The Feeling of Freedom
Parenting can feel like a prison when your kids are small. Home becomes a jail and the rules are all related to the eating and sleeping schedule of the little tyrant who runs the place. Today a friend with a four-year-old and a two-year-old said, “This spring I feel like I’m emerging from the dark days,” as he described the last few years of round-the-clock caregiving and sleep deprivation, and how pleasant the realization is to have that period behind him.
When young people are ready for a longer leash we are usually ready too. A solitary afternoon of puttering around the house or yard suddenly has the quality of a luxury vacation when there’s nobody to cook for or drive around. Such a gift!
The world also opens up for our teenagers as they gain incremental independence and the opportunity to experience things beyond what we do together. They get to meet new people, play interesting games, and explore cool places – all different ones than we have shared over the years.
Emotional connection with physical detachment
Little ones don’t want to leave your side. The need for physical proximity is a mammalian survival strategy for babies. And when children feel emotionally close to us that sense of trust and safety enables them to accept our influence and follow our lead. The teen years turn all of this on its head. While your toddler may have been perfectly happy to accompany you to the bathroom when you had to use the toilet, some days your teenager can’t be coaxed into accompanying you to the ice cream shop!
Humans are essentially pack animals; we need to feel attached to others in order to function at our best. Teenagers are no different, however, they may begin to attach to their peers and distance themselves from family. Some attachment to their friends is healthy as teens individuate from their moms and dads to become a unique person with separate ideals and goals. But parents need to matter more than peers in order for teenagers to see actual adulthood in action and learn to navigate life’s complexities from responsible role models. This concept is explained in detail in the bestselling parenting book Hold On To Your Kids – I highly recommend it.
How does one stay emotionally attached with less physical proximity – and seemingly less desire on the part of your kid? It’s all about the teenager feeling like you accept them. Parents need to figure out how to be interested in their teen and quit judging/criticizing. If you are authentically relaxed and able to really listen to your teenager, s/he will feel like it is safe to open up. Only young people can decide if you are the kind of adult they can show themselves to. If they continue sharing their thoughts with you, if they keep talking, then whatever you’re doing is working so keep it up. And do it consistently. This kind of vulnerability produces emotional connection.
The relationships with our young people are bank accounts that we need to always be making deposits into with our time and attention. Withdrawals (holding a limit) may be necessary from time to time, but you never want to go into the red.
Use your freedom wisely
Those first flirtations with freedom when our children stop breastfeeding, start sleeping through the night, or head off to a weekend with grandparents can be startling. Just like a student detoxing from school at the beginning of summer holidays you might want to watch endless TV or spend all day in bed. Burn out from the demanding job of raising children is a real thing, and we eat up those little bits of freedom like a hungry athlete.
Napping is nurturing. Catching up with a friend or sibling can warm the heart. Do you remember what made life meaningful before mothering/fathering forced your focus to narrow? Practice those activities when you can because they feed your soul, but also because you don’t want to lose yourself fully to this temporary project of parenting. It may not look like it now, but your teenager will continue to need you less and less.