Letting Go of Your Teen: Why It's Important

No one ever said parenting was easy, and watching your child grow up and move away from you—literally and figuratively—can be one of the toughest parts. But as painful as it is to acknowledge, you can't keep your children under your wing forever. And even though you may not realize it, you've been preparing for this separation for a long time. "The process of letting go and letting your kids make decisions and take some risks themselves starts very, very early," says Cynthia Edwards, PhD, professor of psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC. Every time you gave your 4-year-old a choice between wearing the blue shirt or the red shirt, or having chicken or pasta for dinner, you gave up some control and allowed your child to see that she could make decisions for herself. And you saw that she could make decisions also.

If you're thinking there isn't much risk in letting a preschooler choose her clothes or food, you're right and Edwards agrees. "By high school, consequences of decisions can be huge," she says. "You can see the dangers that are lurking." And that can make some parents crazy with worry and reluctant to let their kids have any freedom at all. Walk home alone? Nothing doing. Go to the mall with a group of kids? Forget it.But this kind of hovering is a mistake, Edwards cautions: "Part of our job as parents is to help kids see the consequences of those choices but not necessarily make those choices for them. The developmental danger is twofold. One is that you undermine your teen's confidence in herself. She needs to know that you trust her to make a good decision. The other is, she needs practice making decisions and living with those decisions while she still has that parental safety net in place."

How to Let Go

For those parents who dread the thought of their teen hanging out at the mall after school, Edwards has some suggestions. One is to get to know your child's friends. Ask her questions about whom she's going to be with and exactly where she'll be going.

By allowing your teen to think through her plan—and share it with you—may make her reconsider some of it. Once you agree on a plan, Edwards says you can put a small "safety net" in place, such as having your child send you a text when she arrives at her destination and again a half-hour before she leaves for home.

But perhaps you're one of those parents who just can't let go, who wants to keep her child close at all times. Maybe your child has even accepted this. But is this really what you want for her? "You're going to end up with a young adult without a lot of coping skills of her own," Edwards says, explaining that young people with sheltering parents often can't make decisions or may tend to go a little wild. And parents do themselves a disservice, too, by not preparing themselves to separate from their children. Remember that you're an individual with your own life, and a little space from your child is good for you both.

Cynthia Edwards, PhD, reviewed this article.


Cynthia Edwards, PhD, email interview 11 Sept 2013