Columns

Our job isn’t done when children are older

My 17-year-old daughter got her first part time job recently and will be 18 years old soon. In many ways I’m still back a decade ago remembering a daughter who followed me everywhere, thought her mother was the best thing since sliced bread and loved jumping into my bed for a chat and cuddle. 

Before the birth of my third daughter, I’d started reading her a book called When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr. It’s a bit of an old joke now that I never got to finish it. Life took over, I was busy with the baby and, while I read many other stories to her, I never managed to get back to that one. I always experience a tinge of regret every time it crosses my mind. It seems to represent the passing of time and how quickly weeks and months turn into seasons and years leaving us struggling to catch up with the rapid changes.

One of the hardest things for parents to deal with is their children’s growing independence. Teenagers are transitioning and maturing at breakneck speed. There are a few obvious steps in this process. 

Effort

My youngest daughter is almost 11 years old and I can see the writing on the wall. Just a year ago, shopping for clothes was very much a joint effort with us both favouring very similar items and having a laugh in the changing rooms while she modelled different options. This year, I’m banished to the waiting area outside and my preferences for floral or frilly elicits exaggerated eye rolls. Within the period of a few months I’ve been demoted from commander-in-chief to a mere foot soldier. 

We are well used to hearing about how adolescence is confusing and challenging for children. Not as much is written about how anxious parents negotiate the difficulties as they learn to anticipate the rapidly shifting currents of their children’s emotions. 

One minute your growing child is off to save the world and speaks excitedly about how great it’ll be to move out and get their own place. The next minute they’re grumbling about having to make a slice of toast or the terrible injustice of having to tidy their own room. 

Children start to break away from the cosy comfort of the family circle to build up confidence and get used to ever increasing challenges and responsibilities. As parents, we can feel a bit abandoned during this process. 

With our toddlers and small children, we were the centre of their universe, the superheroes who could do anything and who knew everything. Now, our children are looking further afield for heroes and we’re left with conflicting emotions of our own. 

Does parenting older children mean our job is almost done and that it’s time to step aside? Definitely not. In a changing world, the structure, direction and guidance received at home provides the safe haven children desperately need. Parenting skills evolve as we discover that what worked for small children just doesn’t cut it with teenagers. 

This doesn’t mean that all the fun of earlier years is over. Saturday mornings in our home often find me, my younger children and teenagers having impromptu dance sessions with us all clamouring for our choice of song. I know all their favourite artists and I’ve introduced them to all the hits that I loved as a teenager. There’s plenty of good-natured banter and teasing but music is a great way to connect across the generations. 

Talking to our teenagers is another great way to bond. They open up when they know someone is really listening and are quick to detect when we aren’t giving them our full attention. 

The topics can range from the trivial happenings of the day to in depth discussions about the state of the world. It’s important to broaden these opportunities for communication particularly around a teenager’s faith life; young people need other adults in their lives who they can discuss their faith with. In the book, Young Catholic America, Christian Smith outlines factors which were connected to teenagers remaining active Catholics as adults. One of these is engaging the young person in many religious experiences. 

Opportunity

This is another opportunity for family bonding. Families can create great beautiful yearly traditions with parents passing the practices on to their children. 

I love the custom of the May altar, a small altar created during the month of May to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Knock Shrine website, www.knockshrine.ie has some great tips about how to do this. It’s amazing to see how all age groups can get involved. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your teenager is too old to enjoy these rituals. 

Try delegating the organisation of these efforts to him or her. There’s great scope for them to use their artistic or musical skills to create an impressive display and, who knows, they might even post the results on Facebook. 

I suppose all parents have a bit of unfinished business from the past that they feel a bit sad about. Instead of looking back with regret, a child moving on to a new stage of development is something to celebrate. After stretching their wings and seeking out new horizons, we can be confident that they’ll always touch base again. 

As knowledgeable advisors, or even grandparents, we’ll suddenly recapture our former key role in their lives.