Enmeshment, protective parenting…navigating the flight-path to independence… Post-COVID course-corrections… How parents and schools can work together…
This article is going to look at how we can work as teachers, school leaders, and parents to develop independence in the next generation. To have an eye to enabling health, learning and growth. To stoke up real-world-readiness by developing agency, autonomy, independence in the little things, and the bigger things so that children and adolescents can develop the emotional agility and cognitive flexibility they need not increasingly whilst held close in the care and structure of family life, school life, to safeguard their ability to take their first steps into adulthood.
I sometimes speak on this topic of ‘the flight-path to independence’ for schools wanting to support parents with the difficult, necessary, and tender art of letting go whilst staying connected with our children as they grow.
With my teacher hat on, I know that over my years pre-motherhood, it was so easy to be clearsighted about parental over-involvement…
We were all outstanding parents…until we had kids ourselves!
Now I am a parent myself I know it’s not so clear-cut. In our house, as Year 8 end-of-year exams approach, I need to hold back and not micro-manage. Our 13 year old needs me to be her parent, not her teacher. Even though I was a superb teacher (!). How many of us as parents slip into that mode where WE are the ones worrying, nagging, pace-setting, organising, trying to pre-empt the academic fall from grace that we seek to cushion them from…
From a professional position, enmeshment in parent-child/teen relationships is something that will come up in school life. And it is coming up a LOT more now – now that parent have had such a difficult experience over lockdowns and the heightened anxiety that still exists among parents – no matter how glad they were that the school gates re-opened. We all had a Teams-Eye view of their curriculum, their teachers, their progress, or lack thereof. We were – of necessity – more involved in their lives and in each others’ pockets than was ever planned. It was survival, it was protective, it was mandated, it was out of our control and stressful.
It’s not only anxious parents who can find the flight-path to independence tricky, it’s the reality that many children and teens are also anxious and avoidant and have a much lower tolerance for discomfort, change, challenge, and uncertainty….
But here’s the thing with that enmeshment, over-involvement, over-protective tendency…it’s one of the unspeakable truths. Whether you are a teacher, or a friend, you’re unlikely to enter the danger-zone of that conversation.
Self-observation – without judgment… rate yourself against the following statements between 1 -5 where 1 is – this is definitely not me, and 5 – actually this is me…And by the way, whilst I write, I am also aware that I am prone to move up and down the scale with a few of these…But when you can see it…you don’t have to be it…
Signs that your relationship with your child might be enmeshed…that you might be treading more the path of nurture/collusion than holding the balance on the tightrope of nurture/challenge:
- You find it REALLY hard to say no and hold boundaries.
- You are extremely attuned to their discomfort, feel it powerfully, and your default reaction is to soothe it, make it go away ASAP.
- You get hijacked by their stories of injustice and take action without questioning or taking stock.
- You write yourself into their story – if they’re the victim you’re the rescuer. If they cast you as the persecutor, you’ll capitulate.
- You collude with them avoiding things…this is the anxiety trap…
- You can’t bear it if they get things wrong so you’ll reliably rescue the situation eg take their forgotten equipment into school for them…stay up late with them ‘helping’ them with coursework.
- You’re reluctant and avoidant of doing anything that might disappoint or displease or rock the boat with your child -even if there are things going on with their behaviour at home that you find unpalatable. Their FOMO is your FOMO.
- You’re more of a friend than a parent.
- You’re overly invested in them achieving certain things, following your pathway, or a pathway you’d always wanted for yourself.
- You dominate their decision making, control options.
It’s true to say that this task of parenthood has become a lot more complicated and difficult since COVID, when we were programmed to hold close to our families for survival. Though it’s only a year or so on from the more systematic and settled lifting of COVID restrictions in the UK and many parts of the world – the impact of those two years of the pandemic rollercoaster still reverberate in our lives – and particularly in the lives of young people.
When I talk about the disruption and delays in this flight-path to independence we embark on from the moment of birth, what we are seeing that has profoundly changed in the educational world – and is still proving problematic are the following:
- Far higher rates of school refusal than ever before – resulting in more parents taking the decision to opt for home schooling. This is not just a lifestyle choice. It is often the result of an anxious avoidance in children and teenagers who despite a range of strengths and capabilities are simply unable to access a sufficient sense of safety in a conventional school setting. Sometimes social anxiety and bullying can play a part. What is truly difficult is the dynamic that gets set up in family life. The Russian-roulette of the mornings – will they or won’t they. The manifestations of terror. The sychosomatic symptoms, the melt-downs. The point-blank physical refusals that leave parents helpless.
