By Darlene Gavron Stevens, LCPC
The process of letting go of our children often begins in the delivery room.
It’s a blur. The umbilical cord gets cut, then you brace for the ear-piercing crying, the sheer shock, and even terror that you are now in charge of this amazing, squirming new baby. This colicky, or calm newborn, has his or her own needs, wants, and personality. Goodbye sleep, quiet dinners, and unfettered nights out. Hello, responsibility.
Of course, it doesn’t always start in a hospital. Sometimes, it’s after you’ve finally signed adoption papers and are preparing to meet your new child. Or you take on the responsibility of being a lifelong guardian for a grandchild.
Whatever the path, the destination is the same. Letting them go.
In the next few weeks, many of us will be sending our children off to their “firsts.” Preschool, kindergarten, middle school, high school, college or beyond. We want to celebrate but it’s bittersweet. Don’t they still need us? Will they be ok?
In my work with mental health, I have seen that giving children the tools to succeed with less parental support can, depending on age and maturity, improve self-esteem and self-efficacy. It teaches children to seek out appropriate supports and problem solve when they are stuck. In short, it helps prepare them for living independently – whether that’s in two years or 20.
Here’s a quick guide to letting your kids go (and grow) as they develop into young adults:
K-5: Yes, they still need you to check backpacks, stay on top of academics, activities and friend problems. Assign chores and encourage your children to develop their own organizational style. Role model being a good friend by having your own friends, and encourage them to take on new challenges even if they fail.
Middle School: Start pulling back a little and see how your child fares. Mistakes made in middle school can lead to growth, such as learning that missed assignments can make the difference between a B and a C.
High School: Gradually back away and focus on online grades rather than the papers in your child’s backpack. Teach them to ask for help and how to find appropriate, trusted adult supports at school. Know their peer group and meet the parents of their close friends. Encourage them to volunteer, get a job, and open a savings/checking account.
College and Beyond: Be positive for your college student. Role model confidence that they can handle any situation and keep the lines of communication going. Ask your student how much contact he or she would like with you, and respect his or her boundaries but set a minimum limit of contact if you are still responsible for his or her finances.
When are parents “done?” Not really ever, in my personal opinion and experience. They will still need guidance, unconditional support, and encouragement. The secret is simple: parents change and grow in the “letting go” process too.
It invariably makes so worthwhile every diaper, sleepless night, game practice, IEP meeting, vaccination appointment, video game midnight release, sleepover, and monumental college bill.
Then just maybe—a few or many years later– they will get to navigate their own parenting journey too.