During the pandemic, my children, four tweens and teens, became my best friends: my walking companions and sous chefs, my audience for terrible jokes, and my dance partners while cleaning the kitchen. My kids were my “party” on New Year's Eve and my Saturday night movie buddies. Our family’s entire social life revolved around each other, morning, noon and night. Cuddled under mountains of blankets, snacking on popcorn and chocolate, we cocooned.
And then one night last winter, my youngest kid, 11 years old, said he was going to bed. I started to drag myself off the couch to tuck him in, and he said: “No, Mom. I want to say goodnight to you here. I don’t want you to tuck me in.” A knife through the heart would have felt less painful than those three short sentences. My baby, who usually gave me goodnight kisses while snuggled in his bed, offered instead a perfunctory peck to my forehead as he scurried upstairs.
That was only the first blow. A few weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon, I asked my 13-year-old daughter what movie we were going to watch that night. She looked at me with pity in her eyes and said: “I’m really sorry, Mom, but I want to FaceTime my friends instead of watching a movie with you.” She offered a consolatory hug before gleefully sprinting up to her room.
The hits kept coming as my kids’ lives started to normalize, moments of them choosing friends over family, opting for the outside world over our bubble. Don’t get me wrong — I was thrilled for them to be out in the world again. Deeply grateful that they were finally able to do all the things kids their age should do. Except inside of me, it also hurt. Where were all my friends (kids) going? Intellectually, I knew it’s normal for adolescents to individuate from their parents and push us away, but knowing that is different from feeling it. I felt like my kids were dumping me.
But news alert – it’s not about me, it’s about my kids. The entire goal of this parenting endeavor is to foster our children’s independence to a point where they can move away from us and live on their own. Years of grueling effort built up to this moment: sleep training, potty training, school separation, swimming in the deep end, walking alone to the store, ordering for themselves at a restaurant. We need to let our kids separate. It’s best for them even if it’s hard for us.
Not only do we need to let them go, but we also need to manage our reactions to their separation, so we don’t undermine all our hard work. But practically, how the heck do we handle the moment when they ask us to stop holding their hands on the way to school? How do we respond when they ask us to leave them two blocks away from meeting their friends? How do we let our kids separate from us, particularly after the closeness of the last two years, even when it pains our hearts?
I’ve created three reminders for keeping it together when I feel like my kids are breaking up with me — ways to remind myself that they’re my kids, not my peers, and I can still maintain connection without undermining their growing independence.
- Avoid dumping our crap on our kids. While we may be feeling hurt and rejected when our kids gain more independence, our kids are doing something perfectly normal and essential. It’s not our place to make them feel bad about their healthy adolescent development. We should not guilt them into choosing us over their friends. When they’re embarking on the uncharted territory of independence, it’s not their job to take care of us. It’s our job to let them go. For example, when my daughter declines a movie night, I could say: So happy you’re going to chat with your friends. Let’s find another time this weekend to watch something together.
- Create new rituals that respect our kids’ autonomy. Don’t surrender family time even if our kids are pushing us away because they still need a connection to us, and we still need eyes on them for their wellness and safety. When feeling rejected, it’s tempting as a parent to take the “Fine if you don’t want me, then I’m out of here” approach. But we’re the adults, and they’re the kids, so instead, we need to find new ways to connect with our kids. For example, I could say to my 11-year-old: Thanks for letting me know how you’d prefer to go to bed. I will miss tucking you in — can we come up with a new way to say goodnight to each other?
- Use their separation as a training ground for expressing their needs constructively. If our kids are making efforts to separate, our job is to help them figure out how to express those desires in a thoughtful manner. The next stage of our kids’ independence is not wiping their butts or teaching them to tie their shoes; it's the more complex journey of learning to ask for what they need in thoughtful ways. If their initial approach to separating from us is, Piss off Mom. You’re annoying, then help guide them toward something more like: Can you leave me two blocks from school? Everyone else walks to school on their own, and it feels embarrassing to have you with me.
As parents, we’re playing a long game. The most significant sign that we’ve done a good job is that our kids are able to leave us. The most gratifying sign that we’ve done a good job is that they want to come back to us by choice and not a necessity.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-host of The Puberty Podcast; the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company using sports and puberty education to empower kids; and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, musings on raising adolescents. You can follow her on Instagram @vanessakrollbennett.