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Archive for Teens

Raising Kids Who Launch Successfully from the Nest

In my last post, I laid out what I consider 3 fundamental developmental tasks of the late teen years:

1) moving toward interdependence

2) clarifying identity, and

3) grieving the loss of childhood.

Not all teens transition successfully into adulthood. Some fail to develop the capacity for true interdependence, which requires an ability to both give and receive loving aid and mercy. Some fail to achieve true autonomy: they remain tethered by what their peers or parents expect of them. They never figure out what it is they really want for themselves, so they drift from job to job without real focus, or they do what is expected of them but lack passion and satisfaction. Others never face their mixed feelings about growing up; they never grieve the loss of childhood so they are left with nagging sadness or dis-ease, or they do self-destructive things to keep themselves from leaving their parents.

So how do we raise kids who are able to accomplish these 3 developmental tasks? I could write a whole book answering this question (and many have been written), but for our purposes let’s focus on some basics, especially things that we can do beginning today. Most of you have kids who are much younger than mine (who range in age from 7 to 18), but this question is very relevant to you. Optimally, the seeds for a successful transition to adulthood are sowed very early.

1. Give Kids Increasing Responsibility

When our kids are tiny babies, it’s natural that we do everything for them and that our own needs are put on the back burner to attend to their more urgent needs. But as our kids mature, we actually love them more by giving them increasing responsibility around the home, including chores and caring for younger siblings. Is the picture in your home ever like it is in my home sometimes: mom and dad dusty and sweaty cleaning, pruning, and mowing while the precious children sit on the family room floor staring at a television screen? Frankly sometimes it’s just easier to do everything myself, but I know that in the long run this is an injustice to my kids. By doing everything for them, I am denying them the opportunity to exercise their interdependence muscles! Feeling a sense of responsibility to their family also increases their self-esteem – they know they are necessary and important to the smooth running of our home.

2. Build Healthy Communication

Beginning very early, it’s important to build a strong rapport and sense of trust between ourselves and our children. If teens fear their parents judgment (or loathe them like liver and onions), they will struggle to transition to adulthood. When teens feel comfortable talking to their parents about their self-doubts, their curiosities, or their anxiety about leaving home, everything will go better!  These children feel comfortable exploring their changing interests, even when their parents are surprised or caught off guard. These children know that even though their world is changing and even though they have to leave the comfort of home, there is still a net to catch them if they need it. They are able to gain perspective by leaning on their parents. This gives them confidence and courage in the face of the uncertainty of new adulthood.

Healthy communication begins early: Building a foundation of trust in the early years is essential for healthy communication in the teen years. For me, one of the key ways I built and protected trust with my very young children was dealing with their behavior issues in a gentle, respectful ways. As you all know, I believe in non-punitive forms of discipline. There are many ways that we build trust with our kids (for example, building a fun family culture and instituting clear rules and boundaries), but trust is tested most – and can be damaged – during times of struggle and disconnect in our relationships.

I know it’s easy to get sucked into a punitive mindset. Many people will tell you that you are spoiling your child by not spanking them, or that kids who are raised with gentle methods are brats. Not so. In fact, the opposite is true. Spanking and shaming children may work in the short term to get a quick result, but in the long term children will do the right thing primarily because they are FEARFUL, not because they have internalized self-control or a maturing life of virtue. Some kids who are raised by harsh, punitive parents become dependent on the parents’ approval: they never develop a sense of autonomy and self-motivation – they are only motivated by fear of disapproval or punishment. This isn’t healthy. Or they may go in the opposite direction and close themselves off from their parents, becoming secretive or even deceptive. When kids are scared of us, they are not confident in our love for them and they certainly won’t feel comfortable talking to us about their problems.

3. Create Family Traditions

To make a successful launch to adulthood, I’ve learned recently that kids need to be rooted in their families without being trapped by them. The positive memories and secure identity they develop through our family traditions and rituals, through the history they build with their parents and siblings, gives them a sense of connectedness, loyalty, and strength as they leave home.

Family history and traditions become a trap when adult children feel like they are somehow betraying the family by leaving home either physically or emotionally. Some kids never really leave home or go through the grieving process that I talked about in Part 1 because they fear their family will fall apart without them. They remain trapped emotionally or even physically at home. This isn’t good. A balance is necessary.

So, children need the freedom to go out on their own beyond their family history, but without the history and traditions they will always feel a little wobbly.

