New School Year Offers Kids (and Parents) A Lesson in Independence

Each year, as a new school year starts and parents throughout the Valley kiss their children goodbye as they send them on the bus, parents are once again faced with a pointed reminder that the baby they’ve been raising is growing up fast.

And, for most parents, that can be difficult. Just ask Kristina Catterton, a mother of two, who also has two stepchildren.

“I just think of them as they were babies and in preschool and all the milestones … Now they’re hitting new milestones as they grow and get into middle school,” Catterton says of her four children. “It’s different, but it’s good.”

Catterton tries to let her children be independent.

But that’s not always easy. One thing she’s learned is that, as they get older, she has less control over who their friends are. When they were younger, her kids’ friends were all children of her own friends, Catterton said.

“As they get older, they become more independent – they have their own circle of friends that are separate from you, especially as they go to middle school,” she said. “It is a little difficult because I don’t necessarily know all these people, so there’s a level of trust that you have to have there.”

Catterton’s goal is to raise autonomous adults.

“So, part of parenting is slowly letting go of that control … and trusting in them that they will make good decisions, and that I have done my job as a parent,” she said.

Letting Go

According to Annmarie Early, an associate professor of counseling at Eastern Mennonite University, back-to-school time provides an opportunity to build trust between parent and child. As an attachment therapist, she speaks to the parents of incoming students about letting go.

“I think the key question for all of us [to ask those we trust] as we make transitions is `Will you be there for me when I really need you?’ ” Early said.

That means, as parents, being aware of your emotional shortcomings.

“Those transitions tend to go better when we are tending to those dimensions, and that means, as parents, we are focusing on our anxieties and dealing with them and not putting them on our children.”

When your child is going through a transitional period, the best thing to do is to allow him or her room to grow, according to Early. Even as parents take a step back, they should still be available to answer questions and provide emotional support, she said.

Doing that, she said, helps to create a resilient person who can not only “withstand, but benefit from stressful situations.”

“What we want to do is build resilient children; not just protect them from the world, but help them to have the skills they need to help them recover,” she said. “These transitions for children, we would want them to be opportunities for growth.”

Provide your children with room to go out and make mistakes, but also be there to comfort and console when things go wrong, said Early. Doing so will create a good balance, making children feel secure.

“When we feel safe, we can go out and explore and be successful,” she said. “And if we’re feeling scared or feeling a sense of danger – I call them alarm bells – we want to make sure that we calm that down and address those needs that revolve around, `Will you be there for me when I really need you?’ ”

Two Types Of Parent

Toward that end, Early says parents fall into two groups. The first is the “secure” parent who provides his or her children with the right balance of freedom and protection.

The second is the anxious parent who either over-regulates or under-regulates his or her children.

“One is the parent who feels anxious about letting go and steps in too soon and the other is the parent who provides too much distance and needs to step in sooner,” she said.

In any case, there are important messages parents should convey, she said. Kids thrive on words of encouragement such as “I believe in you; You are listened to; You are cared for; You are very important to me” and “I know you can handle [growing up].”

Whichever type of parent you might be, though, Early said, don’t always expect to be the perfect role model.

“It’s not always in getting it right – it’s going back and repairing the mistakes where security is built and where healing happens,” she said. “Transitions are oftentimes where parents can recreate or build something that’s never been there. So, transitions are wonderful times where parents can build new bonds with their children and repair things from the past.”

Courtesy Daily News Record, July 28, 2012