About Me

I am a parent coach. I received my MSW from Simmons School of Social Work and have been a licensed social worker practicing in the greater Boston area for over 20 years. My dream has always been to work with parents on the most important job in their lives. In my practice and in my blog I want parents to be heard, supported and informed in order to feel empowered to be effective as parents. I love helping parents find joy and mastery in their parenting.

"Stop trying to perfect your child, but keep trying to perfect your relationship with him" - Dr. Henker

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Ongoing Dance of Separation

In my practice as a Parenting Coach, I work with parents of children from birth to adulthood.  I love experiencing the diversity of ages and stages that parents of children of different ages bring to our work.  I enjoy the richness of each stage of development and the parenting joys and challenges that occur throughout.

Last week, after having worked with parents all through that age and stage spectrum, I was struck by a certain similarity in challenges that arise.  At each stage of development, from about age one to adulthood, parents and children are wrapped in a dance of nurturing, protection, support and gradual, age-appropriate separation.

There are thousands of theories, books and manuals on child, adolescent and adult development.  In an effort to describe one particular aspect, this ongoing dance of separation, I will be highlighting just a few central aspects of the different stages.

When a child is an infant they are dependent on us to meet every need.  We need to learn to read their cues to respond when they are hungry, wet, tired, in need of soothing and comfort.  As they get a little bit older we need to assess when they are ready to move from breast-feeding and formula to solid foods.  We have to make sure they have “tummy time” on the floor to develop their muscles, and readiness for the next stages of sitting, creeping, crawling and walking. 

There are different approaches to separation with infants and young children.  There are proponents of attachment parenting, there are people who swear by a much more scheduled approach to day-to-day life with an infant, and there are places all along that spectrum.

Regardless of which approach parents choose, at some point, as babies move to toddlers we need to support and encourage children to develop their own skills in self soothing, expressing needs and emotions, walking, talking, etc.  In this way the dance of separation begins.  This dance continues to be played out all throughout parenting.

The one year old, crawls and then toddles away from a parent, frequently looking behind them to see that the parent is still there, or crawling or toddling back to them.  In new or frightening situations they cling to us, and at other times, they crawl or toddle away.  Each child is unique and responds differently to the dance.

In toddlerhood the child begins to really grapple with the concept of “no”.  They demand to do things themselves that they are often not capable of doing.  They may want to be treated like a baby one hour, and try to put on their shirt themselves an hour later.  All through toddlerhood and preschool ages, children explore the need to be attached to and be separate from their parents.

In elementary school children are at a stage where they are really exploring their own competence, and mastery of new skills.  They are more involved in peer relationships than they have been in the past.  Some children begin to feel comfortable having sleepovers at other children’s houses.  In school, they hear ideas and opinions that may be different from what they have heard in their home.  They begin to develop more of a sense of a larger world, their family, their classroom, their school, their community, the state and the country they live in, etc.

While our children are growing, and participating more in the outside world, we, as parents, have to tolerate that we can’t control everything that happens with our children.  They may be exposed to a bully, they may not get the part they want in a play, and they may skin their knee in the playground when we are not there to comfort them.  We are still there to protect, support and nurture, but in a different, more separate way.  It is vital that we encourage them in developing their own problem solving skills, we have to let go a little, so they will develop those skills.

In early adolescence the sense of a larger awareness grows.  The impact of peer relationships becomes even more central.  Children are coping with complicated changes in their bodies and emotions.  They are exposed to challenges with peers, alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity.  We want to be sure they know about what is out there and we try to infuse positive values to gird them in these difficult arenas.

In adolescence all this continues, but at a heightened level. They are developing more of a sense of themselves as unique individuals. They can be so capable, caring for younger children, doing their schoolwork, beginning to drive, working at part time jobs, participating in social action projects. They may start to explore love relationships.  But there are many challenges; teens are sometimes rebellious towards their parents.  They may reject things just because we say them.  They may have powerful emotions they find difficult to understand and control.  They can be impulsive, and they are exposed to much more risk.

It can be really helpful to see this as an updated version of crawling away, then looking back to see our reaction. If we can understand that, we can find ways to take their behavior less personally, and sometimes deescalate conflict.

Our adolescent children still need us in a profound way, to nurture them, to do what we can to ensure they are safe, to set limits, to encourage them to achieve success, to try to keep the lines of communication open.  But we have to use methods that match where they are developmentally, to include them in the process, to respect their growing capability and their need to gain more of their own skills.

In elementary school, middle school and high school, while all these and many more aspects of development are happening, they still have that dynamic of the baby learning to crawl and walk, looking back to their parents to see if they are still there.  They have moments where they seem to be so capable and independent, and moments where they are so dependent, and want to be nurtured and supported in ways they claim to have outgrown.  It can be so confusing for us and for them.  They can take such grand steps forward, and they can make impulsive choices that put them and others at risk.

In late adolescence, and early adulthood, it is a much more complicated dance for both children and parents for many reasons.  Teens and young adults may not want our input.  They may make choices that clash with our own ideas and values.  The consequences of their choices are much greater. The risks are greater.  And as they become sixteen, seventeen and onward, we discover that we often can’t control choices they make.  It’s very challenging to watch them happen, especially since we have focused so strongly on support and protection earlier on in their lives! 

We love our children so much, and want the best for them; we want to protect them from harm.  It can be really hard all along the way for us, as parents, to encourage and tolerate age appropriate separation, because our impulses to protect them are so deep. 

Yet all along the developmental spectrum, from toddler, to teen, to adult, these steps towards independence are vitally important.  If children are encouraged and supported in age appropriate ways to take on tasks they are ready for, they powerfully learn for themselves the consequences of their actions. They develop necessary coping skills and problem solving skills.  In future posts, I will address some thoughts and ideas about preparing ourselves and our children for these age appropriate separation tasks.


No comments:

Post a Comment