May 26, 2017
Some points to ponder if you are struggling to let go.
What was it like for you to move out of your parents’ home and into adulthood? Did you go to college? Did you live with your parents past the age of 18? When were you ready to move out? Were your parents ready for you to go before you were ready? Or were you ready to go before your parents wanted you to leave?
Individuation is a developmental task every young adult must complete in order to become an independent and self sufficient adult. Some families discourage individuation by refusing to allow children and adolescents to express their own individuality. Conformity is highly valued and dissent is not tolerated. These parent/child relationships can be described as enmeshed, when the child and the parent are not felt to be independent people, but rather the children are seen by the parents as an extension of the parents. When you make a mistake, I feel ashamed that you have embarrassed the family. Some kids rebel and express themselves through their appearance. The parents may believe that everyone should wear khaki pants and navy blue shirts and have traditional hairstyles, but the child wants to dress in all black with long purple hair and a safety pin through his lip. Parents may see this as disrespectful and a power struggle escalates to the point where the child is kicked out of the house by the time they are 18, if not earlier. Do you know how to allow your child to leave home with grace and joy, rather than a big fight? If your parents were angry at you for wanting to be an independent adult, you might react the same way towards your kid without even realizing it.
Have you allowed your child opportunities to make mistakes? To experience failure? Or have you taken care of everything and made sure your child wouldn’t have the opportunity to screw up? If they did screw up (as most of us do at some point as teenagers) did you make it all better for them or did they have to experience the consequences of their actions? We can help them with how they feel about such experiences, being supportive and allowing them to express their emotions, but if we intervene to the point that they don’t feel the consequences at all, they miss out on the chance to learn from the mistake. Maybe you didn’t take care of everything so they wouldn’t have the opportunity to screw up, but rather you were careful to control every situation so the possibility of failure just didn’t come up. So what happens when they inevitably do face failure? It is painful, no doubt. We want to protect our children from experiencing pain. But can we trust that we have raised them well enough that they will be able to handle adversity and that they can live through painful experiences, even though they may hate every minute of it? Because there is literally no way we can protect our children from every painful experience. It just isn’t possible.
What was it like for you when you went out on your own? Did you struggle? Did bad things happen? What kind of healing work have you done to address the pain of those struggles? If you are terrified that what happened to you will happen to your child, it might be a good time to get some therapy. It’s normal to feel this way, but if it’s interfering with YOU being okay, therapy can help.
I realized when my oldest child went to college (and it is coming up again as I am about to send my daughter off to school) that it pretty much drove me crazy not to know what my kid was doing all the time. Not seeing them daily and being able to look into their eyes and sense whether they are okay or not felt like a loss of control. I didn’t realize how much I needed to feel in control in that way until I lost the ability to see my oldest daily. So I worried, and worried, and worried, and monitored social media, and worried and worried and waited and waited for something bad to happen. My child would tell me he was okay but I didn’t know if he really was. I tried to hide my anxiety from him but I was a ball of nerves, as any of my friends can tell you, for the entire first semester he was at college. I think I finally calmed down at Thanksgiving and it felt great when he came home for winter break. How stressful it must have been for him to have his mother so anxious!!! He might have wondered if he would be okay since I seemed to be so worried about it. Or maybe he worried about taking care of my emotions. Or felt burdened by them. I had something I needed to take care of, because this was a lot harder for me than it needed to be. There were some 18 to 20 year old parts of me that needed attention. Instead of obsessing about my son, I turned my attention inward and got help to deal with my emotions. Most of us therapists go to therapy off and on throughout our adult lives, whenever something flares up that needs attention. This is how I have grown so much personally and professionally over the past 15 years or so (and I still have a long way to go!). It helped a lot. And it is helping now as I struggle with letting go of my daughter. New awarenesses are awakening for me. Just when I thought I had it all figured out!
You know, it’s funny, when you have been a parent for 20 years you get really used to the reality that you can’t just go and do what you want because there are people who are depending on you to come home, make sure they get fed, be there for them physically and emotionally, help them when they need it. If you had the thought that you wanted to go out to dinner with friends after work and maybe have some drinks, you would need to make arrangements for someone to take care of the kids, or, if they are old enough to stay home alone, you’d need to make sure they have something to eat for dinner, that they are on top of their homework, and that they know when you’ll be back.
It’s a real shift in identity when you are not defined by being “Mom.” I know I am a mother, wife, therapist, friend, student learning to ride horses, a dog’s best friend…but the role of parent has been so big and important for the last 20 years that I will need some time to adjust to having that role take up less of my physical, mental and emotional energy.
