take him to the U.S. Eversince he'd always been a top achiever- thank God that certificates in high school do not come by as often as in primary schoo. At an early age I taught them how to be independent in the shopping mall, let them go where they want to go and agree to meet at a certain time at a meeting place. I never let them have their own TV/computer in their rooms. radio/cd players were OK. Up to when they were 16 I always supervised what they watched on TV/surf in the net. When they complain, my reasoning was- when you turn 18, you have all the time to look at, experience, do all the adult stuff. But before then, I approve what they watched- weaned them from telletubbies to Boston Legal for example... I tell them that while they are staying with me they are to learn as much as you can (washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning up) as life out there is hard! I was interested in what they do,respected their friends even those whom i taught weird, their music and their fashion. I pretend that I am always listening to them. If i feel hurt, down or happy, I tell them. They deserve to know the truth and how to act like a human being. I did not want them smoking so I stopped smoking for their sake. I did my best to be their model and example and I taught them basic skills like banking, good manners, loving the library, listening and following authority and their teachers, good grooming. I let them enjoy the finer things in life with me so they could be ambitious (my girl who is now 22 and a nurse is even earning more than I) and 'nagged' them that education- getting a degree is the best thing that they can do for themselves as no one can steal it from them. So far, being authoritarian and firm, at the same time compromising, respecting their individuality and supporting them with their tastes in clothes, music, friends, food and hobbies and at the same time being a humane parent, not pretending to be perfect, humour, lots of smiles and understanding can make teenagerhood a great adventure for the parent and the teenager. Now- I have my life back, they are living the life they wanted and as they grow older we become friends and support each other.