For Catholic families, including our faith in our family traditions is imperative. Making Catholicism part of every day family life is a great gift to give our children, because the world is radically secular and colleges are unapologetically anti-faith. It’s something all of our children will have to face. When faith forms a strong part of their history, identity, and sense of meaning, our kids will be strengthened against these destructive, deceptive forces.

4. Give your child the freedom to confront hard questions

Little children ask hard questions all the time: Where do babies come from? Why does Father Mark wear a dress during Mass? When are you going to die? We are taken aback, but we catch our breath and – sometimes after an intermission and some research – we attempt to address our child’s stumpers. This is excellent. As kids get older, though, they will have even bigger, harder questions.  Delicate questions with serious consequences. It’s important that they have a safe place to ask them.

As our kids mature, they will have many questions about and struggles with friendships, morality, and faith. Kids are nervous about what their friends think of them. They begin to play with their identity – they kind of try on different hats. Because their identity isn’t completely stable yet, and because they are so hyper aware of their peers’ opinions, they can easily meander down the wrong path looking to define themselves. They have natural questions and even doubts about why we do particular things in our family, or even more alarming for parents, why the Church does particular things. All this can make parents a little nervous!

You are your child’s best bet to navigate all this craziness. Giving your child the freedom to grapple with their problems  with your loving support is far better than giving the job to her 13 year old BFF. If your child trusts you, she will likely come to you before or at least in addition to her friends. Some tips:

Don’t interrupt or deny: When she does come to you, let her talk without interrupting and try to avoid the temptation to talk her out of her feelings. (“You’re not upset about that are you? Don’t be upset!”) This is what I mean by giving her permission to confront her problems. We sometimes deny that our kids have a problem altogether, so they shut down. Let her have her feelings, even if you don’t understand them.

Don’t fix her problem: When a toddler is struggling to climb into a chair, we want to pick him up and put him on the chair to save him from hardship and strife. Guess what? This parenting impulse continues even when your child is big enough to pick you up and put you in the chair!

Because we love our children so much, we want to fix their problems for them, but we all know it’s better to give them the tools to fix their own problems. This gives them a sense of mastery and self-confidence. This doesn’t mean we can’t give them advice, but it does mean we give them a chance to figure things out for themselves.

Sometimes with my two older children (aged 13 and 18), I don’t really say much when they are talking about a problem. I just listen to them and empathize. When I can tell they are looking for advice on how to solve a particular problem, I do offer it, but I try to do it in a way that allows them to develop their own judgment. For example, if they are struggling in a friendship, I won’t tell them what to do, but I will share my own experience or I will help them see things from their friend’s perspective. And I always try to include a discussion of the Christian virtues because I’ve found that practicing a virtue is always necessary when confronting every, single problem in life.

When our kids have doubts about Church teaching, we can share our own struggles and how we dealt with them rather than making them feel like they are BAD for doubting. Doubt is part of the path. We can teach our children that facing our doubts honestly will make our faith stronger in the long run, but that we should also remain respectful to the Church and we should continue to pray during our times of doubt.

Further reading:

Emptying the Nest by Brad Sachs

Parenting with Grace by Greg and Lisa Popcak

Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Dan Siegel

The Launching Years Part 1: The Developmental Tasks of the Late Teen Years

When I first started writing about parenting, my oldest child Aidan was about 11 or 12 and I had a baby. Now that oldest child is 18 and about to launch from the nest. He begins college in the fall. As I adjust to this reality, I find myself reflecting on the lessons I have learned about the late teen years. I’ve discovered that older teens have “developmental tasks” that are very unique to them. Older teens (17-19) are very different from young teens (13-15); what they need from their parents is different.

In this post (Part 1), I will lay out 3 of the more important developmental tasks of the late teen years, then in Part 2 I’ll talk about what parents of younger kids can do to lay the groundwork for a healthy, well-adjusted transition to early adulthood.

Obviously there are more than 3 developmental tasks, but these are the 3 that have most affected my son in the last 6 months or so. For many of you, the late teen years seems very far away, but I hope you’ll find something valuable to hold on to as I share my experience of the launching process in the next year!

1. Moving Toward Interdependence

Many parents assume that the ultimate goal of parenting is to raise their child to be independent. This is surely part of it. We want our children to develop a sense of confidence that they can make it on their own. However, our culture has taken the independence thing too far. Kids (and grown-ups!) are so narcissistic and self-involved that it makes community building difficult. The age of the selfie is the age of ME. While Americans in particular admire self-starters and like to focus on the unique qualities in each person, being independent does not require you to be self-absorbed.

