How Parents Can Manage Anxiety Around Teenagers Becoming Independent
After exams, teens might embark upon their first trips away from home; these rites of passage might trigger anxiety in parents
Therapist Lisa Daitz offers some tips for constructive conversations with your teenager
We have therapists and counsellors available to support you, or your teen, here
“But where will you stay?” “Who’s going?” “Are they reliable?” If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Because hot on the heels of exam season come the discussions about post-exam plans. Often these plans really are viewed as rites of passage, handed down from siblings or cousins, ‘the year aboves’, or even parents’ own stories of their youth. They can assume many shapes and budgets, from the first music festival (anything from a day festival to a three-day event with extensive camping kit required), to a beach holiday in Europe to inter-railing, to a full-on backpack plan for South America.
Each plan, even if it’s preceded by a smaller one before, can often provoke anxiety in parents and carers. And this in turn triggers some often heated interactions with the intrepid planners. For this reason, the discussions are often avoided during the exam period as much as possible, only to rear their head towards the end as everyone – including the parents and carers – is frantic for the finish line and ready to kick back, relax and celebrate.
So, how best to handle the post-exam rites of passage in a constructive way that allows everyone to feel less anxious, excited and able to maintain a good relationship?
Understanding our feelings
Underneath the discussions and the arguments there’s a whole set of feelings that need acknowledging and addressing. When we sit back and allow ourselves time to reflect, we can see that what’s fuelling this is anxiety.
As a psychotherapist, I work with clients firstly to hear the challenges they face and then to look at the ‘narrative’, the way they tell the story. As we unpick and challenge the narrative we can start to see some of the feelings underneath and also some of the ‘myths’ we tell ourselves, which reflect our beliefs, thoughts and emotions. And very often, anxiety is a feature.
Unpicking the anxiety
As we’re asking the questions about the plans, if we can understand what’s fuelling them, we can affect the tone, the volume and the success of the discussion and perhaps keep all parties in the room! So it’s helpful to challenge yourself with questions like: why am I asking this? What are my concerns?
I’ve written a lot about anxiety, in fact my thesis over a decade ago looked at the impact of parenthood on anxiety, and it feels like there are two main things to consider here.
First is the anxiety about the safety of the teenager and what that means, and second is anxiety about being the kind of parent you want to be. And one leads on to the other. Carl Rogers talks about the Ideal Self – the self we want to be – and within this we see may see here the idea of an Ideal Parent. We’ll have ideas about the kind of parent we want to be as we approach the travel discussions. Perhaps it’s an enabling parent, a non-worrying parent, a laid-back parent. And then there’s the Real Self, the self we actually experience in the situation.
Rogers states that the greater the gap or the incongruity between the two, the greater the anxiety. And so we have a double whammy. We have anxiety around the plans themselves and we have anxiety around the kind of parents we find ourselves to be in the discussions as we approach the latest parent-challenge.
Understanding what we need
Once we recognise that anxiety is underpinning the tone of the talks we can start to address it. Own your part in the discussions and be honest. And then aim to work in a collaborative way to work out how to do this. Look at how to move from a ‘no’ to a ‘this is how I’m feeling, I’m really excited for you and also obviously want to make it safe, could we work out how to do this?’ This allows a much better tone of discussion – hello Ideal Parent? – and starts to be a more productive conversation. Approached in a more collaborative way, plans and details can start to emerge. Once all parties understand the reasons for the questions, information can start to be forthcoming because the teenager understands why it’s needed. And that it’s not about them or your trust in them and their abilities, it’s about your own anxieties.
The anxiety of your teenager
At the same time as our own emotions there are also those of the teenager. With their peer group making plans there’s a certain amount of pressure to join in and they too will have their own feelings and anxieties around it, perhaps not reflected upon or expressed.
By owning the feelings that fuel the discussions, there’s the space for everyone to open up and talk about what they need as plans are made. On the back of this, everyone can agree how to move forward comfortably. This may include, with greater or lesser involvement from parents:
- Understanding the itinerary for the trip
- Helping the traveller to gather the right documents
- Ensuring a suitable mobile phone plan (and who’s responsible for additional funds)
- Travel insurance
Communicating with your teenager
When it comes to rites of passage, this is also the time the teenager is looking for empowerment and freedom and this is also important to consider. Your ‘child’ will want to be treated as an adult, whilst you may be seeing it differently. And that can be a difficult path to navigate. But if you can communicate as one adult to another, the result can be enabling, productive and successful. And it can even allow you to experience yourself as the ‘Ideal Parent’.
And once the traveller returns, there’s cause for celebration. They’ve grown, become more independent and hopefully gained great life experiences. And, whisper it quietly, so have we! If we get this right we can all pass our own rite of passage!