“Is there such a thing as being too connected?” A parent recently asked.
“What do you mean?” I responded. “Well,” she went on, “Obviously I spent a lot of time with our eighth grader in the past two years. We stayed really close and overall did well managing distance learning and all that. But now he is back in school and I expected a shift towards independence.”
“I bet you thought he would go running back out into the world without a look back at you.” I laughed.
“Exactly,” she responded. “Instead, he is still really reliant on me for everything.”
“Well, just to reassure you – you’re not the only ones recalibrating your relationship right now. Some kids spent a lot of time unsupervised during the pandemic and now are figuring out how to transition into more time with adults and kids. Others spent a lot of time with a caregiver and now are figuring out how to emerge from that bubble. Sounds like you are figuring out the latter.”
“That’s right.” She replied.
“The good news is that you can stay connected and nurture independence. It might just take a little time and practice. We are all a little wobbly right now.”
Support, don’t rescue. Encourage, don’t take over.
We have talked a lot throughout the pandemic about the critical importance of connection. A warm and caring connection with an adult buffers kids from the worst effects of toxic stress. It also helps kids handle manageable stress. Communicating with our kids that we were on the same team is an essential part of our resilience toolkit.
But our role on the team can often feel confusing when our kids hit major bumps in the road. Is it our job to protect our kids? Prepare them? The answer to these questions, like so many things in parenting, is a little frustrating: both and it depends.
For example, when it comes to sources of toxic stress like racism, transphobia, or bullying it is absolutely our job to step in and do everything that we can to protect kids. There is no amount of skill building or practice that makes these experiences okay.
On the other hand, our kids do need to learn how to navigate peer conflicts or how to problem solve in the face of life’s challenges. Swooping in to rescue them in these scenarios inadvertently makes them more vulnerable.
In other words, our role on the team is to be a good coach. Good coaches absolutely ensure that kids experience safety, belonging, and support. Good coaches also help kids build skills, take on new challenges, and stand on the sideline as they win, lose, and keep playing.
Even in the face of manageable challenges, it’s easy to respond from the extremes.
This tender balance between protection and independence is admittedly easier to conceptualize in the context of sports. When our own kids are crying in our arms or overwhelmed by a task it is really easy to get off balance and respond from the extremes. This can include either:
Under-responding. This can look like negating feelings, skipping over conflict, or avoiding conversations about challenging situations or topics.
In other words, we are supportive when things are going well but when we hit challenges, it’s “Good luck out there!”
Over-responding. This can look like taking over, micromanaging, lecturing, or managing outcomes.
In other words, we might say that we value independence when things are going well but when we hit challenges, it’s, “Stand back, I’m taking the wheel.”
These responses are generally not guided by our long term goals or informed by a coherent philosophy. Instead, we react based on our triggers, our inherited patterns, our worries, and our understandable desire to protect our kids from pain.
In other words, being a parent is hard. Especially when we acknowledge that having a kid is, as Elizabeth Stone famously said, like having your “heart go walking around outside your body.”
When we think of it in these terms, it’s no wonder that we often frame connection as warm, fuzzy, and protective. But according to research, the kinds of relationships that kids need to thrive aren’t just about care and support. Search Institute has spent the last decade identifying the elements and actions that make relationships powerful in kids’ lives. What have they learned? In addition to care and support, their research indicates that kids need us to expand possibilities, challenge growth, and share power.
In other words, they need coaches who believe in them.
ENLIST your child or teen to be active players in their own lives.
All of this is easier said than done. Even when we understand that the challenge in front of our kids is manageable (even if difficult), it can be hard to avoid the extremes. That’s why it can be helpful to have a framework that helps us stay connected and nurture independence. Resist the urge to under-respond or over-respond and enlist instead.
Empathy forms the foundation of connection. It helps our kids regulate their feelings and let’s them know that we are on their team. Take a beat and just sit with your child’s feelings (and your own) before jumping past them. We can offer something simple like,
“This is not how you wanted things to go. Ugh.” Or, “This is hard, isn’t it?”
Remind your child that discomfort, sadness, uncertainty, anger, or frustration are all normal and okay. We might say something like,
“It makes so much sense that you feel this way.”
Sometimes empathizing and normalizing is all a child or teen needs to feel ready to move on. Other challenges require more problem solving and coaching. We shouldn’t rush to this step because if kids aren’t emotionally regulated then their thinking brains are not online.
When they are ready, this is the time to listen, not lecture. We can say,
“What else do you want me to know about what happened?” Or, “This is what I am hearing… Am I getting that right?”
Invite problem solving:
We might have all kinds of opinions at this point about the best next steps. This makes sense! After all, we have decades of experience working in our favor. The reality though is that we don’t always know what’s best. Plus, steamrolling the process robs our kids of the opportunity to figure it out for themselves. Instead, we might say,
“What do you think is the best next step?” Or, “When you are ready to think about what to do, I’m here for it.”
If our kids don’t have anything to offer, we can share ideas without prescribing the next step. For example, we might say,
“Would you like to hear a couple of ideas and you can tell me what you think about them?” Or, “It’s not a choice to do nothing. But I have some ideas. Should we talk about them? I trust that you will be able to decide which is best for you.”
This is the hard part! If we say that we trust our kids to problem solve but then do the opposite by taking over, our kids learn the lesson. We can do our best to encourage our kids to take the lead while offering support. For example, we can say,
“I’ll be right here tonight to hear how things go.”
This doesn’t mean that we can’t play any role at all. But it helps to define what shared responsibility looks like. We might say,
“Okay. Sounds like a plan. We are going to your conference together and I will be right there next to you. You will share your feedback with your teacher. Should we practice now or do you feel ready?”
Asking our kids to generate ideas, take the lead, and practice the skills of independence is a long term game with lots of opportunities to practice. Sometimes it will feel like we aren’t making progress or our kids will resist, clam up, or flat out refuse to step into their own power. Deep breaths. The goal isn’t to prepare for one, game-winning play when the stakes are high. The goal is to practice skills of independence in little ways over time. We try and try again. We might say,
“Whew! I realize that I really took over yesterday and didn’t even listen to your ideas. I am sorry I did that. I am ready to listen now.” Or, “It sounds like today didn’t go as planned with your friends. Thank goodness we have tomorrow to try again. What are you thinking now?”
Want your child to be independent? Share power.
Some of our kids are already running back into the world, eager for independence and ready to fall, fail, and try again. Others would rather stay in quarantine. If we are honest, adults and kids alike are experiencing a bit of both. As our kids’ circles of independence expand, they absolutely still need us on their team. They depend upon us to step up and protect or buffer them from stressors that are toxic, too big, or go on for too long.
They also depend upon us to step back and marvel at what they are capable of. They depend on our willingness to learn that there are many paths to reach the same goal. They deserve our coaching. Our care and our curiosity and confidence in their emerging skills.
Finally, they need to know that we will be there as they try, fall, fail, and learn. They need to know that we will sit next to them and enlist their agency and ideas. We can say, “This is really hard isn’t it? It makes sense that you feel this way…What do you think is the best next step?”