Weathering the Storms of Adolescence: To Hold on or Let Go?
During the storms of adolescence it’s a tricky balance for parents to know when to offer support and when to let go. We all want our young adults to be prepared for life, and not be stifled by a “failure to launch” into adulthood.
So what’s the best way to foster independence and responsibility? And how is Parents Place’s Child and Family Clinical program and Parent Coaching program helping families get set up for success? We recently sat down with Havi Wolfson Hall, LCSW, child and adolescent therapist at Parents Place in Palo Alto, to find out.
What trends are you seeing around this concept of “failure to launch”?
With the end of the school year approaching, we get calls from parents worried about their kids not doing their homework or struggling with their organizational skills—for example, a teen that wants to get a summer job, but can’t seem to fill out the applications, make it to the interviews, and call back the hiring manager to follow up. Parents want to know what is developmentally appropriate or if these are signs they’re not going to be prepared to be successful adults.
For many of the kids I see, they’re getting a message that only grades are important. So the kids get the job done but they’re struggling and overwhelmed along the way. Thankfully, parents are reaching out to us for support around this issue.
How can parents set appropriate expectations?
There’s this idea that once kids enter high school, they should “naturally” know how to be organized and be on top of everything. From a neurobiological standpoint the prefrontal cortex of our brains, which helps with executive functioning such as time management and recognizing long-term consequences of our actions, isn’t fully formed until our mid-20s.
It’s not reasonable to expect an 18-year-old to have the abilities of a 40-year-old. Parents would be far more successful with parenting and connecting with their kids on life skills if that were the case!
We set our kids up for success by articulating what is expected of them and having a consistent routine at home that already puts into place natural breaks. Create structure around when is down time, when is it time to do homework and chores, and when it is time to power-off electronics before bed.
How can parents ensure their children have the life skills necessary for adulthood?
Routinely discuss and practice skill-building for real life: how to do laundry, manage money, register for your own classes, and manage your time so as not to stress yourself out.
You have to be explicit, along the lines of, “This is the stage you’re at and this is the expectation now. I am here to help you if you need it.”
Kids can sometime deflate over the summer where there isn’t as much structure. I encourage parents to use the months off from school to reconnect and have fun, and keep up some level of routine so that kids go into the school year with a “full tank.” Summer can be a great time to ask your kid, “What do you want to learn?” Parents can help them reach that goal, whether it is learning to drive, cook, or garden—their answers might surprise you.
One book I recommend is How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, which guides parents in teaching life skills and how to help children be contributing members of the household.
What do the teenagers you work with say about all of this?
They say, “Let us be.”
What I mean is that kids want to be given the opportunity to complete tasks on their own. A lot of parents don’t trust that their children can do things. They want them to be independent, but they don’t always give kids the chance to try on their own. For example, if you think your kid can’t get organized, I ask parents to check their assumptions. Is it true that they can’t get organized—or is it that you’ve been doing things for them because it’s easier or quicker to just do it for them?
Our children borrow our confidence in them until they feel confident in themselves. They look to us to see if they can do it or not. Take the toddler learning to walk—they always look back at their parents. Older kids need that cheering on too. They need us to let them figure it out and help them build the confidence that they can.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Can you explain the connection between failure to launch and anxiety or other mental health issues?
If kids somehow get the impression that failing is unacceptable, it may lead to anxiety, depression, and stunt the age-appropriate executive functioning necessary to move into adulthood.
Short-terms goals like grades are important but grades don’t tell us who children will become as adults. It may seem great when a child has straight As, five extracurricular activities, and a stellar personal statement, but it’s not actually great when that same child cannot answer questions such as, “Who are you? What makes you happy? What are your values?” If a kid can’t answer those questions at 18, that’s a problem because when they head out into the next chapter of their lives they may find themselves unable to make the day-to-day decisions necessary to succeed.
Parents Place certainly sees teens who are struggling to answer these questions and with some coaching, family support, and time, teens can build the resilience and confidence to do very well.
I’m afraid many kids are stressed and anxious—academic pressure, peer pressure, parental pressure all take their toll. The transition to become an adult has never been a smooth one, but with social media and a culture that is always “on” there are fewer places where kids can go to just have fun and be themselves. I encourage parents to find time and the place to just be with their kids, “unplug”, and enjoy each other.
To truly make sure kids have mental wellness and balance parents need to do their best to model it for their children. That requires parents to keep their own level of perfectionism in check, and get the support they need to quell their own anxieties about their children’s future success.
What kinds of support can JFCS’ Parents Place provide around this issue?
Parents who come to us are getting a lot of support with our Parent Coaching sessions. We give concrete ways to set boundaries, talk about responsibilities, and set up a plan of action. We also offer one-on-one video or phone sessions for parents who can’t come in to one of our offices. And we have many workshops you can attend either in person or virtually.
If it’s your child or teen who also needs support, we have a range of specialists, including child and adolescent therapists, educational therapists, and occupational therapists. Please reach out if your child is experiencing anxiety, depression, or severe stress. We can help.
What parting words of hope would you give to parents?
Try and learn to accept failure as part of the process. Kids need room to do things themselves without your fear of failure looming over them. That’s how they grow and learn to become adults.
All kids have their own developmental trajectory and we can’t force them to move any faster. But that’s easier said than done! That’s why Parents Place is here: to have a place to discuss these issues, so you can walk away with the tools to put these ideas into practice.
Havi Wolfson Hall, LCSW, is a Child and Adolescent Therapist at JFCS’ Parents Place in Palo Alto.