ParentTip: Division of Responsibility (Or How to Do Less So Your Kid Does More)

Photo by  Toa Heftiba  on  Unsplash

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I was having this conversation with a parent the other day about how our role changes pretty much continuously as our kids develop, and how much we have to shift the division of responsibility as they grow up. If you think about it like a big, messy pie, our share of responsibility goes from the whole dang thing as caregivers to infants to a big thick slice in the middle school years to a thin and very delicate sliver as our teens get ready to launch. The way we adapt to the shifts in the division of responsibility can influence how our kids develop the skills needed for living independently, how much we experience power struggles in our relationships with our kids, and how prepared we are for the inevitable letting go that occurs inch by inch as our kids get older.

Like development in general, changing the division of responsibility is not a linear process. It can ebb and flow along with each child's unique ability to manage increasing responsibility, and as they experience the inevitable mistakes, backslides and missteps that mark the process. How we adapt the division of responsibility is also dependent on our own willingness and ability to step back, let go, and create space for our kids to try new things that they will have to mess up a little along the way. This can be uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking, confusing and scary for parents. It also means that we're constantly having to reassess our own readiness and our kid's readiness for taking over a larger piece of the pie. 

In early childhood, we can get in a routine of "doing for" our kids in big and small ways, and it can be tough to know when the right time is to give them a little more autonomy. How much do we manage *for* our kids and how much do we manage *with* our kids? How do we get comfortable with all the discomfort this messy process uncovers? Part of what makes this so challenging is that there's no way to change up the division of responsibility without experiencing some failures and some heartaches. This is the hardest work of parenting, learning how to manage our own fears and pain as we give our kids room to skin their knees, experience loss, and get their hearts broken along the way.

Think about a time your young child made a mistake. How much did you step in to correct course for them? How much did you have to guide, manage, advise, and direct this process? Now what about with your teen? How different does it need to look in order for your teen to develop the necessary skills for living independently from you? The teen brain is wired for novelty-seeking and  risk-taking, but it's also wired for resilience and growth. The most effective way to nurture our teen's developing frontal lobe (home of all the critical thinking and executive functioning skills) is to give them plenty of room to practice, practice, practice their increasing responsibility to directly manage their own lives, and to learn how to parent from a place of collaboration & compassion as they grow. This isn't about turning our backs on them, or shutting them out, or leaving them to fend for themselves. It's about moving from the position of leading them by the hand (sometimes dragging them kicking and screaming) to walking behind them with a gentle hand raised in readiness to help steady them when they stumble. Because how will we, but more importantly they, ever know what they're really capable of until we give them room to try?

Need some guidance or support with navigating the tricky teen years? We've got you. Check out Blake & Tracy's TeenWise® Parent Coaching or sign up for our upcoming parenting support group to find out more about how we can help. You don"t have to parent alone. 

Reframing Adolescence

"Raging hormones! Terrible judgment! Crazy mood swings!" How many times have you heard these terms used to describe teenagers? As a culture, we have a lot of negative perceptions of adolescence and all the challenges that the teen years can bring for both parents and teens themselves. What we don't hear as often is how incredibly rich and rewarding the teen years can be, including for the adults who love them. We get caught up in the frustration, the mistakes made, the seemingly unpredictable inconsistencies in mood, behavior and choices.

There are a lot of reasons for the risk-taking, reward-seeking behavior we tend to see in adolescents. Teenagers' brains are, in fact, different from adult brains in how they process information, respond to perceived risks and rewards, and manage emotional cues. But part of what makes the teenage years so full of wonder are these differences we, as adults, are so quick to malign. What if we paid attention to the upside as much as, or even more than, the potential downside?

Mary Elizabeth Williams, author and mom of tween and teen girls, recently wrote:

Teens can be the most amazing, interesting, curious, weird, hilarious, original, enthusiastic and challenging in the good way human beings you will ever meet. My life is exponentially richer and more rewarding because of the high schoolers in it. Teenagers write songs and design clothes and do volunteer work and have really good ideas. Also, they can do their own laundry and make their own lunch.

We couldn't agree more. The words we use have real power to shape the world around us. Imagine the impact we could have on teens' self-image, as well as parents' confidence in their teens, if we took care to use our words wisely. 

friendship challenges: what parents can do

We had the opportunity to speak at Trinity School today on the topic of "Parenting Through Friendship Changes and Challenges," and received such thoughtful feedback, questions and comments from the parents participating. Most children will struggle in some way with friendships: losing a friend, feeling excluded, changing peer groups, not knowing how to react in a challenging social situation. Parents struggle with knowing how to respond, and sometimes have to fight the urge to step in and take over. Here are some tips for what to do when you see your child struggling in her friendships.

  • Normalize change.Friendships change frequently and the enemy of today might be the best friend of tomorrow. Interests change over time, and friendship groups will change with them.
  • Label the behavior, not the child. At some point, all children will experience participating in, and being on the receiving end of, relational aggression and other red light friendship behaviors. Avoid labels like bully & mean girl, but address the behavior. Help your child identify when they or their peer group engage in red light behavior and identify positive alternatives.
  • Know when (not) to intervene. Start with helping your child problem solve on her own. If problems escalate, engage with teachers and parents to collaborate on problem solving. This is a learning process and we want to empower kids to navigate challenges.  Help your child set boundaries  and navigate uncomfortable social situations on her own as much as possible.
  • Encourage self-compassion over self-esteem. Self-esteem is contingent on external validation (grades, compliments) while self-compassion teaches us that we have inherent self-worth, even when we feel bad, make a mistake or experience conflict. Help her be kind and forgiving of herself and others,  remember that everyone has bad days and that emotions are temporary.
  • Create space for down time, independent play and creative pursuits. Honor differences in social needs and help your child set limits on social time.
  • Redefine the goals. Instead of eliminating social challenges, the goal is to help your child develop the skills to navigate them, build pro-social behavior and exercise his brain for healthy development. Resilience is developed when you learn from experience and get stronger.