How Can I Let My Children Go?

CBN.com For many mothers (and fathers), the emptying nest ushers in as profound a life change as retirement after a lifelong career. "I don't know who I am anymore," said Marcia in an anguished voice. "I spent my time being a room mother, ferrying the kids to sports activities, doing fund-raisers, and just being a mom. Now who am I? What am I supposed to do?"

When the nest begins to empty, life changes. That adorable silky-skinned little baby, once crying to be held and then contentedly nuzzling against your cheek, now needs and craves freedom to explore life on its own. A child, like a butterfly bursting through its cocoon, obeys the urge God gave to break free.

Peggy Altig, a family counselor, summarizes this familiar struggle. "Learning to be a separate person is the main task of young adulthood, becoming equal rather than being under the parent's dominance," she says. In contrast, the main task we parents face is letting go and releasing control. It isn't easy.

When Elliot, a college freshman, told his mother all the guys on his dorm floor were going to get identical earrings, she shot back, “Not if you want your tuition paid, you’re not!” So much for letting go.

Parental control, so necessary at certain stages of our child's development, can be a hard habit to break, but it must be done. Giving our children-turned-young-adults freedom to make their own decisions is tough for many of us.

Why is this? Why do we tug on the ropes that bind them to us, when they long to be respected as individuals with their own opinions, capable of running their own lives? Let's find out.

What's Behind a Mom's Struggles?

Loss of Identity and Purpose

With the empty nest looming or already here, do you have a feeling of hollowness? While some moms celebrate this new stage of their lives, others struggle, at least for a time.

Remember that this period of your family life is in transition—and as such is bound to be a bittersweet time. Be gentle with yourself. Take time to grieve and reminisce. After all, you are experiencing a loss of the familiar and trading one form of family life for something yet unknown.

Loosening of the Mother-Child Bond

One mom of two teens looked ahead a few years and sighed, "I love my boys so much, I can't imagine what it will be like when they're gone." Most of us moms, whether contentedly at home or out in the marketplace, share these feelings—at least on the good days.

Loving our children and being loved by them is what God intended. This love—a tough, flexible bond—knits the family together despite the clashes, power struggles, and hurtful words that often mark the teenage years.

However, no matter how much we love our children, they are essentially on loan from God. We don't own them or have the right to live their lives for them. Our task is to prepare them for life.

The Fear Factor

Watching our children step into a separate world can be very frightening. Because we love them so much and care about their well-being, it's easy to imagine all the difficulties they might face and wonder if they'll be able to cope.

Often, layered beneath these genuine concerns for our children, lurk our own unexamined fears and twisted beliefs. You may recognize some of these:

If my child chooses behavior I don't approve of, it must mean I've failed as a parent.
If my child is less than perfect, people in my church and family will look down on me.
If my child doesn't do as well as my friends' children, I'll look bad and be embarrassed.

In their insightful book What Did I Do Wrong? Practical Help for Parents Who Think Its Too Late, William and Candace Backus tackle common misbeliefs about parenting. They suggest you stop and question twisted thoughts that gnaw away at your peace. Ask yourself:

Why am I fearful? Why do I feel guilty? Why do I feel responsible?
What am I telling myself that makes me feel like this? Is it true or logical?
How am I responsible for my grown child's choices?

All of us want our children to march through life without going down dead-end roads or destructive paths. We know the damage that follows certain choices. Hard as it is, however, we have to stand back, give advice only if asked, and let them choose their own paths.

Many of us have a hard time launching our children into the world. But have you ever wondered what feelings your kids wrestle with? Let's try to look at some of them and how we can respond.

What's Behind My Child's Struggles?

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death

Patrick Henry's famous statement could well describe the internal drive of every young adult. They must fly from the nest. They must become a separate person if a healthy sense of self is to develop.

During the time of late adolescence, answers to three crucial questions are being worked out. Who am I? How do I relate to others? What should I believe? Their inner propulsion to become a separate, unique person is not meant as a personal rejection of you (at least, not permanently), but is a response to God's programming.

Peggy Altig, advises, "The ultimate goal in releasing our children is having them replace external, parental control with internal self-control. The sooner we give them choices within choices with safe consequences, we strengthen their ability to make wise decisions. By saying, `You decide—these are the consequences of each of these choices,' they can learn that if they want good outcomes, they must make good decisions. It's better to let them learn through less serious decisions while at home than more risky ones when on their own."

Please Listen to Me

Authors William and Candace Backus believe that one of the major mistakes we parents make is in how we communicate with our children. They suggest that rather than telling our children what WE want THEM to hear, we need to listen to what they are trying to say to us.

What are some bad "hearing habits" we need to discard so our children will feel heard?

Defensiveness: I'm not to blame, you made me ...
Control: You'd better do what I say, or else ...
Criticism: You have no idea about the value of money.
Ridicule: What do you know about anything?
Sarcasm: Right, you're so clever aren't you....

Rather than arguing, giving orders, or refusing to listen, try to hear beneath the surface.

Do You Believe in Me?

What gives our kids confidence as they stand at the brink of adult life? Regular doses of reassurance that they are loved, capable, and will succeed. Letting your kids know that you believe in them is a gift you can give again and again, and it doesn't even cost money! Here’s some easy ways to say I believe in you:

Ask Their Opinion. Asking someone their opinion sends the message: "I believe in you and value what you think." When we treat our kids with the same respect we give to other adults, we’re making a powerful statement. We’re saying, "I see you as an individual with your own views, and I want to hear them."

Be Affirming. Ask God to help you focus on your children's good points. Write their positive traits in a prayer journal as a reminder, then verbalize them to your child. Tell your son you appreciate his thrift. Or his honesty—even if his truth-telling hurts at times. Praise your daughter's determination to pay off her credit card charges every month, her choice of friends, or her hard work.

When you see marks of maturity, say something.

Express Confidence. Studies show that when we believe something about another person, we unconsciously say and do things that cause that belief to become reality. As a result, when confidence is expressed in someone, that person frequently exceeds all previous expectations.

What does this say to us moms? Whether debating what to do about school, where to live, or what job to take, tell your kids you believe in their ability to make good decisions. At every opportunity, let them know you're confident they will come through the young-adult passage successfully.

Shifting Gears: From Mother-Child to Mother-Friend

Growing up, our children lived under our roof and benefited from our provision for their needs. Now that they are young adults, the time has come to shift from the outgrown mother-dependent child mode to an emotionally healthy mother-friend mode.

What are we aiming at in this evolving mother-child bond? Isn't it to nurture and shape something lasting and precious that has not existed up till now? Our goal is nothing less than an adult-to-adult, friend-to-friend, equal-to-equal relationship between ourselves and our grown child. For that to happen, we must let our children go.

Adapted from I’m Too Young to Be This Old! by Poppy Smith. Published by Bethany House Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.