Our teenagers are hardier than we give them credit for. Hardiness, resilience, grit, and tenacity are qualities we know our teenagers need to possess in order to succeed in a competitive world. But often we act in ways that interrupt the growth of these vital characteristics. When we overreact to the curveballs thrown in everyday life, or over invest in the belief that all things should be fair and just, we are short changing our teenagers from learning the tougher lessons necessary to survive and thrive in a demanding society. Protecting our teenagers from realities, consequences, hurt, and injustices may feel instinctive, but is actually counter to building strong character. The problem is we feel their pain in a profound and overwhelming way, so not only are we trying to protect our teenagers, but we also try mightily to protect ourselves from a whole host of co-dependent feelings. The trick is to focus on our own reactions to their discomfort, let go, and have faith that they will handle their uncomfortable feelings on their own. Here are some tips on doing just that:
Do a gut check. That feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when your teen is struggling is your feeling, not theirs. Own it and lean into it. Allow yourself to be present for the swirl in your head and in your gut, while reminding yourself that you are a parent, so of course you feel for your kids! But keep in mind, you own these feelings, not your teenager, so work it through on your own without projecting, or assuming your teen feels exactly the same way.
Remember and recall. Think back on all the lessons you learned through adversity. We rarely learn a whole lot through accomplishment and success. They just don’t drive us to the willingness necessary to make real change in our lives. It is through struggle and discomfort that we are motivated to do things differently. So when your teenager is held accountable for a late paper, they have a much better chance of learning not to procrastinate than when they are never penalized.
Trust your own parenting. Most likely, you have done an excellent job of giving them the skills to tolerate discomfort, to re-calibrate, and bounce back from whatever setbacks they face. Go ahead and credit yourself with having prepped your teen for a bit of adversity, back away, and watch them handle it. They may not handle it perfectly, but after all, only practice makes perfect.
Get out of the way. I can’t say this enough. We assume our teens need our help and intervention, but in most cases, they really need us to get out of the way so they can experience, and practice, fail, and succeed at the business of life. They need us to wait in the audience, while they are in the arena, dealing with any one-two punches that come their way.
No matter how much we work on detaching, truth be told, we will still feel their pain on a very deep level. The key is to sit with our feelings, while they sit with theirs, and not jump in to protect them, or yourself, from potential discomfort. Give them the chance to experience the whole continuum of feelings, while trusting you both can handle life when it becomes tricky, disappointing, or painful.