Managing Detachment for Parents

Over coffee and carbonara the other night, my mother told me the exact moment she knew she was going to have to let me go. It was a crystal clear instance for her. Painful, yes, but inevitable.

I was eleven years old, and she had volunteered to chaperone on my Oregon Trail field trip. Parents were not, I repeat NOT, expected to dress up in pioneer garb. But guess who did?

When I saw her standing by the water jugs in her cowboy shirt (I think she got confused about the time and place we were intending to reenact), I marched right up to her, put on the most mortified expression I could muster, and asked, “Why are you wearing that?” No hello, no hug, just sass.

She told me she went home and cried that afternoon. I was the firstborn and she had never been faced with the inevitability of detachment before. How was she to react when the dynamics of our relationship had suddenly taken a swift turn?

According to child psychologists, adolescence, beginning around 9-13 years of age and winding down by the early twenties, is an important time for both the child and parent to begin implementing a phase of detachment. In childhood, parents help their child develop “ a basic trust in dependence on them for fundamental caring and care. This provides a secure psychological foundation for future growth” (Pickhardt).

Depending on the family, detachment can be a very painful process. At times, detachment anxiety felt by either party can become an obstacle to a healthy and stable detachment process. In children, this can often be the cause of early childhood anxiety disorders, such as separation anxiety disorder (AACAP).

However, delaying the detachment process can cause very large developmental problems for your child down the road. According to Dr. Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D. , “without adequate parental detachment during the teenage years, the twin goals of adolescence – developing individuality for identity and responsibility for independence – are very difficult to accomplish.” He suggests a combination of parental preparation, permission, and acceptance for a successful detachment process.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia says that the trick to making this a seamless transition is to know when to give your teen a little rope and when to tighten it. A teen will rebel if they feel that they don’t have enough trust from their parents and/or don’t have enough control over their own lives (AACAP).

Ginsburg gives the following tips on how to let go of your teenagers in a healthy way:

  1. Consider your teen’s temperament and unique developmental needs.
  1. Listen respectfully to what your adolescent thinks she can handle and ask what guidance or support she seeks.
  1. Invite her to develop plans with you.
  1. Generate a map of each step that needs to be mastered to gain the skills and confidence that will prepare her to meet the overall challenge.
  1. Help her understand that she will continue to gain more independence and privileges as long as she continues to demonstrate responsibility. When she knows that your goal is to help her achieve her goal, she’ll be much less likely to complain that you are monitoring the process.


Recommended Reading

Ways to Support Your Child in High School

How to Let Go of Your Teenager

Communicating with your Teenager

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