You’ve raised them, fed them, taught them, and now it’s time to let them go. Your “baby” is now a young adult, and they’re striking out on their own. It’s normal for you both to feel a range of different emotions. You may be sad, excited, proud, and terrified all at the same time. But as hard as it may be, letting go is the right –and healthy—thing for both of you.
“We’re mammals,” points out Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University. “Even though we wear clothing and carry cell phones, like every other mammal parent we need to raise offspring who can fend for themselves out in the world without us. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that our job as parents is actually to put ourselves out of a job.”
If you’re finding the transition hard, or even if you’re not, keeping a few things in mind can make the process feel a little less overwhelming.
Embrace your changing relationship
"There are so many amazing things happening. Graduation to me is the finish line of a chapter in my life. It’s an accomplishment. As I am preparing myself to end my last semester in high school, I want to try to make my last moments memorable. I know after this, my life will completely change." - Luis, Class of 2017, Katy, TX
While this thought may seem scary, it will most likely mean good things for your relationship with your young adult. In fact, 75-percent of young adults surveyed in the National Clark Poll agreed that they get along a lot better with their parents now than they did in their mid-teens. Likewise, two-thirds of parents agreed that they get along better with their 18-29-year-old than when their child was in their mid-teens. But despite this fact, education consultant Jennifer Miller says she has not met a single parent who would refer to this as a “good time.” Change is difficult and it can be a rocky time for families to navigate the new dynamics. But what family hasn’t encountered a little challenge?
The most important thing to remember is that your relationship with your child is changing. In fact, they are no longer a child, but starting their adult life. Navigating this relationship is tough and it’s not always easy to know your place. Dr. Jeffery Jensen Arnett, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University, says during this time, both parents and kids begin to see each other as human, changing the relationship immensely from parent-child to something more like friends and companions. That changing relationship isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As psychologist Dr. Michele Borba says, “Do keep in mind you’re not losing a child. You’re gaining an adult!”
Give them space
“I am the youngest of three children and I know my mom will have a hard time when I leave to go away to school. She jokes that she is going to be my roommate. She will not be my roommate.” - Sophie, Class of 2018, St. Louis, MO
Watching your “baby” move out of the house can be one of the most rewarding and terrifying days you have as a parent. But as scary as it is, it’s important to respect their space. When they are physically out on their own, it’s a big time for them to establish their new identity, make new friends, and try to see where they fit in their new world. They can’t do that if you’re at their side every step of the way. Education consultant Jennifer Miller recommends pulling back and letting your teen initiate contact to assert their independence. Miller likens this age to when your child first went to Pre-K or kindergarten. Now, just as they did then, they need to test their capability and competence. Your role is to provide a sense of security for them. Let them know you’re still there if they need you, even if you’re not physically there.
Allowing space is also more than physical. Psychologist Dr. Bobbi Wegner recommends you give your young adult space on social media as well. Allowing the opportunity for a life away from you is important for their identity to develop. It’s normal for you to be curious about what they’re doing, but what they share should be up to them.
Miller adds that space can also mean boundaries you set for your new relationship. Boundaries can be logistically important, like can they pop over to your house or call at any hour? But then there are also more tricky boundaries, like how much they share about their new life and relationships.
“For parents, they may want to ask more questions versus making assumptions as they figure out when and how they’ll communicate or visit home,” Miller says. “It’s necessary that it’s a two-way negotiation as you learn about the life they are creating, what kinds of supports they hope for from you, where you draw your lines in supporting, and how you are redefining your own life at home.”
It’s also the time to let your kid use all that knowledge you’ve been trying to impart to them. Remember all those chores you made them do? Those skills will come in pretty handy now. So will the myriad of other life skills you’ve been helping them build over all these years. But if you’re concerned about their ability to manage to live on their own, or want to ensure that they are, there are a few key life skills our experts recommend.
