Working with teens and young adults, I often spend time talking with their parents, too. Many parents express regret about what they didn’t know when the kids were younger. Parents wish they had seen forward to the potential consequences of decisions made years before. Last week I heard a mom say, “I could have saved my son years of therapy if I had learned to let a few things go.”
Little issues or big ones, knowing when to let it go is the hardest, but most important lesson a parent must learn.
Let your expectations go.
When you begin your journey as a parent, you may believe you know what’s in store. You’ve been around long enough to see how it works. Maybe you’re already the favorite auntie or uncle or stepparent. But each child, family, and relationship is different.
How to let it go: Wipe the slate clean and rid yourself of any fantasies you may have regarding an ideal child, family life, or relationship. Who knows what it will be? You’ll have to take it one stage at a time, and see where the adventure takes you. Otherwise, you might spend your energy coping with frustration about what isn’t, rather than enjoying what is.
Save your child at least a year of therapy focused on trying to understand why s/he wasn’t ever “good enough” to satisfy Mom or Dad.
Let a routine go.
Structured routines are important for children. Meal times, bedtimes, night-night stories and weekly activities. The rhythms of each day, month, week, and year are a comfort and a compass to growing kids. But sometimes the routines feel hectic and stressful. Sometimes getting to bed is more important than reading for twenty minutes. It’s important to let the routine go when the routine ceases to be a comfort, and instead becomes a stressor.
How to let it go: Use your routines as a rough guide rather than a rigid requirement. Follow the schedule 85-90% of the time. But on Saturday night, stay up a little later to watch a family movie. Or skip a sports practice to arrive early for the choir concert.
Save your child the pain of years of trying to achieve absolute perfection, and the therapy to correct it later.
Let control go.
As parents, we are responsible for managing our kids when they are young, and teaching them to manage themselves later on. As a parent, you make the rules and see to it that the rules get followed. But sometimes you might be controlling too many things, too much of the time. Excessive control leaves kids frustrated and angry.
How to let it go: Start relinquishing control by offering kids choices. “Would you like carrots or broccoli with dinner?” Ask yourself which decisions are written in stone, and which ones can be flexible. Let your child make decisions on his or her own, increasing the number of decisions with age.
Save your child feelings of incompetence and ineffectiveness later on, and the therapy sessions aimed at addressing a lingering sense of inadequacy.
Let an argument go.
We all like to be right. And as parents, we also like to be in charge. Unfortunately, the combination might leave you wanting to hammer a point into the ground until a child (especially a teenager) acquiesces. But heated arguments rooted in conflict rarely change minds. Sometimes it’s better to stop arguing rather than try to win.
How to let it go: When an argument is going nowhere, consider just agreeing to disagree. Say, “I know you believe a 2 am curfew is reasonable, but I disagree. Let’s end this discussion.” You don’t have to “give in.” You can just end the conversation when it’s clear you’re at an impasse.
Save your child time in couple’s counseling, where s/he would end up working on skills for compromise and partnering.
Let go and let them handle their own mistakes.
As kids grow up and exert free will, they will inevitably make mistakes. You will warn them, educate them about the risks, and explain the consequences for years. But eventually, kids become independent operators, and they will need to handle decisions and mistakes all on their own. Resist the temptation to step in when they make mistakes they’re ready to handle.
How to let it go: When you see your child facing the consequences of a mistake s/he has made, pause before jumping in. Ask yourself if you can trust him or her to take care of the situation. Give him/her enough space to try, and only help if you are asked.
Save your child feelings of helplessness and overwhelming dependency, and the therapy to aid in correcting it.