Losing a parent when you are young is, inevitably, sad and difficult. Sad but not inevitable is feeling that our parents are absent when they are actually still with us.
I look back on the parenting I did when my children still lived at home and I know that there were times when they probably felt as if I wasn’t there. We cannot have parenting in the forefront of our minds all the time – many of us are juggling work and parenting and some of us will be caring for other relatives as well. There’s a balance to be struck too – being invasive, ‘helicopter’ parents who can’t allow our children constructive independence is just as unhelpful as appearing to be absent.
It’s hard. Teenagers can be very misleading in the messages they give us. I was completely convinced that my oldest son couldn’t wait to see the back of me when he went off to university and that he certainly wouldn’t want me popping down for the occasional weekend visit. Wrong! Only much later did he tell me that he’d actually felt really bereft by my hands-off approach!
Teenagers can seem so hell-bent on independence and can be so surly and uncommunicative, that we can get the impression that our opinions, concerns and activities are either of no interest whatsoever or are considered worthy of only the lowest life-forms. As for our company – well, really? What would they want that for?
So we carry on with our work and our other concerns (which are, after all, very pressing and important), blithely unaware that inside our uncommunicative, frequently surly teenager, there is still an inner child who needs our love, our attention and our active presence. Hugging us feels awkward and it’s become impossible to get the words out to tell us that we are still loved and deeply needed.
The process of gradually launching into the world outside our immediate families is called individuation and it’s hard for both parents and children. For children it’s like being attached to an immensely powerful bungee cord. They keep stretching and stretching away but it’s hard work and every so often they snap back with all the force in that elastic. There might be a tantrum, a raging storm of anger or a melt-down. Suddenly, your child is very, very present again and uncomfortably so, before the stretching starts again. For the parent, it can feel like everything is going reasonably well and then, out of nowhere, there’s a massive problem.
So what can we do?
First, it’s really important to ‘be there’ and for your child to know this. That applies to both parents. If work takes us away from home, we need to find ways to keep the connection alive. If we have demanding, stressful jobs, we must ensure that we are still finding time to be actively present in our children’s lives. Only children and those left behind by siblings who have left home can feel particularly isolated. It can seem like they are alone in the universe, rattling around with preoccupied parents who see them as too grown up to need the sort of attention they were used to when they were little.
Second, when the elastic does snap back and we’re faced with some sort of meltdown, it can help to see it as an expression of the inner child on its journey through individuation. Right now, it’s all become a bit too much and your child needs your support, your compassion, your strength and your love. The inner child in all of us needs to feel secure, nurtured and cherished. If our parents don’t provide that, it can lead to problems of insecurity and low self-worth both in the present and in future life. In some cases, there will need to be a sanction for the behaviour but that, issued with reasonableness and thought, helps teach boundaries and shows that you have the capacity to contain the situation, thus helping to create a sense of safety.
‘Begin with the end in mind’Stephen Covey
Stephen Covey, the author of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ advises us to ‘Begin with the end in mind’ and learn to avoid anything we don’t want to be burdened with on our death beds. I started this blog writing about those who have lost parents, so death beds are on my mind. The question I think we need to ask ourselves is about priorities. On our death beds, will we wish we’d been more present for our children? Will we regret the preoccupations which absorbed our attention whilst they were teenagers?
Will we wonder whether, in a way our children had lost us, even when we were still there?