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Published March 04, 2011, 12:00 AM

Val Farmer: Final step for parents is process of letting go

Encouraging and teaching independence to teenagers and young adults is part of the hassle of parenting. Some kids have to be dragged “kicking and screaming” into adulthood.

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

Encouraging and teaching independence to teenagers and young adults is part of the hassle of parenting. Some kids have to be dragged “kicking and screaming” into adulthood.

Helping them take responsibility for their actions and giving consequences is a tough parental responsibility that requires firmness, stamina, love, communications and consistency There is so much to teach and yet it takes a full 18 to 26 years to get certain messages across.

It has been observed that adults don’t fully understand and appreciate their parents’ love, sacrifice and wisdom until they have gone through the entire parenting cycle – until they have completed the process of raising and launching children of their own. It is a profound responsibility to teach the next generation the basics for living happy and productive lives.

When do they grow up? What do young adults need to understand before they complete the shift from adolescent mentality to adult responsibility?

  • When they understand “reciprocity” and doing for others to keep fairness in a relationship. They are grown when they are dependable and do their share. They can see how their behavior affects others – and care about it.

  • When they understand “taking responsibility” for themselves. They don’t expect others to take care of them, clean up their messes or fix or pay for things they have broken.

  • When they understand “debt” and take responsibility for taking care of their debts. Learning to manage money is a big part of being independent.

  • When they have a “coherent moral code” or values that make them independent from the influences of peers. They can delay gratification or moderate their impulses until their behavior is sensible.

  • When they can “manage their day-to-day challenges” with good judgment and common sense. They understand the principle of getting help when problems are beyond their control.

  • When they understand the “principle of work” and can sustain effort consistent with the tasks in front of them.

  • When they understand “gratitude” and are appreciative of the things done for them.

Those awkward in-between years. What about those awkward in-between years after high school until about age 26 when children may still be dependent?

Most likely, they live away from home and handle most of their affairs well but still require emotional and financial support on an

as-needed basis. It is a time for Mom and Dad to shift into a consultant role and let others – including the school of hard knocks – finish the job of preparing them for full adult responsibilities.

“Out of sight, out of mind” helps. Being away from home helps polish their social and coping skills. They are free to choose and live their own values without Mom and Dad looking over their shoulder. They may fall on their face and need special help from home. Still, they are learning and developing.

Consider the alternative. Having them at home would be worse. During those young adult years, parents have to witness and perhaps be drawn into their traumatic growing experiences.

When they do come home for short visits, they can be treated as guests. For longer stays, responsibilities and house rules need to be communicated and lived up to.

College students come home for summers or holidays and still expect to be taken care of. That is OK. Parents are the last people on earth they can relate to and be objective about as fellow adults with rights and feelings of their own. The final step of maturity is to let go of Mom and Dad and truly have a reciprocal relationship with them. It is a delight when it happens.

Adult children who struggle in life. Parents can’t really rest if they have an adult child who struggles and makes poor decisions. We expect problems from teenagers and young adults. They are incomplete in their development. But when older adult children have trouble getting traction in life, parents carry an “extra” heavy burden.

The “black sheep” or “prodigal son” of the family commands a big piece of their parents’ hearts until they are “settled down” in life. Unfortunately, the parents are reduced to being sideline observers while their children struggle on the playing field of life.

Bailing them out is sometimes the worst way to help. Other people and rude awakenings are now the best teachers of the lessons of life. The best parents can do is to be an emotional support to their struggling child.

Parents can only do their best. Children still choose their own path. It is a special pain for some parents to carry a dependent child well into adulthood. They have to grieve and accept their lives as different from parents who can relax and take pleasure in their new freedom.

It is a sign of maturity when parents don’t accept unreasonable guilt but continue to look after their own happiness and lives. The final step of parenting is “letting go” – a sometimes difficult step, just as necessary as those that preceded it.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.

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