As a professional therapist and a mom, I am not always able to keep my hats separate. In my mind, other moms come home from work, take off their accountant or teacher hat, and put on their mom hat. For me, the boundaries are muddier.
My teen daughters frequently say, “Don’t analyze me!” My husband often laments, “You’re the expert here. What do we do?” I, like you, am learning as I go. Each new developmental stage brings a new challenge to my parenting skill set. I can be found most days reminding my daughters that I am saving money for college, weddings, and the adult therapy they will inevitably need after they survive my parenting.
My goal as a mom is to raise independent adults
As a mom, my single and most important goal has always been to raise independent humans who are able to listen to their own intuition and make their own choices. Most days, this seems daunting and the dialogue in my head is constant: Am I allowing my children to experience failure? Are my attempts to rescue my children from frustration contributing to a generation that is not able to manage or even tolerate distress? Or, is this particular failure a larger issue than it seems? Is my child in real trouble here?
In my psychotherapy practice, I work with parents who are struggling with this same goal. I see the effects of helicopter parenting daily in my practice and, at times, in my own home. I see conflict and tension thrive in homes where parents attempt to manage all aspects of their teen’s life.
I also see teens who are mainly “over parented” struggle with anxiety and self doubt. These adolescents are less likely to be able to problem solve or rely on their own resources. In fact, this consequence has been observed in classrooms and on college campuses as well.
The stakes for our teens are every high
To be fair, the stakes have been raised to an untenable level for our teens and for us parents. We are supporting our teens as they navigate academic rigors and competitive college admissions that we likely never experienced.
High school resumes illustrate copious amounts of volunteer hours, multiple leadership roles, extracurriculars both in and out of school, and class rank. It’s no wonder we parents are in a constant attempt to remove or at least better arrange the multitude of obstacles our teens are facing.
Personally, I find my parenting goal of raising independent humans increasingly challenging. When my children were younger, working toward this objective looked quite different. It’s not terribly painful to watch your toddler eat the dog food you told them not to and experience for themselves why this is a bad idea.
Along the way, I stopped running the forgotten homework, spare goggles, or track shoes to the school. I sat on my hands and bit my tongue when my daughter’s affluent high school encouraged her to take that fifth AP class though I suspected this would be overly stressful.
I let my teen’s car sit unused in the driveway as she bartered for rides after spending the monthly gas allowance on fast food. Slowly, I have attempted to remove the scaffolding I put in place.
By not rescuing my high-schoolers, I hope I have prepared them for college
As my oldest daughter prepares to enter college, I hope the high school obstacles that I failed to remove have prepared her for the course. And, I hope I will be able to recognize that fine line between when to step back and when to step in. It is the ever elusive thing that keeps me up at night and drives my urge to helicopter parent.
As psychologist Seth J. Gilliahn, PhD noted in his 2018 WebMd article entitled “7 Signs Your College Student May be Having a Mental Health Crisis”, there are some clear clues when a parent should step in. According to this article, some signs that may trip my parent radar include withdrawal from friends and family, declining grades, increased substance use, lack of self care, changes in perspective or personality, and hopelessness. I am confident these clues would cause concern for any parent and I hope that I would notice them as well.
What are the less obvious signs that my teen is struggling?
However, as I prepare to take down the remaining pieces of scaffolding, I can’t help but worry about the less obvious signs. Will my parent warning system be accurate? I know I will continue to miss the mark at times. We parents are constantly evaluating our position and level of involvement with each new challenge and each new developmental stage. As my incoming college freshman pushes into adulthood, I recognize that I will be “parenting” a young adult. At some point, there will be no parent created scaffolding in place for my child.
I recently asked a colleague about her high school senior’s college choices for the coming year. She was not certain as he had not applied to any schools. My mom radar went off. I could hear alarms and see the flashing indicator light in my head.
I know the look on my face said it all because she promptly replied that she had encouraged him and offered support and resources. But, she reminded me, she had already been to college so she would not be filling out any applications or writing any essays. Wow.
She is unleashing a self sufficient human into the world. I hope I can do the same.