The Gift of Letting Go

Graduation A question and answer in my last newsletter resulted in the following responses from both parents with such an inspiring story, I had to share it. I think everyone, no matter how old your children are, can gain from this. Letting go can be the hardest job in parenting. I thank these parents for their responses to me and permission to share this with all of you.

Q. My 18yo high schooler has been getting $10 a week since he was very little for spending money. I used to give his brother (12) and sister (9) the same, but now we are not doing well financially and they relinquished theirs last year. The 18yo has refused to give up his weekly $10. After he got his license, using our car (which we insure and pay gas for), he got a bank card and an account, and told me to direct deposit the $10. He started buying Starbucks coffees and snacks and told his dad that he had to pay for it. Which his dad did. His dad and I agreed to give him $5 more per week with the understanding he would by his snacks. Recently he overdrew his bank account and then came “crying” to us to help. I said I would advance his allowance once, and that I would not rescue him again. Now he has overdrawn again. I feel financially strapped not to mention he is never grateful but demands the money as his “right.” Giving him the money, when his sibs get nothing, and rescuing him makes me feel angry with him 24/7. He never helps around the house – says “maybe later” which never comes, says it’s my “job” to make him meals and is generally nasty to all of us. I feel guilty about not knowing what is “reasonable” to give him. Should we give him any money at all? Is that our “responsibility”? If so, how much? We already pay for his food, including special requests, gas, car (he uses our newest and safest car whenever he likes), car insurance, his clothes, heat bill, electric bill, phone bill, housing. Help!! This is just going to get worse this summer (he has no plans at all) and next year in college.

A. It sounds your 18 yr. old has been given the power to call the shots for quite some time. Isn’t it your choice to stop the direct deposits as opposed to him refusing to give them up? For some reason—I’m sure there are many—you are afraid to make him mad even when you don’t have the money to give. He has taken but hasn’t learned to be considerate of others, so the balance has been off for a long time. He has come to depend on you to solve his problems and support his habit of getting what he wants. Unfortunately when this happens, we cannot blame our child for behaving in ways we have actually taught. His dependency served him for awhile but now he resents you for that dependency. It will be very important for you to support his attempts to find a way to make his own money. What it requires is for you to be strong in your conviction. I think allowances are very important for kids to learn the value money. Your younger two should be getting one but your 18 yr. old should being earning his own. I know the economy today makes it very difficult to find jobs, but if he needs money, he can find a way. I suggest that you and his father establish a deadline for ending his allowance and helping him transition to earning his own. He will hate it and hate you initially. That is the risk you need to take. It will serve him for the future. Make it clear that you will continue the $15 until that deadline. Colleges offer many opportunities to make money. I imagine you feel guilty when you don’t give him what he wants. That guilt is yours to examine, not to enable your son. Think clearly what you will and won’t do for him and then be consistent.

From Mom:
It’s now over two years since that letter. Thank goodness for your help. When I wrote this, I simply could not see it logically and rationally. Your response helped catalyze me to be able to do that. Our son is now 20yo and a sophomore in college. We did end his allowance back then just as you said (over time, with warning). I also told him we were not supporting him financially anymore very soon, and we made a date for that. It took us the rest of the school year to slowly withdraw everything. He had a lot of tantrums. I didn’t get caught up, but just kept reminding him that he better be looking for a summer job.

As a result, he got a summer job and did amazingly well at it and earned a lot of money, and he went off to college with his own money knowing that we wouldn’t be paying him any extra the whole year. He got jobs at college and budgeted and even had enough money to finance a trip out west in the spring! WOW!!!!

One of the things you had said was that what we had been doing was a disservice to him in terms of being independent and able and confident. After the summer, he told me that the last six months of high school had been the “worst of his life” because he was so scared about making it on his own, but that after that summer of working, he felt totally independent and free in the world and completely confident that he could do anything and go anywhere on his own.

By the time he went off to college, because things were going so well, my husband and I were able to begin to do fun things for him as gifts and surprises instead of out of obligation.

I can’t say we are perfect, and it’s certainly a process, but I have found that listening to the resentful, hurt voice inside me tells me that there is an issue that I must, and can, address. It’s always painful, but I believe now that I absolutely must honor that hurt feeling and act on it. That is my reliable signal that something is wrong and needs to change. Then I take some time to figure out what set of circumstances or arrangements would make that feeling go away and pursue those new arrangements with conviction and purpose!

