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May 10, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 80

Should I Push My Child Out of the Nest?

Episode 80

How much should we shield our kids from risk? And how much should we go out of our way to make their lives more comfortable? Dr. Lisa explains the importance of fostering independence and encouraging our children to take safe risks. Reena asks if we should try to make our kids’ lives easier when we can, especially given all that they have gone through in the pandemic. Dr. Lisa and Reena discuss how much distress we should allow our kids to tolerate and when we should offer support.

May 10, 2022 | 28 min

Transcript | Should I Push My Child Out of the Nest?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 80: Should I Push My Child Out Of The Nest?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.

REENA: I feel like you need to give me some steps on how to reenter society. I’ve been living in my office closet too long here.

LISA: I know, and it’s like such a mixed bag, Reena, right? Because you can, you can do so much thanks to digital technology without ever leaving your home, and I think it’s been really weird to try to return to the world. I think for lots of us.

REENA: I mean you always say what an extrovert I am, right? Which is so true, but I’ve discovered I’m quite happy at home. I’m quite happy with the limited friends that I choose to see. But at what point do I need to like take more action?

LISA: That’s a great question. I think everyone’s asking that right now, you know, what does the next version of my life look like? You know, with this giant pandemic reset between the old life and new life?

REENA: And as you say, you know, the way parents react and respond can have tremendous effect on their kids. So, we got this letter about independence, when you should learn to let go a little bit more. I want to read this to you: ‘Dear Dr. Damour, I have a question about how my ninth-grade daughter should get to school in the morning. We live within a block away from her best friend and our high school is a little over a mile from our house in Chicago. The girls have the option to bike to school or take public transportation, both of which add an additional 20 minutes to their morning. From the girls’ perspective, biking makes them sweaty; it’s hard because their backpacks are super heavy, and the bus timing is very unreliable. We were 10 minutes late today and they were tardy as a result. The truth is, I would be fine driving my daughter to school every day. I’ve felt like a small gesture that I can offer that can reduce anxiety and create ease in the start of the school day. The mom of her best friend would rather the girls be on their own, either biking or taking the bus as much as possible. She views this as an important step in resilience and in fostering independence. The other mom and I have compromised somewhat, and the girls now have to get themselves to school three days and we each drive them one of the other two. What are your thoughts? Is there something wrong with taking my daughter to school every day because I can and because it will simplify her mornings? Or by doing that, am I denying her chance to be independent? There’s so much stress on our daughters and if there’s a small gesture I can make to make it simpler, I’m happy to do that. In gratitude.’ Oh my goodness, this raises so many questions, especially in this moment. Right?

LISA: It does. It’s such a fabulous letter, right? Because it’s such a complex and yet garden variety challenge in parenting, like how much do we do for our kids? How much do we go out of our way to make their lives easier? What should we ask of them? What should we give to them? Right? It’s such a universally important question for us to ask ourselves as parents.

REENA: What’s your initial reaction when you heard that letter?

LISA: Oh, Reena, I had like five.

REENA: Oh, really?

LISA: So, my first initial reaction is that I am hearing everywhere from parents, and it wasn’t said exactly like this in the letter, but I sort of assume this was also built in. Our kids have been through so much. What we have asked of them in the last two plus years was completely bananas. And they have been through incredible distress, they have accommodated themselves to really impossible conditions and managed. And so, I think a lot of what I’m hearing from parents is, especially in light of all they’ve been through, shouldn’t we try to smooth their way whenever possible? Or make their lives easier, just make their lives easier if we can. So that was my first reaction, is that I’m hearing this question come up in various ways a lot right now.

REENA: So, are you saying in response to this that this mom, just simplifying the mornings is probably the smartest way to do it and find other ways for independence?

LISA: I’m not sure I’m saying that.

REENA: Really? Okay.

