Letting Go: The Hardest Important thing you must do as a Parent
By: Tsara Shelton
Yesterday I watched my fifteen year old son hop into the backseat of a little white car and take off to the mall (which is slightly over an hour away) with his misfit friends, the oldest and slightly most responsible of them behind the wheel.
I hated it. I hated it, I hated it, I hated it!!
You would think that by now, by teenaged son number three (with one more to go) I’d be used to—or at least have found some tricks to help me deal with!—this letting them grow-up and go learn who they are with freedom thing. But here’s the problem with that assumption, each one of my sons is a very different person, choosing different types of friends and activities, with different habits and self-identifying labels they need to explore. Each time one of my boys takes off I have entirely new worries and wonderings. Along with, of course, all the traditional stand-bys.
Here’s another problem with that assumption. Each one of my sons is a person I love so much, and my heart can’t stand that I know the very real dangers of the world. No matter how many children you guide toward adulthood, you don’t get used to that.
Each one of our children is a person who absolutely must find themselves in potentially dangerous, possibly heart-breaking, powerfully character building situations in order to become well rounded, confident and free individuals. From the moment our children are born we have the job of letting them learn to leave us, and in truth when they are very little it is kind of a fun job! While they learn to walk we let them fall down and promise them that they can get back up all by themselves. When they want to tie their shoes we show them how and then step-back and promise them that they can do it on their own! It’s fantastic and cute and when they finally do figure it out. The beaming with pride lights up our heart and fuels it for the next lesson!
For those of us who have children with special needs, the specifics might be different but the job is the same. Leading them to learn not to need us. The timelines and specific skills might look different, but the goal is the same. Show them that they can do it. Believe in them and trust them and give them the tools, then let go.
When I watched my fifteen year old take off with his misfit friends yesterday, I knew that it was the right thing, but I also knew that it was scary and dangerous. My son has challenges with social skills. He is, what he calls, a little bit autistic. And though I totally know better, I have been holding onto him a little too tight because of my own fears. Especially since one thing that has been consistent with him is his choosing of misfit friends. Why, in that car yesterday was a girl who recently ran away with an older man she met on the internet, a boy who tried to shoot himself only to accidentally shoot his dad in the knee, and a sixteen year old girl struggling with cancer and living life on the edge, because she might die. So, I have been offering excuses to avoid letting him party with his peers, or I invite them to hang out at our place so they know I’ve got my eye on them.
I’ve also been actively ignoring the part of me that sees clearly how my son fits comfortably into these misfit groups. He likes them and they genuinely like him. He makes them laugh, and they tell him he should stop worrying about his weight, that his body looks good and matches him. He feels comfortable being his quirky self with them and they listen while he brags about his family, agreeing and adding compliments. They are “troubled teens” who are kind to my son and his family.
I’ve been hypocritically begging for autism acceptance on my Facebook Page, while refusing to offer adolescent acceptance with his peers.
But lately I’ve stopped ignoring and I’ve let myself see: not only has keeping him home had him feeling left out of peer groups, he has also been talking with his little brother and his little brother’s friends in ways-- and about things-- that are perfectly age appropriate for him, but not for his brother and his friends. Well…duh!
How is my fifteen year old supposed to practice social skills (which, as I readily admit, he needs to practice!) if I don’t allow him the freedom to do so? At school or in organized social activities our children are offered manufactured opportunities, but without allowing them true freedom away from the watchful eyes of their grown-ups and mentors they can’t practice and discover and really know who they can be, while knowing confidently that the choices and mistakes they made were entirely their own.
Who has ever learned about life without living? And who can discover their own power and personality if they are never offered the freedom to do so? I’ll offer in my defense the very true conundrum of many autism parents and individuals. A person on the autism spectrum experiences the environment differently, and often understands communications differently than the majority of the people around them, and so it’s hard to anticipate what to expect when adding a little autism to the peer group, making it harder to prepare our kids. But, so? If our children are autistic, indeed if we ourselves are autistic, we still need freedom to learn who we are and how to handle the world. Different challenges and abilities will mean different specifics, but always we have to let our children take the next step in the direction of their goals. And always it will be scary. If it isn’t scary, we aren’t really doing it.
Also, finding a balance is intimidatingly important and forever unclear. We can’t let go too much, close our eyes and just hope. We mustn’t forget to give tools and example responsibility. We can’t just assume that if their friends’ parents are letting the kids do something, it’s probably fine. Our kids are not their friends. We must watch and trust and give freedom and communicate….
It’s our job as parents to step-up and handle that gut wrenching, heart-palpitating fear that accompanies letting go. Whether it’s waiting in the car while they go alone into a public restroom, giving them permission to walk to school alone, or letting them take off with their misfit friends to the mall; it’s our job as parents to let go.
Even if we hate it.
When my son got home last night he told me that his friends had smoked cigarettes in the car, driven too fast and the girls wore so much perfume he could taste it. “I hope I don’t get cancer from all the smoke I was forced to breathe,” he worried, “next time I’m going to tell them I’ll only go if they don’t smoke.”
And this morning he said, “Hey mom, I learned a good way for me to feel confidence. I make myself do something, then I let myself slow down when my confidence is getting low, but I don’t let myself stop. Then I feel so proud of myself for doing the thing that my confidence gets stronger.”
So I’m learning from him. I’ll make myself let these fantastic boys of mine learn to not need me, and when my confidence wanes I’ll slow down but won’t let myself stop. My boys have given me so very many reasons to let my confidence grow stronger!
Tsara Shelton is the proud mother of four chronically eating teenage boys, an avid sipper of coffee, reluctant performer, writer of musings, and shopper of groceries. She is the oldest of eight children who were raised with creativity and love by international mental health expert, Lynette Louise. She is a daughter, sister, and mom of autism who enjoys writing about the many fantastic and fun learnings that being surrounded by difference challenged her to discover. A fan of mixing insight and humor, Tsara loves sharing quirky and fun revelations daily with fans on her Facebook page: Autism Answers.