Every spring, caring but fearful parents call me, seeking therapy for their high school seniors. They make appointments because they are facing the inevitable departure of their kids from home. Their stated problems vary: "She's always been a good student, but I'm worried she's not ready for college because of her current grades," or "His recent anger episode with his father and me makes us afraid he won't be able to handle the stresses of college."
Inevitably, these complaints end with "Maybe he (or she) is not ready to leave home yet." These parents have provided everything their children could possibly need but are struggling to meet the one need that is hardest to address — the need for greater autonomy. Teens simply may not need their parents in the same way as they have in the past.
A changing relationship
For much of your child's life, his or her needs have fit with what you as a parent are able to give. Infants and preschoolers can be a huge challenge, but they need affection and attention, and most parents want to hug and cuddle them.
As children grow, they need guidance and support. Most parents enjoy teaching or coaching their children while watching the fruit of their labors show up on report cards and playing fields. At each stage, the child's developmental needs have an accompanying reward for parental involvement.
Then adolescence arrives. An adolescent's primary need is individuation. Teens are on a path to attain independence from parents as they move toward adulthood. A teenager's need is to not need you.
Individuation is the first time your child's needs don't have a corresponding reward for you as a parent. That may be why a large percentage of otherwise loving, involved parents stumble in parenting their adolescents.
Over-nurturing moms continually nag their teenagers about eating lunch or cleaning rooms or doing homework. Over-controlling dads repeat their timeworn speeches about making good choices or making and managing money. These parents tend to normalize their adolescents' resentful responses and think that's just the way kids are these days.
Unfortunately, these loving parents are giving their teenagers what they want to give, not what their teenager needs.
What they need
To avoid your own senior-year rush to therapy, start thinking now about when your initial job as a parent — overseeing your kids' decisions and making sure they have what they need to survive — will be over. No matter what age your child is now, keep a mental clock and remember how much time you have before he or she leaves your care. For many of us, that fretful day comes shortly after our kids graduate from high school.
During the teen years, you can progressively give freedom to your children so they can practice working things out for themselves while you're still around to advise them. This gift of autonomy is not about giving privileges that can be taken back. It is acknowledging their freedom to make their own choices and live with the consequences. The technique I teach families is called "planned emancipation."
When my kids turned 13, my wife and I gave them, among other things, the freedom to keep their rooms as clean or dirty as they saw fit. This meant no more arguing over cleaning their rooms. This also meant that they did their own laundry and paid a fine if food was found in their room. We also reserved the right to close their door when we couldn't stand looking at it.
Freedom in the home should always come with an accompanying amount of responsibility. Over the adolescent years, we gave them other freedoms, such as choosing their own clothes, music, friends and bedtime. And they had to wake themselves in the morning and manage their schoolwork on their own.
In later years, our kids told us that these freedoms gave them confidence that they were growing up. They didn't need to "get away" to feel like an adult. When our youngest daughter's choice to not participate in parties with alcohol was derided as "immature," she shot back: "I'll bet your mommy still does your laundry."
Parents who allow their teenagers to have progressive freedom give them the self-assurance and life skills they need to ease into adulthood.Dr. Kenneth Wilgus is a licensed psychologist specializing in adolescents and their families. He is the author of Feeding the Mouth that Bites You.