LISA: Yeah, and you know I’ll play my cards face up, I think the kids should get themselves to school, like I think it’s a pretty ideal situation. You have a best friend a block away, you have bikes, you have a bus, you also have two feet, you know, if the parent is inclined, and just over a mile walk will take ninth graders with heavy backpacks about a half an hour, because they don’t tend to truck it, I would also put a vote in for that, and, you know, it’s a lot of healthy exercise. I know how heavy the backpacks are, I’ve got two kids with backpacks. I mean you’ve seen these backpacks, right? I mean it’s like, what the heck? And yet, it gives them total control, total autonomy, total freedom. They’re controlling the timing, they won’t get as sweaty. So, I would even argue for the longer route, you know, adding maybe 30 minutes to the morning. I think there’s a lot to be said for it. And we can unpack all that’s to be said for saying, you know what kiddo? Get yourself to school. That’s my initial reaction, but it still gets us into the heart of the question of, what about when we do favors for our kids, and how much should we read about them from distress, under normal conditions and especially now?

REENA: So, when is it too much? Like you’re just overextending yourself and you’re enabling the kid essentially?

LISA: Yeah, you know, providing concierge service that may be beyond what’s really helpful to them. I don’t know that there’s any really magical line, but I think one way we can size this up is, am I asking a child to do something that’s within their capacities, maybe not comfortable, but within their capacities? And is it something that helps them develop a skill set that they’re going to need? you know, maybe that sort of how it gets sized up.

REENA: And the skill set here is that you need to learn to get yourself together and out the door in the morning. You’re in ninth grade.

LISA: Yeah, and manage the timing, and you know, be in charge of this, and it’s so lovely that this parent and the other parent negotiated, like three days they get themselves, two days they drive. I think that’s a good compromise for now. When I hear that, and I don’t know this was your reaction, I’m like eh, routines are better. Like it’s actually easier on everyone if everyday looks the same. And it’s not, oh cool it’s Wednesday so who’s driving, or it’s Tuesday so who’s biking. I think on the routine piece alone, I’d say, no, no, the default is you’re getting yourself to school. You can bike, you can walk, but you’ll figure it out. And there’s also something nice of having to coordinate with another person, and then if they’re running late maybe they hop on their bikes, you know, there’s a lot of organizing that a ninth grader can and should be able to do to get themselves to school on time. And what’s amazing is they have three good options in this situation that do not involve a parent driving them.

REENA: You know, my initial reaction was, oh, yeah, of course drive them to school. Who wants to be sweaty? It’s hard to get up in the morning. I’m a total enabler is what I’m discovering today.

LISA: No, we love our kids. And, Reena, I think one of the pieces that gets lost in the conversation about helping kids become increasingly independent and pushing them to do things, one of the things I think that gets lost is what a pleasure it is as a parent to dote on your kids and also do nice things for your kids. It’s a really under-celebrated thing, like I love making breakfast in the morning. And, my kids can make breakfast, like they can do it, but I don’t want them to. I want to say, what do you want? And I love doing it. And so, I don’t in any way want to minimize that there are real pleasures in doing for children things that they can do for themselves.

REENA: Wait a minute, Dr. Lisa makes breakfast for her girls every morning? What?

LISA: A lot of toaster waffles. Like a lot of toaster waffles. Nothing fancy. Except for my older daughter, we have a code. It’s her super breakfast, where we do an avocado toast with egg.

REENA: Oh, that sounds good. I’d eat that right now.

LISA: It is good, and it fuels her up for the day. But I am not of the mind that as soon as a kid is capable of something you hand it over and you don’t do it anymore because the parent misses out on that.

REENA: Yeah, and it’s ninth grade. You know that the years are dwindling, right? It kind of hurts your heart so I can understand that. So, what do you say? So I’m going to pause, we’re going to take a quick break. But on the other side of this, I want to ask you about this pandemic and how it’s been on kids, how can we make their lives easier? And what your advice is as we’re hopefully trying to merge out of this. We’ll be right back.

REENA: So, part of this conversation, we’re asking, just kind of curious, Lisa, about the fact that kids have been through so much in this pandemic, should we be making their lives easier?

LISA: This is like the million-dollar question, right? How much distress should we help kids learn to tolerate? And this is like the key question, I think in development, it’s one of the key questions, and I think now it’s so much more complicated because they’ve been through so much. So, there’s two things I want us to focus on here. One is the kids who can tolerate more distress, more discomfort, sweaty backpacks, long walks, end up with more freedom.

REENA: What do you mean?

