When my kids were young, they were the center of my universe. I didn’t let them go to a play date if I wasn’t there. I didn’t send them to preschool. If they were sad, I made it my mission to make things better for them as soon as I could. I’d comfort them with kisses and offer them their favorite food in hopes to erase any uncomfortable situations from their mind.
I know most of this is that Mama Bear instinct that kicks in — we know what’s best for our kids and it becomes our mission to create a comfortable world for them.
Back then, my kids appreciated the protection; they knew I had their backs if they were upset or uncomfortable. But as they grew older and blossomed into teenagers, they pulled away from me a lot. There was a strong shift in the way they acted towards me and the amount they communicated with me. They were showing me they needed breathing room and to be treated differently than when they were small — and I resisted it hard, too hard.
Because I had my kids really close together, when my first one began acting distant and like he couldn’t stand to be around me, I was crushed but figured it was just his personality. Surely my other two sweethearts would never treat me that way.
Then my daughter and son followed his lead in the next two years. They wanted space and distance too, and I had to take a hard look at myself and the way I was parenting them. It wasn’t easy and I was in denial for a long time despite my kids showing me they didn’t need a mother who made it her mission to make her kids comfortable all the time.
They needed me to stop helicoptering, but I would continue to hover over them even though they’d talk less and act out more at home when I did this. The more I tried to get into their lives, the more they pushed me away.
They were constantly irritated and never wanted to share anything with me. Part of this was them growing up and gaining some independence, but a lot of their annoyance came from being around a mother who thought it was her main purpose in life to make her kids comfortable all the time. A mother who didn’t respect their boundaries or their need for individuality.
One day, my son started yelling at me as I was following him upstairs after he’d broke a pencil trying to do his math homework. He turned and looked at me and finally had the courage to say something that was brewing for a long time: “You need to leave me alone. I need to figure some things out for myself. You are too overprotective and I wanted to figure it out for myself.”
In that moment, my son was begging me to let him struggle with something without me trying to swoop in and fix it. He wanted to be uncomfortable, he wanted to try to figure things out on his own. He no longer wanted me to “fix” things for him. He needed me to back off.
It was a hard lesson for me. This was how I showed love. I tried so hard to be the best mom I could be. I was doing things like trying to take away a bad day with an ice cream, or trying to pick them up after having a fight with a friend by peppering them with questions and advice — asking what I could do to make it better, offering anything I could think of as a buffer to get them through something hard. I didn’t want them to feel hurt or experience anxiety.
I wanted to make their worry go away for them instantly, not only for them, but because it hurt me to see them struggle. Of course this is normal — no parent wants to see their child suffer — but it’s not necessarily helpful to force your presence onto them either.
But I knew that day on the stairs, I’d tried to buffer their hurt so much over the years I was taking away their ability to process and deal with their own emotions. I always wanted a quick fix to make them feel better in the moment, and while it worked when they were young, they were all wanting to gain some personal control of their emotions themselves now and I had to let go.
My other two kids cemented my oldest child’s feelings when I came downstairs. “Yeah, Mom, you need to leave us alone sometimes,” they agreed.
I didn’t want to step back to adjust to their needs — that felt so uncomfortable to me. I didn’t want to let them spend hours in their room feeling bad about not making the team, or a broken friendship, or a hard day. But I had to figure out a way to do this — for them.
Essentially, I needed to stop trying to “mom” them all the damn time. It’s one thing to check in and let them know you are there, and quite another to try and make it all better all the time, which is impossible anyway. That’s not my job and in trying to accomplish that, I wasn’t just hurting my relationship with my kids, I was having an effect on their self-esteem and how they processed things.
I thought I was doing them a favor and that was my way of giving this mom thing my all. But when I would hover — standing outside their bedroom door, knocking, and wanting them to let me in when they obviously wanted to be alone; or telling them if they didn’t tell me what was going on when they were down I’d take away screen time; or buying them their favorite food; or taking them through the drive-thru in hopes of lifting their spirits — I was trying so hard to prove something they didn’t need me to prove.
My kids just needed me to be there and accept them — accept them on their good days and their bad days and be there for back up when they needed it.
I was not any less of a mom for backing off. In fact, it wasn’t until I did step back that my kids starting letting me in on their personal life again. They stopped acting like everything I was doing was so over the top, and they began to come around a lot faster if something was off in their life because I was allowing them to manage their fears and emotions. I was giving them time to process what was going on, and the space to ask for the help they needed.
It was really hard the first time my daughter came home from school crying after I vowed to back off my kids. She went up to her room for a few hours after I told her I was here if she wanted to talk. I felt pulled to go up and check on her again but I didn’t.
She came down and told me the short version of what was wrong. I asked her if there was anything I could do and she said she just wanted to be alone.
All I wanted to do was hug her, and make her favorite cookies and snuggle with her on the sofa and watch her favorite movie, but that wasn’t what she needed. She was asking for breathing room and that was what I needed to give her regardless of how uncomfortable it was for me.