My two younger kids, now 10 and 14, certainly have benefitted from my work with the oldest. They are doing great!! I am doing great!! As the 20yo often says, “Mom, I was the experiment and the training ground.”

The interesting thing is noticing how we as parents continue to struggle with how we look at the oldest one, even though we easily and without struggle look at the two younger ones totally differently. It’s like we snap into different parents when we are standing in front of different children. Whatever pattern we did with that particular child when they were five is what we keep inadvertently snapping back to. Interesting. I remember there was a nine year gap between my sister and me, and it was like we had totally different sets of parents. And they still treat us differently – the pattern and relationship they established when we were each five is the way they still treat us.

From Dad:
I wanted to chime in, after my wife sent the conversation to me. Everything she described is completely accurate. The difficult boundaries she made were absolutely terrifying to me – I was terrified that our teenager would stop loving us, or that he would distance himself, or that he would commit suicide – but in EVERY SINGLE CASE, while it at first was completely terrifying and often dramatic… he bounced back in close. And matured. This process, of disengaging with the behaviors that were obviously not helpful to him (though I thought they were critical to him loving me) were THE HARDEST so far as a parent. Your help was priceless and completely appropriate. Thank you.

 

Parenting at the Beach

Kids at the beachWhile relaxing at the beach, I could not help but overhear snippets of interactions from a very nice looking family not too far from us. Here is teaching at it’s best—seeing and hearing from an objective perspective—this time it was what NOT to do.

Here are a few disjointed pieces of overheard dialogue:

Mom (to her maybe 5 yr. old son): “Come on, you’re going in the water.”

Son (crying): “No, I don’t want to.”

Mom: “Are you going to make me pour a bucket of water over you? Stop that whining. One more minute and that bathing suit comes off and I’m going to spank your bottom.”

She asked him to do something and he refused.

Mom: “Well then if you don’t do what I want, I won’t do what you want. I’m not giving you any Cheez-its.” To the others, tauntingly, “Who wants Cheez-its. They’re so good.” To her son, who says he wants some, “No, you can’t have any.”

Mom (taking a picture of him), “Open your eyes, butthead.”

Dad was bagging his surfboard. In response to something his son said: “That’s because you’re a weenie. You were off whining.”

When they were leaving, the boy was told to carry his bucket full of things, and he didn’t want to. Mom said he had to, and she and another woman walked off and left him. He began crying. Dad, who hadn’t heard the interaction was still behind packing his things and asked him what was wrong. Very angrily the boy screamed at him, “Nothing!” Dad: “You speak to me like that again and you’re in the water.” Dad ignored him after that. They left with the boy lagging way behind screaming all the way.

 

What’s wrong with this picture? All of these interactions were attempts by the boy’s parents to get him to mind—intentional parenting, right? He resisted a good deal of the time and even blasted with a rude tone and attitude. The parents saw these interactions as opportunities to further reprimand, humiliate, and control. This adorable little boy, I fear, is growing more and more resistant and defiant who, in no time at all, will leave his parents wondering, How do we control him? What happened? I’ve tried everything and nothing works.

Interactions such as these, show ever so clearly how the seeds of defiance and disobedience are nourished. As painful as they are to witness, similar dialogue often goes unnoticed in our own homes. These everyday occurrences pass by us unnoticed and unexamined but slowly build a wall between our children and ourselves. Behind that wall, children spend a great deal of time defending themselves and their integrity against an onslaught of disrespect coming at them. They learn to pass the blame, turn parent-deaf, and wake up ready for battle in guarded anticipation of blame and criticism. Then we ask, What did I do? I asked him perfectly nicely to get his sweater, and he acted like I was his mortal enemy! Totally out of the blue he screamed, I hate you!

I feel so sad when I witness situations like this one. Even when plenty of love is present, daily critical and shaming interactions from tired and frustrated parents create disconnect that become commonplace. Communication patterns build that are hard to break. And soon that child, once easily controlled, becomes our most feared nightmare.

Your child may have a compliant temperament and does as she is told to get her needs met. But, when treated like this child, she loses herself in the process—either for good or to find it in therapy years down the road. Or he may have a strong will and resists until he finally has the ability to turn things around and punish those who have punished him. Which type of child do you have? What do you foresee in your future relationship?

  • Pay attention to the words and tone you use. Be intentional with your dialogue.
  • Never give empty threats—never give threats at all.
  • Take the time now to listen to what your child is trying to tell you even if it comes out in a whine or resistant tone.
  • Even if your child has to do what he is told, acknowledge his agenda and let him know you understand his feelings—be considerate.
  • Ask yourself if you are holding power over your child to get him to comply. If so, back off and ask, “How can we make this work for both of us?”
  • Treat your child like the person you want him to become. Be the person you want your child to be.