LISA: So, think about a young person who isn’t really used to walking places and, and maybe this sounds weird, but maybe doesn’t have a lot of muscular strength from carrying heavy backpacks places. It doesn’t build up that capacity. So then if a cool option becomes available, that way they can get themselves there is they have to walk, they have to truck there and they have to carry heavy things, that’s suddenly less available to them because it’s unfamiliar, it’s not as known, they haven’t been doing it every day in a regular way, and so they may be inclined to hold back on things, or do fewer things, or, you know you think about, Reena, scary things you did when you were younger, not dangerous, but scary things. Like I think a little bit about some of the hiking and rock climbing I did growing up in Denver, you know, or being out on one’s own. And there is that sense of like this a lot, this is on edge for me, and then having done that, you feel braver to do other things, and it creates freedom to discover that you can tolerate discomfort.

REENA: Wow.

LISA: And another way to frame it, Reena, is there’s no guarantee that anything’s going to be comfortable, especially anything unfamiliar, and so if a young person feels like, I can only do it if I know I can be comfortable, they’re not going to able to do a lot of things. But if we can set it up so that, well, you can do it, and if you get uncomfortable, you’ve been there before, you can handle discomfort, they can do a lot of things. So that’s one way we want to walk into this.

REENA: This concept of letting them lean into the distress here, it’s like every parent wants to protect, it’s like instinctive, you don’t want them to go through distress. What are cases of instances of distress where you feel it’s actually good, like let them lean into this and feel that because it will make them stronger on the other end.

LISA: Honestly, Reena, I know this is going to seem extreme, I would say anything that’s safe. I mean, of course, safety is always the limit, like if it’s unsafe it’s a non-negotiable, it shouldn’t happen, but we really want kids to discover that doing things that are you know, require a lot of bravery, doing things that require a lot of tolerance of uncertainty, doing those things, we want them to discover that they can do those things, that feeling scared, that feeling uncertain, doesn’t harm them. You know, that they get through the feeling, that they can tolerate the feeling, and then usually the things that require bravery or a tolerance of uncertainty, have all these bonuses, right? Like now this kid is walking with their friend, they have a half an hour every morning to stretch their legs, be out in the air, talk to each other. You know, there’s good stuff that happens in that context. And I think we focus on the negatives, the child who’s nervous in front of us, but we forget that being brave means you’re doing things that have potential to also be amazing. And so honestly, so long as it’s safe, I will push into that space. But the other little twist in all of this, Reena, that I think, you know, so one thing that is going to be driving this is we want kids to have freedom. Another thing that’s actually pulling back on this is guilt. We feel guilty about what kids have been through, or at least bad for them about what they’ve been through. And what it makes me think about, Reena, is the nearest corollary I can think from my clinical work is when parents have been through a divorce, and you know, divorces are hard on kids, and so they feel guilty about what the kid went through, whether or not they were the one who somehow felt responsible for the divorce, and that shapes forward parenting. That what the kid went through through the divorce, they’re like, well, but they’ve been through so much. And I can tell you, Reena, it never works well. Guilt-informed parenting tends not to be our parenting A-game. We indulge kids in ways that aren’t necessary, we make compromises that aren’t necessary, we don’t ask enough of them. So, if guilt is driving this train, I would be very cautious about that.

REENA: That’s interesting, and I sort of feel in this moment, and I know you can’t necessarily walk us through each age group, but how do we know, especially with summer approaching and we’re all thinking of how to keep our kids and what to do this summer, how do we know, developmentally, what we should be doing with our kid? Or, when we should allow? Like obviously you’re not going to let a 3-year-old walk all over town. But you know, if you’ve got kids on the verge of middle school or in high school, or leaving for college, you know, these are sort of crucial years where they do want some more independence. What’s your advice for parents creating a roadmap on what they should be doing?

LISA: You know, it’s funny, do you have like a mommy mentor? I have a mommy mentor. I have a couple.

REENA: You do? Tell me more. No, tell me more.

LISA: I have a couple of women who are 10 years my senior who I think are fabulous and wonderful and brilliant and really good parents, like really good parents whose gut I trust, and sometimes I will go to them when I have a question about, you know, how to get through a hard thing or what to reasonably expect, because they’ve done it before, and they’ve done it with a couple kids and a couple different kind of kids, and I can trust their view on what I can fairly ask of my child. And one of the huge benefits is they did it all before the pandemic. Because the pandemic has really shifted our understanding of what kids can do because they’ve just been so close to home for so long. So one way, I think to do it, is to do a little bit of data collection, like what are the other parents in your community asking of their kids, you know? Because there’s a lot of stuff going on around us, and we know the other parents in our community and who do we know that we really love what they think, who do we think, well, no, that’s not really my cup of tea, but I would also really encourage people to seek for very specific questions, advice from people who’ve been there before and especially been there before but not in the pandemic.