Let them make mistakes
“I would like them to be less involved. I don’t need a micromanager or someone who is going to fix all my problems, I just want a shoulder to lean on, a supporter, really. It makes sense to me why they want to help me with everything, but sometimes it is nice to learn from experience. It’s sometimes ok for me to fail or get hurt because that’s the only way I’ll learn or become stronger.” - Shreyas, Class of 2018, Claymont, DE
This can be one of the hardest things for parents to do, but it sends a crucial message to your young adult. As licensed school counselor Dr. Shari Sevier says, “If we hover, and continue to make decisions for them, and intervene every time there’s a problem, we’re admitting that we did a lousy job of parenting and we’re telling our kids that we don’t believe in them enough to be able to handle themselves and their newfound independence.” Yes, they might fail a midterm, or miss a deadline at work, but part of being an adult is not only making those mistakes, but learning from them.
In addition to letting them make mistakes, you have to also let go and let them solve their own problems. When you get a call that they did, in fact, fail a midterm or miss a deadline, resist the urge to tell them how to fix it. Instead, you can be supportive by asking questions like “What are you going to do now?” or “How do you think you can improve?” Young adults who are capable of learning from their mistakes and moving on show perseverance, a skill needed both for college and the workforce.
Don’t worry, they still need you
“I would like them to trust me to build my own future. I would like them to believe that I know what I’m doing and for them to have faith in me. I would like my parents to support me in times of trouble and push me to achieve more in times of success.” - Jasman, Class of 2018, Hightstown, NJ
For some parents, the changing relationship can leave you feeling like your kid no longer needs you. But despite the physical or emotional distance and allowing them to have the freedom to make (and fix) their own problems, they do still need you. Instead of being their micromanager or director, your role is now one of mentor or support network. Psychologist Dr. Bobbi Wegner likens the relationship change to taking off training wheels. “Letting go allows your emerging adult the opportunity to trust themselves and manage the bumps of falling. As the parent, you are always there waiting to help if necessary, but the role changes from providing security and protection to empathic support.”
Dr. Wegner reminds us that distance doesn’t mean there is a problem, or that your emerging adult loves you any less. The job of your young adult is to move on to the next life stage. “Your job is to let them,” says Lythcott-Haims.
“At the end of the day, follow the emerging adults’ lead, keep communication open, be flexible and supportive around creating a bit of distance,” Wegner says. “Trust that you will know if something is wrong. You don’t need to keep tabs every day to keep abreast of the kids’ life.”
Don’t forget about you
"I have been the young one for my parents, the baby, and hopefully when I graduate they might be able to spend more time on themselves. That’s what I hope, at least, that after 17 years of putting all their love, time, and efforts into me, they can spend more time for themselves.” - Shreyas, Class of 2018, Claymont, DE
Many families focus a lot of time and effort raising children, which can make their departure from your home a big change for you, too. Having an empty nest, or one less in the nest, doesn’t have to be sad. It can be a time to re-invest in yourself and your relationships. This is a time when you can do more of what interests you. Miller highlights the many opportunities for positive change that parents can take on, from creating a healthier lifestyle to reinvesting in their partner or spousal relationships. It’s not only a great way to reinvest in yourself, but it’s also an opportunity to focus on goals you have or a vision you had for life after kids. It can also be a way to keep yourself focused beyond your kids, and help dispel any temptation to overstep boundaries in your young adult’s life. Spending more time on your own hobbies, traveling, or with friends and extended family members can be a great way to reward yourself for raising an adult.
In fact, you might try role-modeling a healthy, vibrant adult life before all your kids leave home. “Maybe so many young adults are ‘failing to launch’ because we make adulthood look so very unattractive,” says Lythcott-Haims. “Too often ‘parenting’ means obsessing over our kids’ every whereabouts and every piece of homework. Spending a little less time obsessing over our kids and a little more time on self-care and the things we enjoy most will pay off – we’ll simultaneously show our kids that adulthood is a wonderfully engaging and stimulating time of life, while reducing the anxiety—theirs and ours—that comes when we treat them like our pet project. Oh, and we’ll have gotten a bit of our own life back in the process.”
Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Julie Lythcott-Haims, Former Dean to Freshman, Stanford University, and Michele Borba, Author and Educational Psychologist.