Raising Independent Teens: What We DON’T Do Is as Important as What We DO

A couple of months ago we got one of the many calls no parent of an out of state college kid wants to get: our daughter needed to go to the emergency room. Earlier in the evening a chronic condition she’s been battling for over a year had reared its ugly head. The on-call nurse she contacted told her to go to the ER, and she was panicked. And from 1,300 miles away, we were too (although we did a fantastic job remaining composed as we FaceTimed her, naturally).

There’s a fine line between advising and doing. (Twenty20 @Elisall )

What is a parent to do when a grown child calls with a medical emergency?

While my husband frantically searched the Internet to see if there were any urgent care facilities in her vicinity still open, I kept her talking. To me, her familiar symptoms didn’t warrant a hospital visit, especially after 9:00 p.m. when I knew the nearby ER would be full of patients. “I wish we could just talk to your doctor,” I said, knowing that her incredibly kind doctor who had followed her condition for the past year would most likely offer a different, less emergent solution.

“Well, I do have her personal cell number,” my husband said, reminding me that her doctor had returned an after hours call last summer on her own phone. In fact, we’d since joked about it. “Oh, just give me a call on my cell,” her doctor would say when we’d be in the office, and we’d all laugh knowing how out of line that would be. Until now.

“I’m texting her,” I said. “She can tell me I’ve crossed a line, but my girl is in pain 1,300 miles away and I’m willing to risk it. ” While I listened to my husband and daughter object and worry we were violating some code of doctor/patient conduct (and we totally were), I quickly typed out about a long text outlining what was going on and asking, most pressingly, if the ER visit was necessary. I started it by profusely apologizing for crossing a line, of course, but told her I didn’t know what else to do. Within seconds of hitting “send” the three dots appeared.

Over the next 10 minutes her wonderful doctor responded with a plan of action (no, the ER trip was not necessary, but finding a clinic and being seen the next day was). When I sent a final reply thanking her (again) and telling her how much we had debated texting her, she replied with, “No problem, I get it. I’d do anything, anytime, to get help for my kids.”

Isn’t that the truth? We’d all do anything, anytime, to help our kids. It’s been our mantra since before they were born. But when they’ve grown and flown and we’re trying like hell to foster their independence, when is it too much? Where is the line between helping and hindering? I’ll tell you, as a parent of two adults — ages 24 and 18 — I’m discovering it’s a fine line, but an important one not to cross.

There is a fine line between advising and doing

Every week we get a call from one of the girls asking for advice on things like job applications, insurance and tax forms, prescription refills, class and professor issues, campus concerns, medical appointments, all the way down to what kind of cereal they should buy. Honestly, the scope is astounding. However, asking for advice and asking us to do things for them are totally different requests, and it’s imperative as your kids reach their teen years to recognize the difference.

When your kids were really young it was often easier to just do things for them, wasn’t it? Especially when you knew you’d do it right the first time. Sure, you could have had them load the dishwasher every night, but since you knew you’d most likely have to reload it with the bowls facing downward and the plates lined up in a tight row instead of the holy mess they created, it was faster to do it yourself.

From changing their sheets to folding their clothes, many tasks just became easier and quicker to do for them, even though we all knew we were in violation. But we didn’t care. I mean, we got to watch The Bachelor or finish that book while the other parents were reloading the damn dishwasher. It felt like a win.

But when your kids are young adults, doing for them isn’t a win, for either of you. Expecting them to advocate for themselves — from the time they are pre-teens — is one of the best gifts you can give your child. When our girls were in middle school, they knew that questions about grades, assignments, and other classroom related issues needed to be facilitated and handled by them. They learned from an early age that speaking up for themselves and solving their own problems almost always led to respect and cooperation from their teachers, not to mention a personal feeling of independence and confidence.

Last month my daughter met with the Dean of Students at her college to express her concern over campus safety. I can’t imagine she’d have had the courage and gumption to do that had she not been initiating conversations with teachers and superiors for years.

Letting go is about more than just emotions

From making medical appointments and refilling prescriptions (as well as dealing with insurance companies) to arguing a questionable charge on a bank statement or taking their car in for service, there are many things that we simply have to stop doing for our kids once they hit a certain age. Stepping back and expecting them to take control of the tedious, complicated tasks and difficult conversations that come with being an adult is key to continuing to parent our grown kids. The “letting go” part they talk about as our kids get older? It’s about a lot more than emotion.

However, being available to your young adults and offering guidance and support is a vital part of the positive and evolving relationship you have with them as they get older. Our daughters write their own resumes and cover letters, but ask for our advice when it comes to editing and clarity. They call to let us know they’re sick and ask if they should go to the doctor, but don’t expect us to make the appointment.

They ask for our input on professor and course issues but handle the situations themselves. They’re confident not only in themselves but in the expectations they know we have of them, as well as our willingness to be available, which in turn is resulting in some pretty self-assured young adults.

So, back to my daughter’s health scare. Sure, I may have stepped over the line in sending that text, but the next day she had to endure a painful appointment alone and a subsequent week making daily phone calls to have records sent, prescriptions changed, and other tedious tasks that took up much of her days that were already full of college classes and stresses. I would have loved nothing more than to have taken care of all of it for her, but I didn’t. Why? Because I’d do anything, anytime, to help my kids.

Other Posts You Will Enjoy:

21 Things You’ll Love about Your Empty Nest 

Michelle Newman spent 23 years as a stay at home mom to two daughters and most of the past seven writing about them. Even though they’re both now grown and flown, she’s learning that life in an empty nest is still full and the material just keeps coming. Besides telling stories on her blog, youremyfavoritetoday.com Michelle has had essays published in several humor anthologies, on various parenting websites, and has also written for EntertainmentWeekly.com. Follow her on Facebook and  Twitter and Instagram

About Michelle Newman

Michelle Newman is one of the hosts and producers of The Pop Culture Preservation Society, a podcast dedicated to preserving the pop culture nuggets of our GenX childhoods, from Barry Manilow and the Bee Gees to Battle of The Network Stars. She’s spent the past nine years writing for publications like Grown & Flown, Entertainment Weekly, and The Girlfriend, as well as for her (now silent) blog, You’re My Favorite Today. A recent empty nester, Michelle finds immense joy connecting with others through the memories of their 70s childhoods. Follow the Pop Culture Preservation Society on Instagram and listen wherever you get podcasts!

Read more posts by Michelle

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.