Launching a Child is a Balancing Act By Sophia K. Havasy, Ph.D.

Launching a Child is a Balancing ActLaunching a child into adulthood is like teaching them to ride a two wheeler. At first, you use training wheels so the child cannot fall. Then, you take off the training wheels and for a while, you run behind the bicycle with one hand on the seat, steadying the rider until that magical moment when the child finds their balance and rides off under their own steam.

With launching, the process takes longer and the steps are harder, but the sequence is the same. The training wheels are what children get before their teen years, with parents handling all important decisions, making sure that the child is safe and progressing with academic and social skills. Then come the teen years. The training wheels are off, and the parents are running behind the bike, steadying their child, eagerly awaiting signs that their off spring has found that elusive balance and can pedal off on their own. As the end of high school draws near and the possibility of college looms large, parents who still have their hand on the seat begin to worry. These are the parents who have to make sure their child gets up each morning, they have to keep monitoring to insure that homework is done and appointments are kept. If they have trusted their child with a credit card or cell phone, they live in fear of each month's bill, and even though they keep up a steady stream of reminders and dire warnings, there is never any indication that their child has learned a thing about taking responsibility for basic life tasks.

While parents imagine that their constant reminders will eventually prompt their child to start taking responsibility, their children often take away a very different message. They complain that their parents don't believe in them, don't trust them, and they can't imagine why that is. Even if they appreciate the seriousness of their parents' concern, they often don't have a realistic notion of resolution. For example, the child who cannot get up in the morning without constant reminders and help imagines that when they go to college, they will solve the problem by not taking any early-morning classes, not understanding how little control they will really have over their schedule. While they know that they haven't kept track of their assignments in high school, they imagine that college will magically be different.

Yes, college will be different, it will cost a lot of money and parents would be very relieved if they could witness some independent functioning, self-discipline, motivation, organization and sustained effort in their teenagers daily life before investing $10-$30,000 or more in college.

Parents of sophomores and juniors in high school, who are still working very hard to keep their child moving forward need to take a step back and find a better path. If their kids were going to spontaneously improve based on the current system, it would have happened by now, and if parents wait until their child's senior year to start getting serious, the pressure of impending college will just ratchet up the tension and make change harder to accomplish.

A good approach is for parents to think about what they need to see from their child, in specific terms, in order to feel confident that their investment in college won't be wasted. Then they need to sit down with their teenager and develop plans to get those results. This conversation itself might be quite a wake-up call to a child who just sort of assumed that they were headed for college because that's what happens after high school. An example of what a parent might want to see from a child to feel comfortable about sending them to college is a consistent ability to get themselves up in the morning. It is not enough for parents to just set this standard and then stand back and see if their teenager accomplishes the goal. Teenagers who have heretofore never managed to get themselves up in the morning, quite likely lack the skills to do so. If your whole life, you've just taken it for granted that someone will drag you out of bed each day, it's quite likely you don't really know how to do it yourself.

So, working together, develop a step-by-step plan for how to get up. Help your child determine what time they have to get up. To do this, they will have to work backwards starting with what time they have to be at school in the morning, and then figure out what time they need to leave the house to do that. Consideration must be given to how long it takes to dress and whether or not they are going to have breakfast before they leave. Then there is the whole mechanical process of waking up. Go to the store together to buy an alarm clock and find one that is good and loud.

Once you have a system worked out, plan for a one or two week transition period during which you work together to decide what time to get up and set the clock. During this time step in and help if things don't go right and make refinements to the system if problems crop up. Once the system is in place, and the skills have been practiced, it's time to see if the child can actually accomplish the task. At that point, don't help any more. The child becomes responsible for the consequences of failure. If they oversleep, they might serve a detention. Consequences are part of responsibility.

If with this approach, a child still cannot manage the basic tasks of life, it may be that there are more serious problems interfering with their ability to move forward. Disorders such as ADHD can make even extraordinarily simple tasks almost impossible, but with medications and therapy these hurdles can be managed. The key to success is getting started when there is still time to solve problems before they turn into crises. Parenting is a balancing act, you have to know when to step in, when to let go and when to call for help. It takes a delicate touch and a lot of stamina to run behind a bicycle providing just enough support to keep the rider moving forward and not so much that you prevent them from ever learning to ride on their own.