On my flight back from the west coast yesterday, I sat with a lovely couple, who thankfully kept me occupied with conversation for several hours, distracting me from my fear of flying. In the course of the conversation we covered all the usual stuff, who we were visiting, where we were from, and what we did for a living. On hearing I was a parenting expert, and with an encouraging nod from me, we settled into a coaching session about their 27 year old son. These clearly loving and lovely parents were distraught about the failings of this young man. It seems this guy was the golden child growing up, talented athlete, popular and adored by both adults and peers, and good student. Off he went to college, where I am guessing his golden boy status fell on deaf ears in a large university setting. No longer the big fish in a small pond, no "adoring fans" just fellow students, he entered the real world. I 'm guessing he started with smoking pot, and most recently was found to have an addiction to Oxycontin in addition to his abuse of pot. He has managed to hold a job, but his drug habit has put him into thousands of dollars of debt, totaled two cars and crashed a third, and is now financially dependent on his parents to continually bail him out. He is allowed to live rent free in their downstairs apartment of the 2-family house they own. His parents pay his phone bill, car insurance bill, buy his groceries, do his laundry, and rescue him from most of the trouble he finds himself in. Peter Pan couldn't have said it better: "I won't grow up."
There is no question that these parents are loving, attentive and supportive and have always been engaged and involved in their children's lives. But this is a case of too much involvement, and too much engagement, and a study in when too much is too much. It is a cautionary tale for all parents. This dad is the "fixer". He loves feeling needed, and jumps at the chance to problem solve for his kids. He is the car buyer, the job finder, and the bill payer. The mom is the "nurturer."Nothing makes this mom happier than doing for her kids, whether it's their cooking, or cleaning, or their laundry. I have painted a beautiful picture. But here is the problem, this son now an adult feels entitled and dependent on all that his parents do for him rather than being appreciative and grateful. This young man has been so taken care of, that now as an adult has no motivation to do for himself, and frankly who can blame him. If he knows that no matter what, mom and dad will be there to rescue him from responsibility, why be responsible at all? But what is less obvious, is that this young man feels like a loser. Yes its all good that he has a nice car, state of the art phone, free digs, but all his money goes to his drug dealers, and his parents support his life style. This is not self-esteem building behavior. So though on the outside it may look like "he is in fat city"on the inside he knows that this is not where he should be at 27, with mom cooking and doing his laundry. Becoming successfully independent in young adulthood is normally what we hope for our kids and what they want for themselves.
Here are the takeaways from this tale for parents of teens. In the not so distant future your teens will be young adults. Your job is to help them develop the skills now that they will need as they enter the world on their own. So here are a few tip to help you help them get there.
1. Do not "overhelp" with their school work. No one is entitled to a college education. If your high school student is not showing academic motivation, and you find yourself the orchestrator of homework and papers, you are not helping your teen to develop those skills they will need when they don't have you around. Be clear with your expectations: "I get you hate doing homework, but here is the thing, no work, no college.
2. Make your kids have to work for some things. Kids do not "need" state of the art phones, computers, clothes, video games and all the other non-essentials of life. Teens have begun to expect that they should have the "best of everything". What builds self-esteem, and self-confidence and resilience is not being given too, but working for!
3. Resist the temptation to be the problem-solver as in "here is what I think you should do". Better question is "well, what do YOU think you should do? Do not find them the summer job, the internship, write their college essays, make their college lists, etc. If you do everything for them, they never get to have that feeling of: "look what I did, I'm so proud of myself." Instead you get to feel" look what a great parent I am." More important for your teen to feel that sense of accomplishment than for you.
The bottom line is, becoming an independent adult takes training. Doing for them does not build independence. Adolescence is the time to teach. Giving your teen your blessing that you have confidence in their ability to handle their life is your gift.