The Church reminds us that human beings are called to interdependence not radical independence. Interdependence requires an ability to care for others. If you are only comfortable getting your own needs met, but lack the capacity to be there when your friends and family need help, you will become a drain on everyone around you as you mature. It’s perfectly normal for an infant to be completely dependent on others without giving anything back, but by the late teen years and early adulthood, our children should begin showing signs that they possess empathy and an ability to act on it.

When you are capable of interdependence, it also means you have an ability to stand on your own two feet coupled with the emotional strength to call out for help when you need it. Feeling that you are totally on your own and that you are weak if you need somebody is actually a sign of sub-optimal emotional health. Some people are actually uncomfortable allowing others to care for them.  We want our children to feel comfortable both giving and receiving loving aid.

2. Clarifying Identity

Brad Sachs, PhD, writes that “[a]n important aspect of young adulthood is making explicit the self that the person has been sculpting and discovering since childhood. He must construct a psychic engine composed of  desire and vision that will be strong enough to carry the freight of his soul forward in the face of life’s challenges” (Emptying the Nest, 25). The child has to answer for himself what he is really about; he has to confront his own limitations in addition to recognizing his strengths. This process continues throughout our lives, but the late teen years are a critical time for laying a strong foundation for our identity. If kids continue to depend on us or their peers for a sense of identity, if they have no idea what they want to do with their lives unless their peers or parents tell them what to do, they will never feel a sense of competence and confidence.

As a Catholic parent, I know that this clarifying of identity must include my child’s ownership of his faith. When we are spiritually mature, we feel a personal stake in our faith and we possess the desire to seek out what God wants for and from us and not just what we want. Aidan has to take what his family and childhood friendships have given him and make it own, and then he needs to seek out God’s will for his life.

Aidan is currently discerning a vocation to the priesthood. When he began to consider this seriously in the last year, he seemed to have a sense of urgency about the question. He wanted to know NOW whether he has a calling. Aidan possesses a faith that I didn’t have at his age. He is willing to throw it all down for God, no matter what anybody thinks. But as a normal teenager, he is impatient! He realized through spiritual direction that the silence and ambiguity – the not knowing – is part of his path right now. He will go to college and keep these things in his heart, seeking further confirmation of his vocation.

3. Grieving

A new reality that I am confronting: the grieving process that happens when your child leaves the nest. Aidan is still at home and I have him for 8 more months, but the pain is already setting in. Every now and then, a wave of emotion comes over me as I visualize him packing his bags and walking out the door. Even when he returns home for Christmas and summer breaks, things will be different, and I know this. His childhood is ending and my role is changing. So I am learning to understand the process myself so that I’m not caught off guard!

Something I did not appreciate until recently: Aidan has to grieve as well. As he contemplates leaving home, I can see that he is both excited and scared. This ambivalence is completely normal. Kids should feel a sense of possibility and wonder about their future as they leave home, but they are also leaving something behind – the security and safety of childhood – and they need to recognize this. This loss is real and difficult.

Aidan goes through ups and downs as he faces leaving. He asks me if I will miss him. He knows the answer, but he just needs to hear me say it. He doesn’t want us to forget him! He has toyed with the idea of NOT leaving. He considered staying home and attending our local community college, but after pressing him a bit about this idea, I could see that he was thinking of staying home because he was fearful that he couldn’t make it on his own in college and not that he felt it was the best option for him. We have a great community college right in town, so if any of my kids determines that is the best path for them, I will support them without reservation. However, they should not stay home out of fear.

So I had to give Aidan a little nudge to the edge of the nest. Of course, the selfish part of me wanted to say YES YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY STAY HOME, but I am grateful for spiritual direction which helps me examine my true motivations for things. I know deep down that Aidan needs to go off to one of these great colleges that has accepted him. His intellectual and spiritual gifts will flourish in that environment and he is truly ready for it.

Aidan just needs to grieve his childhood. It is no longer appropriate for me to take care of him day in and out. It’s time for him to do his own laundry, make his own doctor’s appointments, and to keep his own schedule. It’s time for him to fly. I have to help him grieve. This is one of my big tasks as a mom of a launching young adult. If kids don’t grieve this loss, they are vulnerable to depression, addiction, underachievement, and other scary things.

Next time: how to raise kids who launch successfully from the nest!