As a former Marriage and Family therapist, and a Mom with a college-age son and another in high school, I’m plop in the middle of the letting go and launching phase that we’ll all experience with our kids. This is the second post in a four-part chat on the growing pains that are part of the process.
Today’s post is about you
From the moment you carried your precious, sweet-smelling infant into your home and began to reorganize your entire emotional universe around this shining new human being, your life changed forever. I’m sure the last thing on your mind was the image of hugging them good-bye and sending them off on their own.
And in the beginning, that’s how it should be. Because the first step in raising a loving, confident, self reliant child is creating a deep, emotional bond with them.
But the crazy irony of fantastic parenting is that the ultimate expression of profound love is when we can let go of our child in a healthy way. It’s when we can nurture and love, and step back. It’s when we can let them try new things and fail, so they can ultimately learn the skills to be independent enough to leave us. With no guilt involved.
That’s parental love.
Lucky for us mothers we get plenty of practice in the million little transitions along the way. Simple decisions about when to end breast feeding, or begin kindergarten present us with tiny twinges of letting go. Navigating sleep-overs and trips to the mall, make us squirm and adapt, while each new growth spurt will present us with a choice to micro-manage or pull back. And our final decision depends on our ability to tolerate the discomfort of letting go.
So today’s post is about you. Because here’s the truth. When it comes to letting go of our kids emotionally, so much of what we do and what we feel as parents, is directly related to the kind of family we came from, and the kind of parenting style we have.
Do you recognize your own family?
Overly enmeshed vs. Emotionally distant
The following two scenarios show completely different experiences of letting go, by real life mothers. These two mothers come from different types of families. In the world of family therapy, we often see two types of families that struggle to have healthy boundaries and honest communication; one is the emotionally enmeshed family and the other is the emotionally distant family. Although every family may share some of these qualities, in families with symptomatic kids, they’re more extreme. I’m giving a scant description here.
Scenario 1: A loving, kind mother was worried about her twenty-something year old daughter’s fiancé. She noticed a lot of “red flags.” She believed he was the wrong choice for her oldest daughter. Yet despite her worries, she liked the fact that he wanted to settle down close to the daughter’s family. And even though this mother privately wondered if her daughter was truly in love, she made the stunning statement, “Well, I’d rather have her marry this guy and know at least she’s going to live close to me, rather than have her marry the man of her dreams, and find out he wants to live in another state.”
This was sheer, unfiltered honesty. And it shined a light on how desperate this mother was to keep her adult daughter physically close to her; even if it meant marriage to the wrong man.
The mother in this first scenario is from an overly enmeshed family, where kids are unconsciously encouraged to stay close at all costs. Emotionally and physically. Parents struggle to let go. They rescue and intrude in ways that encourage dependency. Anger is not acknowledged in these families, because it accentuates differentness between family members, which is threatening to this brand of closeness. So kids don’t learn how to resolve conflicts. In overly close families, everyone feels everyone else’s emotions. Boundaries are blurry.
Scenario 2: A mother was sharing her excitement about her youngest child moving across the country to college. She loved the idea of finally being an ‘empty nester’ and was already planning a trip to Europe. Finally, her and her husband could travel. She joked about wanting to change the house keys on all her kids.
In this scenario, the mother appears to have a healthier outlook about being away from her adult kids. But it would be interesting to know how the kids in this family feel. In emotionally distant families, kids often describe feeling alone while growing up. These are families that place a lot of emphasis on external appearances, so kids from these homes typically graduate school and college on time. And are often high functioning in terms of achievement. Emotional boundaries in this family have a formality about them. For example, a mother wouldn’t ask her son a question she feels is too personal. While in enmeshed families, probing questions are common. When one person is hurting in an emotionally distant family, it often goes unnoticed by other family members. People go out of their way to ‘respect’ each other’s privacy, which means deep sharing doesn’t typically occur.
These are two ends of the spectrum
If you imagine a straight line, you can see how the letting go experience of a mother can range from one end of the spectrum to the other; depending on the kind of family “closeness” she’s learned in her own family. Growing up in an enmeshed family with poor, squishy boundaries will shape a person’s emotional needs, in the same way that being raised in an emotionally distant family will. In reality, there’s a healthy middle ground which I’ll chat about next week.
How we let go of our kids …will be shaped by the emotional bond we have with them
Years ago, when I worked on an Eating Disorder Unit, one of my jobs was to teach a class to the parents of the eating disorder patients in our unit. It was my job to empathize and help shed light on their struggles and to answer their questions about how families operate. What’s healthy and what’s not. Part of my job was to help parents understand that each family operates with their own private code of rules when it comes to their emotional life at home. Most of these rules are unspoken. In fact, kids learn some of the most important lessons about how to deal with their emotions by simply watching us. And they learn by the kind of emotional experiences they get inside their home.
If you’re curious to understand why your family members are close, or why you rarely talk to your adult brothers or sisters, you can begin by examining how emotions were expressed in your family.
What did you learn?
For example, what was your experience as a kid growing up in your own family?
- Did Mom yell and get upset and then let things go unresolved?
- Did Dad let Mom do all the tender sharing?
- Did family members open up or cover up their deepest worries, sadness or fears?
- Did you have to worry about your mother’s feelings if you were upset ?
To this day, I still remember how surprising it was for parents to realize the power of the unspoken rules that were silently operating in their home. I lost track of the times I heard a parent say, “I never knew they (my child) thought that,” after listening to their teenager open up…
the one message that matters
So, I’m going to close with one important message that should never go unspoken. You can reinforce this value in your own home and role model it starting today. It’s a simple idea but it’s powerful. It’s the idea that everyone’s feelings matter, and it’s a game-changer.
This is especially important to reinforce in larger families. Because often the kid who is hurting and in need of help, has a different experience in the family that needs to be heard and valued. Maybe there’s anger or hurt at a parent that other siblings don’t have. In fact, there can be eight kids in a family, and each kid can have a totally different experience of their parents and a different view of their family life.
And the message that most matters? Each person’s feelings are equally valid and important.
Something made you click on this post. I sure hope you found something helpful.
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