- Reluctant participation in activities that involve change and uncertainty, like school trips – especially residential trips. Where these used to have 100% attendance, provide opportunities to shine, bond, open horizons, and lay down golden memories – these are now often a struggle with small but significant numbers of children and families being reluctant, resistant, micro-managing arrangement, and risk averse. A weekend without the digital umbilical cord? Unthinkable. To the extent that the process is so exhausting and thankless that teachers are less willing, and schools look to restructure and reduce these opportunities.
- Navigating transitions, moving through the school system, and beyond is much more fraught. Students dropping out of hard-won university places, unable to navigate the rigours of negotiating terms in shared accommodation, or to make the leap into a world where there is less structure and more emphasis on responsibility and self-drive. Young adults jettisoning fledgling careers, apprenticeships, and returning to home comforts at the first hurdle…
No one sets out to have their child be avoidant and anxious…these things have a slow creep to them – or sometimes come in rapidly and blind-side us and we’re responding in survival mode…
School medical rooms are overrun with those who don’t fancy the test set for period 3 or feel overwhelmingly sad because someone looked at them funny. Or maybe they just can’t be bothered with chunking through another scene of Macbeth… ‘If it’s not ‘my thing’ – then it’s not for me’ …Intolerance and rigidity about trying new things, having experiences that might be out of the ordinary, waiting your turn, wanting a bespoke experience and pushing back with unmeasured and sometimes volatile resistance.
Small, isolated instances may be OK…but working through and beyond that avoidance is important. And when it becomes an ingrained pattern, if we collude with avoidance without building skills then we can be helping them pull the bars of the anxiety cage further inwards, shrinking their life experiences, shrinking their world…and setting ourselves up for larger problems in the future…
So how can we ensure we are helping our child’s flight-path to independence be as turbulence-free as possible?
Not by being over-protective. Over-protected kids make for brittle adults.
Letting go can feel tricky…so create a flight-plan. Think about when they will be leaving home…as a ball-park, the skills they’ll need when they are 18+ whether they are off to university, or travelling or spreading their wings with work or apprenticeships…
Some of the following ideas may help…
- List all the things that you do for your children. EVERYTHING. Duplicate the list for each child you have. Annotate the list. What are the things you do for them that they can do for themselves? Colour code that red – these are the things you need to stop doing for them. What are the things you feel it is reasonable that they SHOULD be able to do for themselves? Colour code this amber. These are the things you need to prioritize to train them up so you can move through the following sequence:
- Do it for them.Do it with them.Watch them do it.
- They do it and you champion / quality assure / review with them.
- Checkist the following…When did YOU do the following…what’s the earliest you think they could do the following…what’s the latest that would make it an embarrassment if they couldn’t do the following…
Challenge checklist! 0-18
- Can my child cross the road?
- Manage certain short journeys independently?
- Navigate their way home from school or playground?
- Can they manage their transport – eg use a travel card or ticked through the barriers and keep the ticket safe in a designated place?
- Can they manage the journey home from the town centre?
Growing independence in time management
- Can they manage time limits and transitions without melt-downs?
- Can they manage screen-time limits?
- Can they manage time limits with homework so they can do the work in a focused way without it sprawling over free time and time for hobbies?
Handling money – understanding it, respecting it, budgeting
- Can they manage money and buy stuff from a shop?
- Can they handle a shopping list and do a shopping errand for you?
- Can they save money? And hold to mid-term, long-term financial goals?
- Can they handle a budget and stay with that discipline?
- Can they manage money, and be accountable for their spending, creating a budget, managing their budget?
- Can they manage impulsivity around spending? (Hard deadline – when child ISAs mature, when child trust-funds become legally theirs – when you give them an allowance to manage their living expenses?)
- Can they apply for work, perform at a job interview?
- Can they hold down a holiday job, earn some money?
Developing and using their independent voice?
- Can they ask questions of a shop assistant?
- Can they negotiate with a salesperson? Eg take back a faulty toy, or ask for a discount?
- Can they order their own food at a restaurant? Look the waiter in the eye and speak clearly, saying please and thank-you?
- Can they phone grandparents, relatives, god-parents and have a catch-up chat?
- When you take them to the doctor, who does the talking?
- Can they name their body parts, using scientific terms, in order to articulate worries or health niggles accurately – especially important for managing genito-urinary health and sexual health in the future…(like when they are 35!)
Managing separation and more extended independent peer to peer opportunities
- Can they handle an overnight stay with a family member or trusted friend?
- Can they handle outings to unfamiliar places?
- Would they know what to do if they got lost?
- Do they know phone numbers for parents and their address?
- How can they make a start – so that the first time they have a sleepover ISN’T when there are wilder teenage risk-taking opportunities at play…eg access to booze, smokes, vapes, drugs..