 

“You just don’t understand!” ~ a teen’s lament

TeensSound familiar? And I have to agree. We don’t understand. Most of us have locked away the pains of our teen years and approach this raising children business with a hindsight perspective (read, I now know better). Teens feel misunderstood, angry and detached from the most important people in their lives when their parents appear clueless to what is important to them.

Parents are at their wit’s end with fear and worry about their children’s activities (or inactivities) once parental supervision is reduced. We want the best for them. We want them to be safe and smart and make good decisions. We want them to do well in school so they have opportunities for success in life. It drives us crazy when we see that “I don’t care” attitude at our cautions.

Brain research tells us that the prefrontal cortex is not complete until age 25, which means the ability to look ahead, gauge the consequences of particular choices, and make decisions based on those assumptions is trumped by the excitement of risky activities. And what’s more—this delay is apparently biologically important for the evolution of the species. (Learn more in Dan Siegel’s, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.)

But when our teen is experimenting with drugs, staying out all night, driving recklessly, and ignoring homework, the evolution of the species is the last thing we care about. So how do we deal?

The more we blame, threaten, ground, and take away cellphones, the more we push our teens out of our sphere of influence. We worry about the dropping grades of a daughter in love, ignored household chores, reclusiveness and non-communication, rude attitudes, drinking and driving, not to mention the drugs (legal and illegal), sex, pregnancy, and addictions. We worry—that’s what we’re best at.

But teens worry, too. About their futures in a not-too-welcoming world, what their friends say about them, what their hair looks like, the pants that someone looked at funny, name-calling, rejections. Academics sometimes tops their worry list and sometimes comes in last. They want independence desperately and recoil from it at the same time.

Both parents and teens have it hard. But when we perceive our kids as problems, we lose compassion and understanding and move directly to control and criticism.

Studies show that connection—communication, empathy and acceptance—is the strongest protective factor against dangerous teen behaviors. There is no guarantee that your child won’t be in a car accident, won’t become addicted to drugs, won’t get pregnant. But even if the worse case scenario occurred, wouldn’t you want to get through it together?

Some things to keep in mind to stay connected instead of clueless when your surly teen announces he’s not going to pick up his mess because he doesn’t care about it:

• Don’t react in the heat of the moment. No lesson is learned with emotional reactivity. Walk away and take care of yourself. Acknowledge your feelings without blame. Breathe and wait for a return to calm.

• Own your problem and don’t dump it on your teen. She doesn’t care if you are going to be late or have too much to do. That’s your problem.

• Start with “I”, never “You”. “I am scared about you driving in a car with a new driver.” “I saw your grades online, and I’m very concerned.” “I don’t like feeling ignored when I ask for help.” “That feels disrespectful to me. Is that what you mean?”

• Problem-solve. “I want this done and you want to do that. How can we both get what we want?” “This doesn’t work for me. What other choice can you make so it works for both of us?”

• Make plans and agreements and put them in writing. When your teen is engaged with the structure of your family life, he is far more likely to cooperate.

• Allow a certain amount of reclusiveness. They want privacy. Their room is their domain.

• Maintain family meals, vacations, etc. even if your teen is moody and quiet.

• Be firm and strong. If something hasn’t been done that was agreed on, don’t sweep it under the carpet to avoid an argument. Motivate don’t threaten. “As soon as the dishwasher has been loaded and the food put away, I will be happy to take you to your friends.” Then walk away, instead of, “If you don’t do what I asked hours ago, you can forget about me taking you anywhere.”

• Respect and be considerate of your teen’s agenda as you would like her to be considerate of yours. Pay attention to what your teen is doing and is interested in—even if it’s something you don’t like.

• Make sure they feel that they belong in your family. Find windows of opportunity for connecting, talking, listening. Own past mistakes and reactions.

• Encourage friends and activities under your roof. Be inviting.

• Consider relationship above all else. When you are connected, you will hear more about the angst of school, the worries about what the boyfriend said, the confusion about what choice to make. Your child will be more likely to listen to you, if you first listen to her.

• Always maintain the perspective that unacceptable behavior means your teen is having a problem, not being a problem. Compassion will carry you miles in your relationship.

Note to parents: You must grow too—right alongside your teen.