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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Children: To Hold on or Let Go?

My mother once told me, when I was in my thirties I might mention, that she found it far harder to parent grown children than younger ones. The reason, she explained, is that as your children grow older you have less control over what they do and with whom they do it.  Being a mother myself by then, this comment resonated with me.  It has proven to be a challenge that I see parents working to manage every day in my office.

Essentially, I tell parents, the parent/child dynamic needs to go like this:

Your children’s job is to push the limits. Your job is to maintain them.

But first you have to know when and how to set limits

When your children are little you can pick them up and put them where they need to be, remove a dangerous toy from their hands, feed them what you choose, set and enforce their bedtime, put them in timeout.  Then they get older, and darn it if the little buggers don't start to assert themselves, expressing their own opinions, desires, and even perspectives in a way that you can't bypass, ignore, or disregard.  

You have to start listening and even more so, you should.

One of the most central internal conflicts your children experience (and it is ongoing until they are fully cooked sometime in their twenties) is the tension between the need to be dependent and the need to be independent.  You see this in your toddler who has learned to say "no" (and practices that new word a lot!), but won't let you out of his sight from the sandbox. You see it in your 8 year old who wants to set his own bedtime, but still insists on being tucked in--multiple times!  The struggle becomes particularly profound in adolescence as your child begins to move away from you and ever more towards his or her peer group.  Insistent on greater autonomy in their use of social media, establishment of privacy, and resistance of whatever limitations you set.  Yet at the same time they need to know that you have their back, that you will catch them if they fall.  That they are not truly on their own just yet.  

The challenge to you as a parent comes by way of determining where and when to set the limits and what those limits should be.  They are ever-changing and continually demand that you be flexible and wise in choosing your battles.  For the little ones this is not easy, but it is simpler as the boundaries for behavior and parent/child roles are more concrete.  Many parents don't realize it but as your child grows older your job is actually to pull back, to allow for greater problem solving and self-determination on their part. You essentially have about 18 years to get this person ready to go out into the world and be okay, which translates into being able to pick themselves up and dust themselves off when they fall, which they will…repeatedly.  They are supposed to.  For goodness sakes, you want them to!  

It's in the falling down that your child learns to be resilient, to bend with life's challenges,
and to cope with what this world throws at them.  

If you hold them too close or set limits that are too firm or inflexible they never get the chance to acquire these skills.

So therein lies the balance. 

Here are some tips as to how you let go, while holding on just enough....
  1. Hold them close enough to keep them generally safe from the really dangerous stuff, but let them venture far enough way to learn how to handle dangerous situations. 
  2. Find the balance by listening. Let your child assert their wishes, discuss them, and never reject them out of hand. 
  3. Always show your child that you value their opinion, and by extension that you value them, by listening and engaging in discussion with them that takes their desires and your own into account in equal measure. 
  4. Above all, negotiate. Together find a compromise. Never negate their wishes or needs, instead always find a way to give a little--unless their safety is at risk.
Be Well,

Jennifer Jackson Holden, Psy.D. is managing director of the Paoli, Pennsylvania office of the Center for Psychological Services. www.centerpsych.com drjenniferholden@gmail.com

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