Some of the most sage wisdom on healthy relationships can be found in the teachings of 12 step programs for those in recovery from addiction. Over my years as a therapist, I have shared 12 step wisdom with clients again and again, drawing from Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon (a 12 step program for families and friends of alcoholics), to teach about healthy boundaries in families.
What I often find is, the advice applies to all of us, in all forms of family life, not just folks who are dealing with someone who is addicted. Particularly in my work with parents of teenagers, the Al-Anon concept of “loving detachment” challenges parents to look at how and when we protect our teens from their own mistakes. And it suggests that when parents try too hard to control their children’s choices, we might actually be doing them a disservice.
Moms say “you have to pick your battles.”
When parenting teens, many of us struggle with how much to nag (their word, not ours, of course), how much to let go, when to step in and enforce a rule and when to let a kid make a choice we might not like. The most frequent advice I’ve heard moms give other moms is “you have to pick your battles.” But picking those is a daily challenge. How often do you find yourself saying things like, “It looks like it’s going to be really cold today. You might want a jacket.” “Do you have enough money?” “Did you charge your phone?” “Do you have your key?”
We are constantly tempted to remind, advise, and suggest. We want to make their day more smooth, or we want them to be safe (as we define safe.) The truth is these half-grown beings are still under our care, and classic teenage behavior involves forgetfulness, over- or under-sleeping, being disorganized, and running late. And all the while they are likely to be expressing disdain for your help or an attitude of confidence that they have it all figured out.
It seems logical to help them out, we think. Make it a bit less bumpy; protect them from the onslaught of little things that can go wrong and make a day worse. I have caught myself charging a phone or chrome book for school, laying out a uniform, finishing a chore that they were supposed to do.
Are we always helping our teens when we help them?
But here is the trap! When we anticipate things for our teens or orchestrate solutions behind the scenes, are we actually helping them? Dr. Wayland Myers, a therapist and student of Al-Anon, has really made me think more about my behaviors. Who are they for? Is my “help” really about the growth of my teen? Or is it more about my own need to control and lessen my own anxiety and discomfort with my kids making their own mistakes and living with the consequences.
The question I have to ask myself is: Am I able to let my teens have the dignity of their own life lessons?
Practicing Loving Detachment on our Teens
Dr. Myers suggests that Loving Detachment, letting your children face the consequences of their actions, may actually be the sympathetic thing to do. (He explains this idea really well here: “How Detachment Can Be Loving for All.”)
One way to define Loving Detachment is compassionately allowing others the opportunity to learn how to care for themselves better. If we love our teens with detachment we allow them to learn from the real consequences of their actions. In this way they can experience their own personal power and find solutions to their own problems. When people learn in this way they are motivated to repeat the good choices and change the things that felt bad. Being motivated by these energies is more powerful than a parent’s attempt to coerce something with guilt or fear. If we stop “over” helping, another benefit is that maybe they will find their own voice of how and when to ask for help. They may not even know how to do this if we are always there, one step ahead of the next problem we see coming.
Certainly there are times when our helping a teen is appropriate and might save our kid from a lesson that seems needlessly harmful. I am not suggesting we just stand back and bite our tongue. But what if we asked ourselves a few more questions before we rushed in to help?
Will my intervention help, or let them shirk responsibility?
Dr. Myers asks: “does the ‘help’ I am thinking of providing involve me picking up a responsibility which would normally be theirs, but which they are not performing at the levels I deem best? Am I remembering for them, organizing for them, planning ahead for them, making peace for them, apologizing for them, keeping track of something for them, anticipating consequences for them? It has been my frequent experience that as long as I continue to handle jobs like these for my loved ones, their level of job performance rarely improves and they often resent my interventions.”
Loving detachment is a complicated concept but it is has created some good discussions with parents of teens. Personally I have caught myself “helping” in a number of situations where I think my “help” might be blocking a chance for my sons to learn.
I welcome Dr. Myers wisdom and a new way to think about which teenage battles to pick. And I welcome helping my teens grow into adulthood, knowing that loving them fully means letting them learn lessons to build their independence.