REENA: That’s such a great idea, you know, finding somebody. And now that you mention it, there are people that I look up to who have kids that are 10 years older that you see how they’ve sort of let go a little bit. And what resonates with me is the independence, now that you mention it, that they’ve given their kids instead of sort of, you know, smothering them, given them a longer leash or a little more freedom to do things and I see the incredible human beings they’ve become.

LISA: Well, that’s right, you get to get both the advice and see the outcome. You can see the finished product, and you’re like, I love the way your kid came out. When you had to decide about this, how would you have made that call? I think that’s one way to do it. The other thing in here, Reena, to get back to the piece around kids being so close to home over the last few years, we are talking a lot, we’ve been talking a lot in the culture about what kids missed, the developmental milestones kids missed. The things that didn’t happen that would have happened. And what I haven’t heard discussion of that I think we want to name is that parents missed those milestones too.

REENA: Oh wow. I never thought of it that way.

LISA: Right? I mean, like the first time you send your kid to like walk over to the grocery store and get something, you know, you can do this with a lot of seventh and eighth graders depending on the configuration of your community, but no one was doing that with their seventh and eighth graders. And so, in many ways, I think for parents, letting our kids be increasingly dependent, it’s about kind of getting broken in, like you have to do it step by step, and none of us had to break in. They’ve been under our noses, they were away at college and came home and lived with us. And so, I’ll tell you, Reena, where I felt this so deeply in my own life. So, I have this daughter who’s a senior in high school, so the pandemic hit end of her sophomore year, and she has great friends but they’re not particularly social. Like they don’t go to parties and they weren’t going to a lot of parties as 10th graders. And, Reena, it was like three weeks ago, she had gone out to a party, and we had said, come home when you come, you know, we’re not going to give you a curfew, she’s 18, it just felt like I could trust her. So here I am kind of waking up through the night. It’s 11, is she home? I don’t feel like she’s home. You know you can sense their energy in the house, it’s midnight, is she home? And eventually she got home, but I thought, this is amazing, I have done this once in parenting a teenager. And now I’m sending this child off to college

REENA: Oh my gosh.

LISA: And it’s such a leap, Reena, all of that breaking in of having a teenager who’s out and about and you just come to tolerate it and then you send them to college and you can better tolerate that because you’ve been broken in. The parents, myself included, we missed those milestones. And so, we’re being asked to make these giant leaps of like send them to college even though one time in high school you waited up for them. So I feel for parents in this, and that’s maybe why I think it’s helpful to talk to parents who hit these milestones pre-pandemic because they can recalibrate to what we can reasonably expect.

REENA: Wow, I never thought about it as parents missing the milestones. I’ve always looked at it and felt bad for the kids missing these milestones.

LISA: Yeah, we grow alongside them, and usually, Reena, they’re pushing our growth. You know, they’re the ones saying I want to go to the sleepover at this kid’s house and we’re like, eh, I’m not so crazy about that kid’s family, and they’re like come on, come on, come on, and then we give in, and then we see that the world doesn’t end, and we can tolerate more independence on their part. You know, this is a kind of a hand in hand process, often driven by the teenager, that all got blown up over the last few years, and so now we’re not sure what to provide and what to say no to and I have a lot of, like tenderness for how confusing this moment is for parents.

REENA: I know we can’t tell exactly now, it’s still too early, but these milestones that we’ve missed, how do you think it’s going to affect parents and kids down the road. You know you talk about this group of kids going to college now that didn’t have these experiences that help you develop in high school.