So where I am right now is that I am experiencing being home with my husband this week, with no kids, and we can do what we want. We can go where we want, when we want, with no one to consider but each other and ourselves. This is because right now my youngest is off at the beach with friends all week and my oldest is away at college, and he isn’t coming home this summer. So I can do what I want. So what is that? Mostly we are going to work and back. I have always had hobbies and interests, but the easiest thing to do is to work. So I don’t want to overwork because while that may be my go-to, it’s not good for me. I don’t really watch that much TV…I can read, but not a work related book….what would I like to do? If I really check in with myself what I want to do, what feels right to do is wait. And worry. Until my kid comes home, hopefully all in one piece. Just wait, suspended animation. I’ll be right here so if something happens I can spring into action. Even though she is not close enough for me to do anything if she does have a problem, at least not immediately. That is what I want to do. I’ll be right over here, waiting and worrying. You may see me wringing my hands and pacing, just ignore it. However, that is really not what I should do either. So far my two choices seem to be overwork or obsessive worry. Okayyyyyyy….there’s got to be something else. Well it’s too late to go to the gym but I can do that tomorrow morning. That will help, I know this. Then tomorrow night after work, uhhhh….I had some good ideas about fun things to do when my daughter goes to college, but right now I can’t remember any of them. Just this worry.
What I don’t want to do is sit with the discomfort. One of my least favorite things, sitting with uncertainty, is something I try to avoid by distracting myself. I know we all do this. It’s uncomfortable so we avoid it. I am really good at doing this by filling all of my time up so there is no time in between to feel. I could keep myself from feeling almost all the time this week if I stay busy enough but I don’t want that. I do want to feel. I don’t know if my daughter will be okay at college. I don’t know if my son will be okay either. I don’t know anything that is going to happen, if I’m being honest. We don’t know. We don’t have any control. Fear of the unknown can drive our behavior if we aren’t paying attention.
So now I remember what I need to do. First, take a deep breath in, then breathe out. Then do it again. Repeat a few more times. Everything automatically feels better when I do that. I have to remind myself because when anxiety is taking over I forget. I could reach out to a supportive friend. I have many – a perk of being a therapist. Therapists for friends. There is something else that I can remind myself. I ask myself, “what can I control?” The answer is, I can control me. I can’t control situations my daughter and son will encounter or how they feel. But I can control taking care of me and how I feel. If I attend to my emotions then I can remain calm and centered (or return to that state) in stressful situations. My kids will be able to trust me, and they will be able to come to me for help when things inevitably happen. They can trust that I will be able to handle my own emotions so they won’t have to put aside their own feelings to take care of mine. It’s always been important that my kids not feel like it is their responsibility to take care of my emotions.
There is no question that I am happy that my daughter graduated. I am so proud of her and she has an amazing future ahead of her. She needs to do this, it is what she should do, and what we have hoped for her. So I need to take care of me so I can be present for her. You can do the same with your young person transitioning to adulthood. Here’s an easy shortcut. Start out with your feet on the floor, close your eyes or look down and take a long deep inhale. Exhale slowly. Repeat the long inhale. Then exhale slowly. One more long deep inhale. Exhale slowly. Now, turn your attention inward. In your mind, ask yourself what you are feeling. Tune in to that emotion, even if you don’t like what it is. See if you can allow that feeling instead of trying to push it away. Breathe into it. Just be with that. Next, in your mind, ask yourself “what do I need right now?” and notice what comes up. It may be a word, a feeling, a person that comes to mind. Once you get an answer for what you need, consider if there is a way to give it to yourself. It can be so comforting to simply place a hand on your heart and feel the warmth of it resting there. Or to take your right hand and place it on your left arm, just below the shoulder and rub. Doing this does not change what is, but it allows some space to have a different perspective about what’s happening. In that space there is an opportunity for self compassion.
The point that I hope you are taking away from this is simple. Our feelings about our children growing up are normal, and they are not about the child. The difficulty I am having adjusting to my daughter leaving in a few months is not really about her, it’s about me. She is doing her normal developmental task. I am grieving the loss of childhood, the loss of daily in person connection, and anticipating pain that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it won’t happen. Most likely it won’t happen in the exact way that I’m worrying it will happen. But I am really grieving my own experiences that maybe I didn’t deal with the first time around because I wasn’t ready in terms of my emotional development at the time. Now it is time to take care of that younger me.
And one thing I know is that this uncomfortable place I am in is part of the process of me coming to terms with what is. I don’t like feeling this way, but part of the path from where I was to where I will be is this part. I don’t like it, I want it to go away, but you can’t skip the middle part. Later this month I will post a bonus episode on the subject of rising up out of the muck, that messy middle part of life that we don’t enjoy but which makes it richer and helps us grow. As they say, everything you want in life happens outside of your comfort zone.
And if you are struggling with the change in identity as your kids grow older, consider getting some counseling! It really helps. If you’re in the Baltimore area visit my website laurareaganlcswc.com to find out about working with me or another therapist in my office.
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