As my oldest daughter heads off for college in the fall, I wonder (OK, I worry) if I’ve prepared her enough for this transition. Since she’s my first to leave home, I’ve worried about so much. Have I done too much for her? Will she be able to manage on her own? How will she figure everything out? I exaggerate only slightly, but you get the point.
Luckily, I have enough friends who’ve been down this road already, so I know my thoughts and feelings are completely normal and, at the end of the day, I’m OK with the uncertainty. But it brings up a good question — how, as parents, can we prepare our children to be independent and leave the nest? And what happens when this collides with our natural instinct to protect them? To make it even trickier, what if what’s best for them is counterintuitive, which often is the case when you have an anxious child?
How do we do it?
I learned from my mentor, Lynn Lyons, LCSW, that children with anxiety tend to lack skills in three areas: tolerating uncertainty, independent problem solving, and autonomy. If we use these three skills as our guide, we can qualify our own actions. For example, when your child wants to do something independently, encourage it! Assuming they’re not in any danger, let them go for it. Some things will be obvious and easier, like getting dressed by themselves or putting on their shoes. Now think about letting them pack their own bags for school and sports without your reminders about what to pack. If they forget to pack their homework, soccer cleats, trumpet, whatever, let them live out the consequences instead of rescuing them by bringing it.
Or consider when they start driving (or just before that), having them contact you when they arrive someplace instead of tracking them “just to be sure they got where they’re supposed to be going.”
If the thought of these makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone.
Sometimes the hardest part of preparing them is tolerating our own distressing emotions. Whether it’s tolerating the uncertainty of what’s going to happen, their distress, or both, it’s all really hard sometimes. As the parent, you’ll want to develop the skills necessary to tolerate your child’s distress, unhappiness, nagging or escalation. As they develop their skills, you’ll develop yours and vice versa.
It’s truly best to start this new perspective as soon as you can. It’s much easier to teach a young child than it is a tween or adolescent. But it’s never too late, and you never have to go it alone.
When my children were young, there wasn’t access to tips like this. We’re still working through the stigmas of worry, anxiety and, ultimately, therapy. I wish I had this knowledge when my daughter was in kindergarten. That being said, the opportunities to choose promotion of independence versus dependence almost never end for parents. For older children, we can determine if it’s best for us to send money while they’re at school or in the working world. Do we let them live at home after high school, and, if so, what stipulations do we put in place?
In rare instances is there ever a one-size-fits-all answer, so seeking objective, professional guidance can help you look at your options. We take evidence-based realities, your own unique position, and we find solutions that fit you and your family’s needs.