LISA: I think it’s going to be all over the map, Reena. You know, I think there’s a lot of stuff kids missed in high school that I think it’s perfectly fine that they missed. You know, the raging party in somebody’s basement, no harm done there, and they never needed it and they’re all the better for it. And I think there are kids who may feel more shy and cautious than they otherwise would. And then of course, as a parent, if your kid is feeling shy and cautious, your anxiety goes up, and so you want to keep them closer to home. And I think there are some kids who have become very, very anxious in the pandemic and whose lives have become very narrow. And so, then it just doubles down the work for the parents because we want them to return to a normal developmental trajectory, and they’ve been knocked off course and everyone they know has been knocked off course, and what I would say is, we should push for correction. I don’t think we want to try to overcorrect, you know to say like, call me when you get work, but I think there’s a lot to be said for trying to remember what we were able to do at those ages, trying to look around to see, you know, that’s a really competent kid and she’s doing this so I think you can do it. And you know, our gut is not that good right now because we missed out on the things that help us develop our capacity to push kids and to tolerate their independence.

REENA: That’s really good. So, just to wrap it up, what’s the yardstick? When should we be pushing our kids, when should we be offering support?

LISA: I think you should default on the pushing a little bit if you’re not sure. So, if you think, it’s in their capacity, I don’t think I;m asking anything unfair, default on the pushing and if you’re uncomfortable about this, think, well, what’s the worst-case scenario, right? Say, I ask her to walk to school and she’s like, what? And you’re like, I think you can do it, you’ve got to leave in enough time, and she ends up having to trot the last block and she’s upset about it, okay if that’s the worst-case scenario, data has been collected. You’ll look at it tomorrow, you can reevaluate. I don’t think that we push kids only when we know it is going to go well. I think we push kids when we know it’s safe, but I don’t think that the measure should be, and it’s going to go great. A lot gets learned in the hiccups of things.

REENA: Yeah.

LISA: But the other thing that is wonderful in this is that if we push them most of the time, or more of the time, then we also in some ways, I think amplify the gift of the times when we go out of our way to make our lives easier. So, I’ll give you an example. Where we are, nobody clears their sidewalks when there’s snow, and so then they get really, really icy and sometimes the ice can last for a long time and I hate that part of the winter, and my older daughter walks to school. And when the sidewalks are like this, you can’t walk on them and so then you’re walking in the street. And then of course the street is narrowed by all the sludge and piled up snow, and it’s miserable. And there were a few days this winter, where I was like, you know what? I’m driving you. This is ridiculous, like I don’t want you walking in the street and it’s 10 degrees out. I’m going to drive you. And, Reena, of course there I am, I’m driving her in my pajamas, with my running shoes and like a parka over that.

REENA: As one would.

LISA: But then, she’s like ah, that’s wonderful. You know, it’s a little inconvenience for me, it’s a huge boost for her. So I think it doesn’t have to be hard and fast and we can save our extra, going the extra mile for our kids, we can save it for when it’s going to make a really material difference in their day-to-day, or that particular day, as opposed to offering it as a generic convenience.

REENA: That’s interesting, so not being the crutch but when they need it also knowing it’s time to step up and helping them.

LISA: Absolutely.

REENA: So, Lisa, what do you have for us for parenting to go?

LISA: You know this letter and this conversation reminds me of something I learned in my training when I was taking care of a 20-year-old woman who was asking me to write letters for all sorts of accommodations for her at work because of her psychological diagnosis. And I could do it, but I didn’t quite feel right, and I took it to my supervisor, I was in training, and my supervisor said, I want you to go back to your client and I want you to say to her, we can do this, but it means we’re treating you as more fragile than I think you are. And I did and we had that conversation, and it was a really fruitful conversation. Because I didn’t say no, but I put the question of her fragility on the table, and I also put my confidence that she wasn’t as fragile as she felt on the table. And it led us really deep in the work. So, I want to put that out there, that there’s helping our kids and, you know, taking them when it’s icy, and there’s treating them as more fragile than they are. And we want to make sure that we’re watching which one we’re doing.

REENA: You’ve opened my eyes to things I realize I’ve been doing that I now understand maybe I need to step back a little.

LISA: It’s so hard, Reena. It’s so hard.

REENA: It is, especially with this pandemic. But I’m grateful we’re having these conversations and you’ve made us aware that we’re in this new phase too. Very grateful. Thank you, Lisa. And next week, we’re going to talk about how do you deal when your kids are just so mean to you? I’ll see you next week, Lisa.

LISA: I’ll see you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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The Emotional Lives of Teenagers Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents