As a former Marriage and Family therapist, and a Mom with a college-age son and another in high school, I’m plop in the middle of the letting go and launching phase that we’ll all experience with our kids. But letting go happens in a million little choices along the way too. This is the third post in a four-part chat on the growing pains that are part of the process.
Today’s post is about healthy love
In these past few weeks I’ve been hearing from some amazing mothers. They’ve shared bits of their own experiences and asked some probing questions and each one has reminded me of the kind of enduring love mothers have for their kids. They wonder.
- What’s healthy?
- What can I do better?
It’s because we all want the same thing. Safe, happy, well-adjusted kids. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this. It’s that all mothers are connected by our unabashed love and our worries we have for our kids. No matter what their ages.
The other day a mother emailed me a comment that led to today’s topic. She was still reeling from the experience of dropping her daughter off at a college across the country. And I could sense the feelings of loss she was experiencing. Yes, of course she was thrilled for her daughter and intellectually, she understood this was a natural part of parenting. But it still hurt. She was struggling with sadness and the aching void of her missing daughter.
And she wrote,
“I know it’s important to let go…but why does it have to be so hard?”
Boy. Those are some powerful words. Breathtakingly real. And I could relate because I’m at the stage of mothering where letting go in a healthy way, is the most important job I have. And it’s been hard. My boys are the apple of my eye. So along with the bubbly excitement of college, there’s been real grieving. Jabs of pain when I glimpse an empty bedroom. Yes, it gets better, but the point is, it doesn’t matter that I have a professional background in therapy. Knowledge and training helps but I’m still a mother at my core, dealing with the same feelings we all experience.
In these “letting go” posts, I’m trying to combine real life lessons from a family therapy perspective, with my own mothering experiences in the hopes you might gain some shiny new insight. Something helpful you might use, right now.
The reason I shared this mother’s comment today is because it illustrated the truth about healthy parenting. No matter how much this mother might have longed to keep her daughter close to her, she was willing to put her daughter’s dreams and needs before her own. So her daughter could grow. It’s the kind of sacrifice we know is right because we imagine wondrous possibilities for our kids. We’re willing to step back and allow them to absorb consequences of their behavior, or grapple with a decision, or sit with uncomfortable feelings, because we know this is how they learn. We want to deliver a whole, soaring person into the world, when it’s time.
This is what letting go looks like. It’s the result of healthy love.
Only there’s something you should know. Self confident, emotionally sturdy kids don’t materialize out of nowhere. There are things we must do to help our kids learn the emotional skills they’ll need to cope with life. But here’s the tricky part. Emotional skills have nothing to do with academic skills. They have nothing to do with how kind or how bright you are. I spent years in the session room seeing this with my own eyes; and sadly, it was some of the brightest, nicest, well-intentioned parents who ended up having a child in real emotional pain.
They were doing the best they knew how, but they simply didn’t understand.
It’s just as important to pay attention to what’s going on inside your child, as it is to pay attention to his outside world.
So here’s some things that might point you in the right direction. These are a few words of advice that come immediately to mind, but they’re certainly not a comprehensive list of any sort. And they’re in no particular order.
Five things you should know about healthy love.
1. Flexibility is good. Healthy families adapt to changes in their kids. This seems like a no-brainer but it’s tougher to put into practice as your kids grow. Think of nature if you get confused; rigid, straight lines are unnatural. In families with rigid rules that don’t allow for individual growth, problems develop. In the simplest terms, the rules you have for a three year old will be different than those of a ten year old. When your child develops, you need to adapt. I’m referring to rules not values. The emotional result is that when a child is heard and accepted, they feel valued.
2. Listening does not mean agreeing. This is universally hard for parents to grasp. I’ve seen so many parents inadvertently shut down their kids by misunderstanding this point. Healthy families know that closeness does not mean sameness. Having different opinions and feelings are not a betrayal, and family members should be able to disagree on something without a wedge forming between them. It begins with you and your own listening skills. If you want to have kids who talk to you as they grow, place a value on listening, especially when there’s a difference of opinion. Is your teenager mad because you said “No” about something? Remember, you can hear (and value) his feelings without changing your decision. The emotional result is that your child learns how to express himself (needed for all relationships) and you get a wonderful glimpse into his personal world.
3. Physical distance is not the same as healthy separation. Boundaries often get blurred between mothers and daughters for a number of reasons, but this can complicate the letting go experience. Just because your child is away at college doesn’t guarantee there’s a healthy separation taking place. If your college age kid is still calling you every day to check in, or to ask for advice on decisions, it’s a red flag. Yes, it might feel great to talk daily to your college kid, but is this really dependency masked as closeness? The important message is that physical distance doesn’t necessarily mean our kid is individuating.
4, Parents are not friends. This idea might make me unpopular but here it is. In healthy families, kids are allowed to be kids because there are adults running the show. Parents who are loving and reliable. Parents who have rules and set limits. Parents who keep healthy boundaries and don’t try to get their social needs met from their kids and their kids’ friends. These are all examples of healthy parenting. Whenever I hear a mother proudly announce she’s her fourteen year old daughter’s best friend, I wince. And I feel bad for the little girl. I can only hope the mother is mistaken. Because from a psychological perspective, kids need idealizable adults in their lives; they need parents that they can look up to, so they can internalize the calming, reassuring qualities that these figures provide. Kids feel safer when they can depend on their parents to act like adults. When roles get reversed or blurred and mother is sharing her problems with her daughter, or father has a drinking problem, kids will be deprived of having these psychological needs met.
5. Beware of labels. Have you ever said something like this? Because I completely understand. Labeling our kids seems to come naturally, especially as your family grows.
- “That’s my social one.”
- “That’s my shy child”
- “He’s the smart one.”
- “She’s the good girl.”
These words come out of our mouth before we know it. But I’m here to warn you. There’s simply nothing beneficial that comes from labeling your child with a set of qualities or talents or traits. Even if you think it’s a compliment.
The next time you begin to say one of these phases, please stop.
- “You’re just like your (relative)…”
- “Oh she’s just like me…”
- “Oh he’s just like his father because…”
It’s not that labels box us in and limit the way we can see ourselves, which they do. It’s not that labels like “caretaker” and “hero child” force us into roles that we continue to act out throughout our adult lives, even when it hurts us, which they do.
The worse thing about slapping a label on your child, is that it puts smoke in your eyes. It prevents you from seeing your child’s uniqueness in a truthful way, and there is nothing more tragic for someone-- big or small-- than when they don’t feel seen and loved for who they really are.
And in the end, that’s what really matters.
Was this post helpful to you? I’d love to hear from you, your comments make me so happy.
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