Why Parents of young adults need to ride in the Back Seat
I got to spend last week with both my kids (19,21), which is not something we’ve been able to do often in the last two years. The three of us together is my happy place. I loved every minute of it.
We made a day trip out into the countryside. My son drove his cool car, my daughter was navigator/DJ and I rode in the back seat.
Does the back seat sound like a downgrade to you? Honestly, it felt great. I looked out the window and truly enjoyed my first time on the prairies since 2006.
And I had an amazing realization. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.
First, let’s talk about the role reversal that happens as our children become adults. And let’s admit how challenging it can be.
When you became a parent, you began fitting your child into your life. For so many years, you scheduled what needed to happen for them and taught them what you felt was important.
But now their lives have become fuller and more autonomous and the tables have turned. Your role as their parent is to fit more into their lives, to understand what they believe is important and to respect their agenda for what needs to happen in their lives.
It’s your turn to ride in the back seat. And this can be hard for parents for several reasons:
Your parenting instincts have you wanting to know for sure that you’ve done your job well and taught them everything they need to know to have happy, meaningful lives. You’ve done so much and you love them so deeply. You want to know they’re on the right road to the best outcome.
But, on your child’s road trip (if you’ll let me play with my metaphor), you aren’t choosing the destination. Not knowing how it’s all going to turn out is uncomfortable for some, downright frightening or aggravating for others.
2. Losing authority over their decisions.
As a parent, you’ve had power and influence, either a lot or a little, depending on your style. You’ve steered their choices of sports and friends. You’ve felt a sense of control in the driver’s seat.
But with kids in their teens and twenties, the steering wheel is no longer in your hands. You watch them make illogical decisions and take risks you would never take. Your foot goes for the brake, you automatically look over your shoulder for merging traffic… Of course, it’s hard to get used to.
3. Difficulty understanding your child’s perspectives and priorities.
What makes him think that’s a smart decision? After all I’ve taught her, how could she be choosing this? The truth is that your children have experiences different from yours, hang out with different people, consume different media, eat different food and all these inputs influence their way of seeing the world, which is impossible for you to see completely.
As my son drove down the highway, he had a unique view on how much room there was to pass the freight truck. I couldn’t see and I felt completely powerless.
But we must let go of our frustrations and fears; we must let them drive.
If we don’t - if we try to control their actions and manipulate their decisions - we will impede their natural progression toward independence. If they submit to your authority now, they will break their dependency later – likely more vehemently. One day, when you question or criticize their decision, they will finally stand up and yell: "It's my life and I will live it as I please!" Repairing this kind of rift is difficult and, in some families, it never heals.
Our children must become independent. In fact, in the depths of our hearts, it what we most want for them – to be true to themselves. To know the feeling of their true nature and trust its wisdom. To be confident making decisions according to their own instincts. To be the authors of their own lives.
So, how do we sit comfortably in the back seat and let them drive?
· Let there be space.
Take a breath before you respond. Go for a walk to listen to your deepest truth. Have a good night’s sleep before you jump to any conclusions or dismiss any opinions. It’s when you pause that stagnant energy is released, and that creates room for new perspectives and new possibilities.
· Observe how well they’re doing.
In the steady flow of family life, it’s easy to fall into the habit of focusing on problems and putting out fires. We end up spending less time consciously registering all that’s going right.
So I invite you into a daily practice of noticing what your child is doing well. Choose just one thing and watch it with keen interest. Say it out loud or write it in your journal. Recognize it as truth. Allow those feelings of relief/ ease/ joy/ pride to land in your heart and live in your body.
Lean into trusting the foundation you’ve built for them and all that you’ve done that was pointed toward a beautiful (though yet unknown) destination for them. That all travels with them.
· Learn about their perspectives on their life.
Be willing to hear why they make the choices they do and consider that it may well be a wise decision, for reasons that you aren’t able to see yet. Seek to learn what’s most important to them right now.
Ask genuinely curious questions about how they are seeing a situation and let your response be “I see” or another question. In the back seat, you can look out all the windows and take in all the views.
Although you cannot see the road well from the back seat, you can certainly find out how they’re seeing it. And you can respect their perspective.
· Remember that it’s your child’s job to become independent from you.
The aspects of their life will take precedence over their involvement in your life. If they choose a partner, you will become less important than their partner. If they become parents, you will become less important than their child. Less important doesn't mean less loved, only less of a priority as their attention goes more and more to the life they are building. Less of an influence on their choices.
It's the chafing part of parenting: when you succeed in growing your children to independence, they will act more independently from you.
Luckily, their need for your attention and interest is something they never really outgrow. So let your focus be on providing that affirmation and love.
· Embrace the uncertainty of life.
How do you choose to be with paradox, puzzle and things unknowable? Deepen your practices in being with it all. Dance, pray, hike, chant... We don’t know our ultimate destination, nor our children’s. But we have moments of sensing the presence of spirit and connecting with the oneness. What are your ways of cultivating your faith in Life?
As we drove back toward Calgary, we rolled the windows down. The wind was loud in my ears and I couldn’t hear what the kids were talking about. But I could hear the timbre of their voices and sense their happiness as they embark on their next adulting adventures.
And then I had a realization: my kids are fine and they’re going to be fine. It was a dreamlike moment that will be etched on my heart forever. I exhaled and smiled from deep within.
It was a truly reassuring view – one that I could only get from the back seat.
With you on the journey,