Taking Off The Training Wheels

Last week, a good friend called asking for help. Her 17 year-old son had come to her with a serious problem about a classmate who had been angry and upset for some time.

This troubled girl had turned him into her confidant with the condition that he keep their talks strictly confidential. And, she was hinting at suicide.

She was new to his school and had come with a lot of problems — her parents had recently gone through a nasty divorce, she had a history of substance abuse and lots of anger to go along with it all.

The young man, “Scott”, felt trapped and burdened by the intense feelings and information she was feeding him on a daily basis. He wanted to support his friend and keep his word, but the promise he had made not to tell had left him feeling terrified and responsible for things way beyond his abilities.

Scott’s mom had noticed that her son seemed depressed and withdrawn and after weeks of trying had finally convinced him to open up and share what was going on. Upon hearing his story, she became totally unglued. She was seriously concerned about what might happen to the girl but also worried about the effect this was having on her son.

Her initial reaction was to take it all on herself and make it go away. She wanted me to tell her who to call and what to do.

That makes perfect sense, right? When a problem is this big the parents are supposed to take over, aren’t they? I mean, how can a high school senior handle something like this? The short answer is, he can’t. Not alone, anyway.

But think about it — in a matter of months, Scott will be going off to college. Then he will have to negotiate a whole host of grown-up situations and issues pretty much on his own.

So, assuming that his mother isn’t going to be hiding in his closet for the first few semesters, it’s critical that he get some training in what to do when life throws a hand grenade in his direction.

He needs tools and strategies and ideas about how to tap into resources on his own. He needs to know that solutions to big problems exist and that he is smart enough and capable enough to find them and apply them.

It’s kind of like Dr. McDreamy from Gray’s Anatomy handing over the scalpel to an intern at a critical point in the surgery and telling her to get to work. The stakes are very high. Mistakes could have serious repercussions.

But that is how those doctors-in-training learn. They have to try. With help and supervision. As parents, we’re in the same boat when it comes to turning over the reins. We have to figure out when to step back and let our kids take the lead in handling a challenging situation, instead of solving it for them.

When they do, they gain experience and the next time a similar problem comes along, they will have a set of tools to take out of their tool box and use again. And with every successful outcome to a sticky or difficult problem, a few more tools are added.

BUT … this is really tough on us! We don’t want them to get hurt. We don’t want them to fail. We want to save them from all the skinned knees, broken bones and black eyes that we suffered ourselves on the way to growing up. If we’re really honest though, we see that all those mistakes helped us to grow up.

So I talked to my friend about how she could talk to her son. For starters, she could let him know that he had been absolutely right to tell her about the girl even though he had promised not to. Kids need to know that if ever a friend is talking about hurting himself they must come forward with this information so that help can be found. We have to make sure they understand that reaching out on behalf of a friend in trouble is not a betrayal.

Then she could help him devise a plan to get his friend some help. And that is just what she did. She sat right there with him as he got the appropriate phone numbers and made the calls. She counseled him every step of the way, but let him do the legwork. And, she kept checking in with him often over the next few days for updates on the situation and to see how he was doing.

My friend certainly considered calling the other parents in order to warn them of their daughter’s fragile state. In the end, she decided not to, largely because it became apparent that they were already very much aware of the situation. Her issue was not to save her son’s friend but to empower him with the tools and information needed to deal with the emotional overload he was getting from her.

As scary as this story is, you must remember that no mom goes from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye. A problem like Scott’s is big, but his mom had spent years building up to dealing with a situation like this with her son.

Those teachable moments that help to build our advisor muscles happen every single day. For example, your five-year-old might come to you crying because the boys at the playground are kicking a ball around and he wants to play, too.

It would be much easier, more efficient and ultimately more successful if you walked over there and asked them if your son could join the game. They would probably go along with the request, given that you are a grown-up. Problem solved, yippee! He will have fun and the tears will stop.

But what about next time, when you’re not around? Will he end up in the same boat? Most likely he will, because he hasn’t learned anything and didn’t get a chance to practice solving a problem. Perhaps a better plan would be to coach him on what he could say to them and then watch quietly from the sidelines as he tries.

Or, suppose your 10 year-old daughter comes home from a playdate upset because her friends spent much of the time making fun of another girl who wasn’t there. You’re really angry about the mean-spiritedness of it all, and are ready to read the riot act to the other mom and forbid your daughter from playing there anymore. Case closed.

But what a great opportunity to talk with her instead about how damaging words can be, and to help her figure out what she can do the next time something like this happens. She will feel better because she has a plan and a place to come to (you) to get sound advice.

Of course, you will keep tabs on things. It may become necessary to get involved yourself, but even so, your daughter will see that she has a role and responsibility, too. Her confidence in herself and in her ability to stand up to bullies or gossip will grow as a result.

No mother in her right mind wants to end up with helpless kids who grow into incompetent adults. But that’s what we play around with when we do too much for them. The trick is to figure out early on how to stand by in the background, as a teacher and a coach, watching, waiting and being available to move in and catch them if things start to go seriously south. Then they can practice learning how to walk on that high wire knowing that there is a safety net securely in place below.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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One response to “Taking Off The Training Wheels”

  1. Lynne Marie

    Oh, I could not agree more! I am a self defense instructor and a mama, and I have been teaching my daughter the core skills she’ll need to stand up for herself since she was tiny. I think it’s really important to give her opportunities to practice using her intuition, compassion and assertiveness when the stakes are small. It’s unrealistic to expect that she’ll be able to spring forth with great judgement and self protection skills if I don’t give her a chance to grow those competencies. It was so hard for me to learn to trust myself and use my voice when I started practicing self defense as a young adult. I want my daughter to enter her adulthood much more sure of herself.

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