How to change your approach to parenting as your child gets older
Since our kids were babes, we have had to plan, decide, and manage every minute of their day. We decided what and when they ate, when they slept, and what they wore. No matter how long we’ve been doing it solo, we’ve gotten very good at taking care of our children—but parenting an adolescent is not the same as parenting a toddler.
When my son entered middle school, he yearned for as much independence as I could give him. After school, he would go with his friends to the local pizza place and just hang out. One afternoon, I was shocked to see him waiting at the bus stop downtown; as I realized, he had learned to take the bus to anywhere he wanted to go. Suddenly I went from knowing what he did and where he was every day to having hours in which I wasn’t really sure. How did he know how to get downtown without me? He was usually so disorganized—part of having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—that I had no idea he could navigate around town. I was both surprised and proud of his newfound independence.
I now had to come to terms with the fact that he needed a different kind of parenting and that meant I had to change.
Through this parenting stage, I learned four important lessons:
- Take the long view. Somewhere in the tween years, it occurs to us that our children are closer to adulthood than they are to toddlerhood. They are naturally moving away from us and finding out who they are and who they want to be. For kids with struggles, it may take them longer to mature. Current research suggests the average brain isn’t fully mature until age 24 or 25. For kids with ADHD, autism, or other issues, add a few years. If we know it’s going to be a long process, hopefully that can ease our worry when our kids aren’t as mature as their peers.
- Make the relationship the priority. I was lucky to have figured out that the most important thing was to prioritize the relationship I have with my children over being right. Yes, I might think I know best, but to always insist on that meant I was sacrificing my relationship with them. When my son told me he drank beer at a friend’s house and got sick, I didn’t launch into him with a lecture. Instead, I asked if he was OK. I listened. I didn’t give him approval for his actions, but I let him know he did the right thing in telling me. As a solo parent, you sometimes want to be your child’s friend and parent. You are your child’s parent forever. You get to be your child’s friend when your child becomes an adult.
- Engage teens as team members. Change is natural and inevitable when your children transition from elementary school to middle school and then to high school. I capitalized on and anticipated each transition by having a family meeting and discussing the new expectations I had for my kids. I started with reorganizing chores and redefining those expectations (for instance, by showing them what a clean bathroom should look like now that they were older). I thought about my own actions and if I was doing too much for them and, if so, what responsibilities they could take on. Besides new expectations for our home life, I also set new expectations for phone and screen time, social media, curfews, dating, etc. For instance, with regard to my daughter’s intellectual disabilities, I worked with her over several months to teach her how to do her own laundry.
- Separate my identity from theirs. This is one of the hardest things we face as parents, especially for the Solo Mom who has been intertwined in her child’s life for so long. Our lives have been so wrapped around our children’s needs that our needs always take a backseat. If your tween or teen is helping more around the house and has a bit more independence, perhaps you can give yourself an hour each week to go for a hike, take a painting class, or meet a friend for tea. Separating gives us more space to do things and gives our teens more space to develop as individuals, but we are always still there to guide and monitor. When my daughter learned to do her own laundry independently, I didn’t say, “Aren’t you glad I taught you?” because it was her success. Instead, I said, “Great job getting your clothes washed, dried, folded, and put away. That shows me that you are really maturing and will be able to take care of yourself as an adult.”
Each stage of motherhood requires us to unlearn, learn, and relearn many skills and habits. Use these natural times of change to look at yourself so you can wisely guide your child through the teenage years.
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
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