Parenting a Struggling Teen: Let Go . . . and Hold On This Emotional Life - PBS

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Adolescence / Blog

 Frederic Reamer Ph.D.

Frederic Reamer Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Reamer is a professor in the Graduate Social Work Program at Rhode Island College.

Parenting a Struggling Teen: Let Go . . . and Hold On


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Parents of children who have struggled for a long time have lots of experience stepping in to pick up the pieces.  For instance, your 10-year-old goes to school, accidentally leaving his writing assignment on the kitchen table and you drive it to school so your child will not receive a failing grade; but when your 16-year-old does the same thing, it may be time to let your child experience the natural consequences of his forgetfulness.  When your 17-year-old gets a speeding ticket, it is important that it be paid out of the teen’s own savings.

“Letting go” does not mean abandoning one’s child.  The parent of a drug-using child can say, “You can’t continue to steal from me.  We can’t go on like this.  I’ve changed the locks on our front and back doors.  You may call this telephone number and enroll in this drug treatment program.  When you complete the program, you may return home.  I love you too much to continue to enable your drug use.”  Holding on while letting go is a delicate balance that varies in each situation.

Letting go while hanging on may seem like a contradiction; it is not, particularly when parenting struggling teens.  As everyone knows, adolescents are programmed to separate from parents as they move into adulthood.  This is natural.  Yet, struggling teens give parents every reason in the world to hold on to the leash for dear life, to maintain close supervision, and to avoid letting go.  Conscientious, caring parents cannot let go precisely when their struggling children are most out of control and in need of close supervision to ensure basic safety.

The challenge for all parents of struggling teens is to find the right balance between letting go and hanging on.  Hanging on too tightly can be counterproductive, particularly with teenagers who have rebellious instincts.  Forceful parental supervision may be met by equally forceful rebellion.  Also, the stark reality is that these teenagers are marching quickly toward the age of emancipation, when they will be legally responsible for their decisions and behaviors.  Like watching one’s toddler swim for the first time without a flotation device, parents of struggling teens must reach a point where they let go and hope for the best.  If teenagers founder, parents can offer assistance but, before long, a teenager will be a young adult who must manage on his or her own.  Parents need to work hard toward gradual and steady release while continuing to care and offer support in a constructive way.  Figuring out this every-shifting balance is an art.