Letting Go and Holding On
Q: My son is a bright, free-spirited, 17-year-old who seems to be absolutely incredible at times and heading down the wrong path at others.
His father and I are both committed to doing whatever it takes to support his gaining independence, yet we fear for him. How can we help wonderful kids not lose their way?
A: Could the question be “Can we keep our kids from going astray?” Not always. We can do our best, enlist the aid of friends, family, and professionals and still not be guaranteed a safe passage for our children.
Many people are given a book called The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran at important times in their lives. It has becomes a classic gift for graduations, weddings, and at the birth of a child. “Your children are not your children . . .,” it says, “And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. . . For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”
As our children reach graduation and the time to leave home, we have to remember those words and realize that soon, letting go is the task.
You sound as though you understand that developmentally many adolescents feel absolutely indestructible. As parents, our experience with life is very different. We see how easy it is to die, yet our children see our warnings as hovering and not trusting their judgement.
For this very reason, I think some parenting qualities that I recently heard referred to as Leadership Skills Required in Combat, are required at these times. I expect that you posses these, but it helps to remember what it takes to be parents of struggling teens.
The goal is not to expect to meet these 100 percent of the time, but to recognize that we strive towards:
- being a competent parent;
- being loyal to our family;
- being honest;
- having integrity;
- leading by example;
- showing self-control;
- having confidence;
- being willing to act courageously;
- sharing information;
- having a personal connection; and
- possessing a strong sense of duty.
This means we have to love our kids enough to allow them to be angry with us. We have to go the extra measure when we see them struggling, all the while knowing that we can’t protect them from being harmed by others or harming themselves.
If your son is bright, then you know he is competent and capable to earn a living, succeed in school, perhaps make good friends, and have a bright future. Yet your fears make me wonder if these strengths might also be his weaknesses. Perhaps he is overly confident in his judgment and abilities. Life might come so easily for him that he may take some things for granted.
He might not be challenged by school, leaving him time to explore other areas. You might be concerned about his involvement with friends, drugs, and intimate relationships. He might be the kind of curious person who is always pushing boundaries or taking risks with driving, timelines, curfews, and other aspects of his life.
Your main role is to give him feedback when you see him pushing boundaries. You might help him explore what he is looking for when he does this. If he isn’t open to sharing this with you, then see if there is someone both you and he respect that he can talk to about your fears.
If you are worried, it is enough reason to bring up the issue. Some youth look outside of themselves when they are searching for help. It can be you, your minister, a relative, a friend, a neighbor, or a therapist who are available for him.
Supporting bright, free-spirited youth is a real challenge. Their spirits can be so exuberant and passion-filled that it creates a bind. How do you protect him from himself without putting out the light within or (as a result of confrontation) inviting him to abandon his family?
Your question implies that you know him well, that you have developed a very open relationship where you have been able to share your fears with him. That is critical. When you say you and your husband are committed to doing whatever it takes, it sounds like you are working together to carefully attend to setting boundaries when invited and adding the support and structure he may need.
Many free-spirited youth are explorers and adventurers. They are curious about their purpose in the world. Support his activities and any well-supervised, organized youth programs and groups.
You may want to join in as a sponsor or start a group with another parent if they don’t exist. Churches, scouting, school sports, music and dramatic arts all lend themselves to creating a group where kids can have an opportunity to explore who they are both in the world and with others.
Does he share his journey? Will he talk about the parts of his life that give him pleasure as well as the parts that leave him longing for something else? If he is able to share this journey, does he know of others who have gone through a similar struggle?
What has he learned from their actions? Does he have fixed ideas of how to pursue his dreams, or is he open to learning from other cultures ways of getting focused and finding inner strength and peace of mind?
How did you handle this period in your own life? Did you have someone who you talked to and who listened to you? How did you handle the temptations to risk- taking when you were his age?
Were you wild? When did you start protecting yourself from yourself? You can share the dilemmas you faced without divulging the details. If you were moderate in your actions, what led you down that path?
Do not feel as though you can’t share the fears you have for your son. When you speak from love and concern (in a quiet voice), the caring will come through. Parents do not have to pretend they aren’t afraid of their children making bad choices, even when they trust them to know the right thing to do.
If you are trying to have a conversation about these fears, and it seems the care and concern isn’t coming through, shift the focus of the conversation from the present issue to the past or future.
Focus on a time when you were very proud of a specific difficult choice and decision your son made. It could have been leaving a party, choosing to drop a certain friend, calling you when he was in no shape to drive, or staying home and finishing a school project instead of going to a party.
Shifting a conversation to five years in the future is another tension breaker. Ask where he sees himself in five years. Share where you see yourself. Allow both of you to think about getting beyond the struggles of the moment so you can come back to it when you both are no longer at odds with each other.
Keep the communication open. The task for parenting youth of this age is to let them go and stay connected at the same time. I hope you can do that. Good luck!