By Trish Propson

Times Villager, August 2016

“I wish I could tell my mom to trust me to make my own decisions.”

“I wish I could tell my dad to let me run my own life.”

“I wish my son would tell me he still needs me.”

“I wish I could tell my daughter I trust her. I don’t.”

Letting go of a teen son or daughter is difficult for well meaning parents who want the best for their teen. As students all across the valley prepare to leave home for the first time, these words from the rekenekt graffiti wall may shed some light on this complex relational transition.

I admit I have resisted letting my teens fail. Now that three of my children are adults, I have the benefit of hindsight to help me understand the well-intended mistakes I made.

I came from a violent home with very little supervision. My parents subscribed to the physical dominance, terrifying threat, and burning shame school of parenting. As a new mom, I quickly understood that nothing from my past prepared me for healthy parenting. As far as I could tell, there was no training manual. I foolishly concluded parenting would just come naturally. Oh, how wrong I was. What did come naturally was protecting them, reacting to fear, vigilantly sheltering them from danger, and working 24/7 to prevent any harm from coming to them. When they were infants and toddlers, this skill set of a nurturing protector was exactly what they needed to survive.

However, when they crossed the threshold into the teen years, my commitment to prevent my sons and daughters from experiencing any pain hindered their ability to learn from their mistakes. Instead of helping them survive, my natural tendencies to spare them the pain of real-life and fix things for them rather than letting them make their own choices and fail, paralyzed them. Years of training and modeling successful living for them were rendered worthless. My parenting style was all lecture and demonstration. I hesitated allowing them to apply their learning in the lab of real life.

Many parents make the same mistake I did. Teens no longer need a nurturing protector. They need a mentor and coach–a parent who will readily help them determine who they are and grow stronger through their own failures. I have found that trial and error, as well as cause and effect, are far better teachers than hovering parents. Allowing a teen to succeed and fail helps them take responsibility for their own choices. This equips them for life on their own much better than anything parents could do for them.

To illustrate, think of a caterpillar as it transforms into a butterfly. As the butterfly prepares to leave the chrysalis, it wriggles and turns, struggling to break through the weakening walls of the cocoon. If someone or something intervenes and tries to help the butterfly by tearing the cocoon open, the butterfly will be permanently wounded and unable to fly. If the struggling phase is hindered, the wings will be weak and the body too large to lift off the ground. The butterfly needs the struggling phase to strengthen its wings and streamline its body for flight.

The time for teaching, molding, and modeling life is over as teens take flight into the real world. Whether they are leaving for college, moving away from home for work, getting married, or entering the military, parents must let go and allow their son or daughter to struggle with real life issues in real time. Teens who have not learned valuable lessons from their own mistakes often lack personal responsibility, compassion for others, and possess a crippling sense of entitlement.

In contrast, teens that have been allowed to struggle and fail often learn empathy, gain confidence, and better understand themselves and their role in the world. Because they know what it feels like to fail, they embrace valuable lessons and are better equipped to navigate difficult situations. They are better prepared to make healthy decisions going forward.

It is never too late to help your teens learn from their mistakes. Struggling, failing, and making mistakes large and small mold us into healthy, happy, functioning adults. It is no different for teens. Consider these five action steps to help become a parent who coaches, encourages, and strengthens teens as they take flight.

Action Steps: Take Five

1. Do some soul searching. Think back on times when your teen has failed at something. (If you can’t recall any examples, it might be a clue to take a closer look at your willingness to let your son or daughter fail.) Recall your response. Was it supportive and encouraging or did you step in and take over? Was it an isolated incident or has it been a pattern? What motivated your response? What could you have done differently?

2. Ask for input. Invite an open conversation with your teen son or daughter. Ask if they think you are ‘over-involved’ in their success and have prevented them from failing. Discuss situations they might rather try to handle on their own without your intervention. Be willing to listen carefully to what they share and follow through if appropriate.

3. Practice letting them fail. Your teen may encounter a difficult situation where he or she needs to make a choice. The outcome may not be what you prefer. Come up with a plan ahead of time to keep yourself from jumping in to save the day. Next time your son or daughter ends up in hot water, resist the temptation to fix the situation for them. Ask if they need your help with anything regarding the problem. Let them know you are there to support their decision and then let go.

4. Learn from failure. Next time your teen succeeds at something, celebrate it and help them take away more than a trophy, award, or high grade. Help them learn from their success. If they fail, be gentle and quick to help them mine the valuable lesson left behind. If there are consequences from their mistake, allow them to feel discomfort and learn on their own what to do differently next time.

5. Set goals. Determine what outcomes you desire for your teen. Ask about their own personal goals for their future. Make a plan together to reach those goals by clearly defining roles and responsibilities for each of you. Set healthy boundaries by taking responsibility for what is yours and letting your teen do the same.

Rekenekt with Trish Propson is a monthly column devoted to raising awareness for parents about the issues teens face and helping them strengthen relationships with their teens. Trish Propson is a local author, speaker, and family advocate committed to reconnecting families, one conversation at a time.