When my first child was a toddler, I recall a strange bit of life advice I received from my mentor, a child psychiatrist who intuited that being a new mom was something I took very seriously, and worried about. He said, “You’ll mess your kids up one way or another, even by being 'too good' a parent.” Too good a parent? I couldn’t wrap my head around what that even meant. But now I look around at the crop of young patients coming in to the psychiatric urgent care practice, and I understand quite well.
Parenting practices shifted over a couple of generations toward tuning-in and understanding our children’s emotions and perspectives. We have learned to kneel down and listen when a child is upset, instead of tower over them and shout down an order to, “Hush.”
As kids grow through stages, parents continue to metaphorically kneel down and meet them where they are. Parents guide kids and teens and young adults through their big feelings, and advise them in areas where previous generations of parents and kids would not have been working so closely.
These shifts in parenting aren’t all bad, but they have side effects. One of the most notable: Psychiatric clinics are full of young adults who struggle with unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression. They don’t feel capable of running their own lives, or solving their own problems. They lack important skills, and they know it.
Young adults whose parents never backed off of guiding them through everything big and small end up feeling unqualified to make their own decisions. They don’t know how to do things. They lack confidence, especially for problem solving.
Perhaps surprisingly, twenty-year-olds whose parents have solved all their problems up to now are not always antsy to break free. They are not necessarily rebelling, saying, “Mom, Dad, could you back off and give me a little space here?” Instead, they are saying, “You don’t understand,” and “Why aren’t you helping me?” They are asking parents to get more involved, and provide more answers.
Experience trains expectations. If Mom and Dad have always been the answer in the past, then that’s what I’m envisioning as a solution to my problems today. They look to not only Mom and Dad, but their employers as well. They say, “Why doesn’t this company take better care of me?” and their older co-workers roll their eyes and call them entitled.
So where do families begin to turn things around?
- Parents must stop being the answer. Stop being so “good” at parenting as kids grow older. Especially when it’s not really working anymore. Stop being the “wise” one, and simply say, “I don’t know. That’s something you are going to have to figure out.”
- Parents have to let teens and young adults feel uncomfortable, and still stay out of the way.
- Families must hand over responsibility to young adults, and let them make mistakes and learn, even when they don’t want to.
- Our kids need to be accountable for cleaning up their own messes. If they spend too much money, they need to take responsibility for it. If they choose the wrong roommate, they need to figure out how to fix it.
- Parents have to empower kids by letting them struggle and grow.
- Families have to have confidence that kids really can do things for themselves.
- Parents have to turn over control, even when that feels scary, or kids don’t seem ready.
- Essentially, parents have to stop parenting, and gently move out of the way.