- What about a semi-sleepover? (Stay till 9 or 10pm and come home ready for bed…
- Prepare for a full sleepover – packing a bag, key items, comforters, contingency calming plan, trouble-shooting protocols?
Being part of the household team…looking after their possessions and their home environment.
- Can they clean the car?
- Can they hoover their room?
- Do they actually know how to tidy their room?
- Can they fold clothes, hang clothes up to dry, iron a Tshirt or a shirt?
- Can they sort out which toys and clothes they no longer need and can go to the charity shop?
- Can they pack their bag for going away for an overnight stay, a weekend, a holiday…
- Can they set the table?Can they load the dishwasher?
- Can they chop vegetables and handle a knife safely?Do they know the basics of food hygiene?
- Can they prepare their morning snack?
- Get their breakfast ready? Prepare a packed lunch?
- Can they follow a recipe?
- Can they cook a family meal?
- Can they cook their favourite food / develop a signature dish?
Health and Safety
- Can they be streetwise?
- Can they spot signs of trouble up ahead? Scenarios that look less comfortable? People who make them feel intimidated or who are behaving erratically? How can they take control of their path?
- Do they know what to do if they don’t feel safe?
- Can they handle health and safety matters appropriately?
- Manage risk – eg be streetwise in the evening?
- Can they respect curfew rules, and manage accountability for their whereabouts?
- Can they handle the party scene? Manage peer pressure and peer dynamics around smoking, vaping, drinking, drug-taking?
- Can you sound them out about contingency planning, more complex social situations, disaster-recovery around more independent adolescent experiences?
And celebrate mastery moments!
Remember that if a child can do advanced maths, speak 3 languages, play elite sports, receive top grades, but can’t manage their emotions, practice conflict resolution, or handle stress, or feel competent in the basics of life – none of that other stuff is really going to matter. They will hit the buffers socially, academically, personally…and they will be likely at some stage to have to go back in order to go ahead again. Or they will cause damage to others in their relationships and workplaces of the future.
We run these risks if we concierge them through their schooling and their child/ teen development without really building in whole-person, human skills. So that they feel a much broader sense of agency and connection with themselves as being beings who are capable, and capable of having a space at the adult table in later life. WE live in anxious times. Action binds anxiety, and scaffolding their path to independence is taking more than just assuming ‘they’ll grow out of it’…Because sometimes, they don’t. Many parents of young adults are struggling with supporting over-needy, under-resourceful children who are not showing the signs of growing up…and who are not happy in spite of being helped.
We need to learn, grow, and feel mastery in life in order to flourish.
I will not forget my first experience of a flat share post-university with a wonderful friend who was hugely, hugely capable intellectually, glittering socially, but simply unlivable-with. They took the floordrobe concept out of the bedroom and into the corridors and whole flat floor-plan….leaving the fug of unwashed garments to perfume the air. Apart from cooking spectacular meals once a blue moon, they lifted no fingers when it came to the running of the flat. I would watch in disbelief as they emerged from the squalor like a fragrant phoenix on nights out. It did not end well.
I will not forget my first experience of a flat share post-university with a wonderful friend who was hugely, hugely capable intellectually, glittering socially, but simply unlivable-with. They took the floordrobe concept out of the bedroom and into the corridors and whole flat floor-plan….leaving the fug of unwashed garments to perfume the air. Apart from cooking spectacular meals once a blue moon, they lifted no fingers when it came to the running of the flat. I would watch in disbelief as they emerged from the squalor like a fragrant phoenix on nights out. We parted ways.
We all want our kids to be able to make their steps out into the world with increasing confidence, competence, and security. No one sets out to create a helpless adult. No one wants their kid to be boomeranging back home and unable to stay launched…
Passivity, learned helplessness, can be patterns that develop in family dynamics…It’s like when you buy a ripen at home avocado…you pop it in the fridge where it’s safe to ripen, and after initially checking it and leaving it to ripen, after a bit you forget…and BOOM…it’s gone over, become soft, mushy, and not really that palatable…
I hope here are some ideas to get you started…to help you bring some strategy and direction in raising ‘em up!
Life by design, not by default.
With love and gratitude,
PS If you’re having struggles with anxiety or independence issues with your child or teen…maybe a coaching session would help unpack and unstick the situation? Get in touch…
How to Raise and Adult – Julie Lythcott Haims
Your Turn – How to be an adult – Julie Lythcott Haims
The Self Driven Child – William Stixrud and Ned Johnson
What do you say? How to talk with kids to build motivation, stress tolerance, and a happy home – William Stixrud and Ned Johnson
Thrivers – Michele Borba
Unselfie – Why Empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world – Michele Borba