From Parent to Partner: How I Learned to Let Go

Photo credit: Cam Adams

There it was, staring me in the face, the sixth letter of the alphabet, better known as the most offensive of all letters when it comes to review of a child’s report card. It sat there on the page like the textual embodiment of a black hole, preventing me from comprehending any other letter or number on the page. If printed text could make sound, the 12-point, Times New Roman F near the bottom of the paper in my hands resounded with a mind-shattering thud, the kind that makes your heart sink and cortisol rise.

My daughter, my very own flesh and blood, my brilliantly talented girl who I once described as a genius to all who would listen when she uttered her first word (“Da-da”) at only six months old, was FAILING a class! This represented the end of life as I knew it. This grade would probably be carved permanently on some easily accessible public record that would eliminate any hope of college scholarships. Yes, it sounds irrational, but we’ve all been down the slippery slope like this before.

I stopped myself, though. I remembered the advice of a dad blogger I admire immensely — Jim Higley — who wrote: “If you can’t get 95 percent of your point made in 30 seconds, then you need to think through your message.” Frustrated and a little freaked out, I paused. Instead of succumbing to my gut instinct and yell, I took a deep breath. I glanced up at my daughter, who was visibly cringing as she awaited her demise.

“I suspect there’s a reason for this,” I said, breaking the silence calmly. “I know—and I hope you know as well—that you are capable of much more than this. You’re also responsible enough to go talk with your teacher, figure out what’s wrong, and fix it. Get on it right away, and if you need help, let me know.”

I nearly had to stifle a giggle (to maintain my “dad face”) upon seeing the blood run from her face in shock, but I folded up the report card, put it in the envelope, and handed it back to her before walking away. Based on her reaction, I expected her to ask if an alien had taken over my mind, but she merely turned around, still in shock, and walked back to her room.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is how to let go and allow my children to become themselves. After spending the better part of a decade holding, cuddling, nurturing, helping, and quite frankly, coddling my children, I have come to realize that these are not easy habits to break. However, they are behaviors that must be relegated to the realm of memory if we are to survive the dreaded teenage years.

If we look at the psychology behind the various stages of a child’s psychosocial development, we can summarize them as follows:

  • Stage 1 (0-18 months): Building trust through care of basic needs
  • Stage 2 (18 months-3 years): Learning autonomy through exploration of abilities
  • Stage 3 (3-5 years): Developing initiative through experimentation
  • Stage 4 (5-12 years): Building confidence through support and mastery
  • Stage 5 (12-18 years): Identity development and the search for independence

When we look at stages 1-4, we can clearly see that, as parents, we work a highly active supporting role. We feed, clothe, and teach our children during these stages, as well as provide discipline, structure, and praise.

But then, we come to stage 5. At this stage, we (somewhat abruptly) need to transform our role and learn to back off. While still operating in a supporting role, it is at this point that we need to transition from parent to partner. As our children seek independence and autonomy, we must find a balance between providing guidance to ensure safe exploration and experimentation, while still allowing them the freedom necessary to transition to a successful adult life.

Too much guidance (inability to let go of the parent role) leads to suppression. Teens who are not allowed the freedom to make their own mistakes to learn from will be inadequately prepared for everyday life. They may also have reservations regarding leaving home, stemming from of a fear of the unknown due to lack of experiences. In the worst cases, too much pressure to conform to an expected role or identity can lead to rebellion and the establishment of a negative identity or engaging in delinquency out of spite.

I know the realm of too much guidance all too well, as it was the biggest mistake I made with my first two children. I tried to shoehorn my children into certain roles, all while trying to guide them down the only path I could foresee for them. Both rebelled in dramatic fashion, and I spent years backpedaling as I tried to repair the damage my pressure caused.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, too little guidance (abandoning the parent role while neglecting the partner role) can lead to role confusion, where the young adult may feel lost, alone, or may begin experimenting with alternate identities in a search for belonging. This may also have the effect of pushing the teen backwards in development by instilling feelings of worthlessness or incompetence. Such teens may also experience “failure to launch,” where their confusion or low self-worth prevents them from striking out on their own, despite pressure from parents to leave home.

The balance between parent and partner is a fine line, and maintaining that balance often feels like juggling angry cats with running chainsaws. That feeling comes from our resistance to the transition from parent to partner. At some point, we must learn to let go of the urge to influence every decision our teens make, and instead, accept that some of their decisions could be bad, while some might be good, but they will need both.

Don’t allow age and experience to get in the way of remembering what it was like to be a teenager. Let go of the reins, and learn to be a well of knowledge, rather than a fountain. Make it clear to your teens that you are willing and available to offer advice when needed, and follow through with that promise when the need arises. Only then will you make the leap from parent to partner, paving the way for a close relationship with the soon-to-be adult versions of your kids!

Photo credit: Cam Adams via

Josh Misner

Dr. Josh Misner is a communication professor and mindfulness researcher working on methods to help reconnect fathers with their children through the cultivation of mindful presence. He writes books and articles on mindful parenting and is also on Facebook. Follow Josh on Twitter @MindfulDadBlog.

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