On Saturday, my family came home from a soccer game to an unexpected addition. The dog we adopted 6 weeks ago, the one the Humane Society and 2 vets assured us was spayed, had given birth to a puppy while we were away. We found mother and pup holed up in a “nest” area she had made with shreds of newspaper inside an over turned garbage can. She had licked the pup clean and was lying on her side nursing him. It immediately struck me how my dog had instinctually known what to do. Not only does she know when to nurse him now, she’ll know when it’s time to wean him. And when he’s old enough, she will no longer see it as her charge to protect him. When he appears ready, she will begin to regard him as an independent dog, just another member of her pack, sooner than we can imagine.
I spend much of my professional time with the parents of teens and young adults, often advising them on how and when to let their kids go. For humans, it seems the process of nurturing and releasing children is far less instinctual than for my dog and her pup.
Humans have books and mentors. We have the Internet, parenting magazines, and mommy groups. In infancy, we seek guidance on how often to feed them, managing their sleep, and all the ways to ensure babies stay safe. As kids become more independent, parents ask how to get kids to follow rules and how to discipline them when they don’t. But we don’t talk much about (and our instincts seem unable to guide us through) how and when to begin to let our kids go a little.
Maybe the instinct for when it’s time to let go lies more with pups than with parents. Teens and twenty-somethings tell me often that they feel frustrated and resentful of their parents’ ways of relating to them. When kids are young, they say we talk at them. We try to fill their empty buckets with our ideas and rules. We “put” our ideas upon them, sometimes with force. But when they get older, when they become teens, something begins to change. Teenagers start feeling like they have their own minds. They have ideas of their own. They have preferences, likes, dislikes. They begin to know who they are inside.
When that happens, and thereafter, they don’t I like it when adults “put” and impose and force ideas at them. After they feel a sense that they “inhabit” their own minds, they want us to listen. They want us to really listen. They want respect. They want us to know and understand who they are as people, and what they need and want and desire, but they want us to know because we are asking and looking and listening to the answers rather than because we are using past knowledge or intuition. Even though we have known them their entire lives, they begin to change in adolescence, or at least they want the opportunity to explore different identities. And in order to let them explore, we must not assume we know everything about them.
And when we don’t listen? Our teens and twenty-somethings begin to withdraw from us. They get angry, resentful, and frustrated. We become triggers for them to feel sad, withdrawn, or aggressive. They just don’t like us very much anymore.
Maybe we should take notice when the instinct of our teenagers and twenty-somethings tells them it’s time to let go. And then we should become better listeners, first by erasing what we thought we knew. Starting over. Interviewing them. Being truly curious. Rather than thinking we know anything inside their minds, we need to explore what’s there with real openness and let them reveal it to us just as they reveal it to themselves. Maybe they will uncover the person we thought we knew from birth to that point. Or maybe they will unearth someone far more wondrous than we ever could have dreamt. And maybe that’s why they only make this change when they grow older, when they can begin to dream their own dream. Before that, we dreamt for them and what they could become as limited by our adult imaginations. Now it’s their turn. Let’s see what they have to offer. Don’t let your expectations get in the way. Open your minds and be curious. And let go!
Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.