Do this now. Thank yourself later.
The transition we all made from adolescence to young adulthood was probably one of the most challenging. Half in and half out of childhood. It can be the gateway to long-term success as an adult or the kickstart of pathology, where our lack of coping skills finally catches up with us as we are thrown into the rush of life as a small fish in a very big sea. Fears of incompetence, unworthiness and reluctance creep in and we flip through our memory bank for exceptions to our fears, times when we exemplified resilience and overcame great challenge.
My work with parents of both small children and “adultescents” (a.k.a. adult children) leads me to believe that preparation for a successful launch at 18 years begins at birth. Increasing your child’s tolerance, slowly, over time, for ambiguity, transitions, and yes, even for failure, means they will be more capable at 18 years to withstand adversity. And let’s face it, there’s plenty of adversity for young adults these days. The 2010 Census offered some sobering statistics on the difficulty of launching in the 21st century. Only 50% of Americans in their mid-20’s consider themselves financially independent and earn enough to support themselves and a family. Yikes. Not to mention, 63% of men and 52% of women between 18-24 years live at home with their parents.
Herein, the true value of chickenpox. And you thought it was just a viral infection! Chickenpox (a.k.a. adversity) builds immunity. Used as a metaphor for life, it is important and valuable for your children to “catch” failure, difficulty and adversity early in life so that they are better prepared to handle it, be “immune”, as young adults. Adversity increases coping capacity, encourages the practice of asking for help, develops a sense of mastery over challenge, shapes confidence and creates stories of perseverance to fall back on in future difficult times.
With just five basic principles you can better position your children (and yourself) for a successful and sustainable launch at 18 years. Exposing your children to infection early can be beneficial in more ways than one!
1) Allow your child’s success to be real and uninfluenced (at least to some degree) by you. What I mean is, allow your children to really “feel” their strengths and therefore ownership over their successes. When we praise our children for every single thing they do, they don’t learn resilience. When we step in to prevent danger and difficulty at every encounter, we block real self-discovery. Both resiliency and self-discovery are paramount to successful launching.
2) Place value on internal performance vs. external performance. Unless success is experienced to a large degree, internally, then your child will always be looking for gratification and satisfaction outside of him/herself. Later in life this can look like sore losing, an inability to self-soothe, blaming, obsession with perfection and at its worst, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and addiction (drugs, gambling, eating, shopping).
3) Tolerate their independence. Children are born not knowing the distinction between “me” and their attachment figures, particularly “mom”. They are essentially one in the same. But, over time, it is a natural human progression to begin to separate and increasing identify oneself as unique and distinct from another. Allowing this process to begin earlier will help it to be more tolerable later when your child leaves you for life on his/her own.
4) Keep your own identity. Remember who you were before you had children and who you are now. Your own journey as a human being doesn’t end because you become a parent. Continue learning new things about yourself. Change. Evolve. So that your child can too.
5) Disperse your time and resources. All humans, including you, the parent, are deserving of independence, self-interest and indulgence to some degree. The sun may rise and shine on your child in your home but it won’t when he/she steps outside into the world at large. Help your child to be ready. Entitlement grows in the dark corners of parental sacrifice. Have you abandoned yourself or your marriage for your child? Ask yourself when the last time was that you and your partner went out without the kid/s? When was the last time you allowed your child to be responsible for his/her own behavior, even if it meant allowing for failure?
Letting go is hard but at its core, parenthood is about loss. We raise children to lose them to their own journey. I am reminded of a poem by Kahil Gibran called On Children. In it he states,
[Your children are not your children…And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your life but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.]
Sometimes the only way around is through. What are you teaching your children about tolerating discomfort? How are you raising them to be successful without you? A successful, fruitful existence long after you are gone, is, after all, the greatest gift you can give them.
Julia Harkleroad, MS, LMFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in Prairie Village, KS. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 913.638.4791