Encouraging Growth and Autonomy in Our Children

The Hidden Challenges of Parenting Preadolescents

As my eldest daughter enters preadolescence, new parenting challenges are emerging. I am keenly aware that she, among all my daughters, is the most like me – deeply emotional, intuitive, sensitive, and contemplative. She often processes things internally but also likes to talk things out.

She experiments with her pre-teen autonomy while also flashing glimpses of the little girl who can’t get enough of her daddy’s affectionate glance and smile. She is passing into unfamiliar developmental territory.

Determining Your Child’s Changing Needs

I now encounter my little girl needing me in different ways. Because she is like me, I’ve always been able to read her pretty well. She always found a way to demand my attention, receive a hug, or solicit a comforting word. Determining what she needs from me used to be simple. However, I’ve begun to notice that her chase of my affection has turned into a slow trot and reading her has become more difficult. She has become more inclined to fade into the background and get lost in a good book than volunteer her inner thoughts and feelings. This new territory has excavated parts of me that feel insecure, afraid, lost, and anxious.

What Developmental Changes Reveal About Parents

I find myself wrestling in preparation for a changing role in the life of my not-so-little girl. I have frequently questioned what this means about me as a parent and a person. How will I learn to relate to her in our relationship? How are my efforts impacting her developing identity? At times I feel certain I’m missing it, but my hope is to lead her to feel loved, lovable, secure, confident, and humble. I am learning how to remain aware of my parenting fears without letting my feelings determine how I interpret and respond to her needs or behaviors.

Our emotions impact the lens in which we think, act, and react in relationships and situations. However, despite this reality, our emotional states tend to be the last thing we understand or make room for in ourselves. I think this is one of the hardest parts of entering every new developmental frontier of parenting (and relationships, in general). As our children grow up, their needs of us grow and change as well. This leaves us to shed the skin of one stage of parenting to grow into another.

With these expected stages of growth in our children, most parents are taken off guard by how much growth and awareness are still required inside themselves at each developmental turn. Therefore, parenting actually is a parallel process alongside our children involving discomfort, loss, rediscovery, and change.

Parents are forced into uncomfortable emotional states – feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, desperation, disappointment, urgency, anxiety, fear, etc. – as we encounter our children trying to grow into themselves and master their own. The main difference between us and our children is our capacity for self awareness, perspective, maturity, and self control.

These moments are surprisingly frequent and come in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

A Subtle, Yet Telling, Experience at Disney World

My family and I went on a trip to Disney World. During our time at the different parks, my oldest often began to wander ahead of the rest of the family. As she would go in and out of my sight line, my daddy radar would often get triggered. I felt some panic and anxiety go off as I had a “little one” begin to get beyond my comfort zone in the crowded park.

Fighting the urge to call her back to to the pack to stay with us was very difficult for me, a part of me feeling worried and afraid. Wrestling with the urge to protect her was a silent, exhausting battle. My muscles tensed and constricted, and at times I had waves of panic rush over me. I found myself distracted by thoughts of emergency contingency plans in the event that my worst fears were realized. Despite all this, I fought the urge, waited, and watched.

Then, in a moment of clarity, it occurred to me that she was mostly conscientious of where the rest of the clan was. I noticed her head swiveling to get a visual of our whereabouts while also trying to lean into the mystery and adventure of the most magical place on earth. The thought then hit me, “she is doing what she is supposed to do. Settle down, don’t discourage her exploration – she’s got this.” With these words inside, the part of me that was anxious and worried let go, and I felt a space open up in me. With my anxiety and worry diminishing, I was able to also be more present and enjoy myself more, too.

Processing Our Reactions to Fear

As I became aware of my initial reaction, I also realized how my actions could potentially encourage her growth and autonomy in a loving, connected way or instill fear and self doubt as I projected my fear, insecurity, and anxiety onto her.

Had I acted on my urges of panic, I would have reeled her in and likely squashed her curiosity and excitement in order to make myself feel less anxious and afraid. I also would have likely inadvertently given her the message that I didn’t believe in her judgement and perhaps indirectly suggested she is unable to figure things out without her daddy’s oversight or blessing.

Despite my fear that there was a certain danger, and I needed to take action, the real reality was danger was not imminent. My feelings caused me to act as protector to my daughter. The reality was that she did not need my protection in the same way that her five year old sister did, who is not able to process situations like my oldest. Had I reacted based on feelings, I would have missed the cues from my oldest that she was likely as aware as I was of the need to stay connected. She simply needed my support as she pressed into her quest of becoming a strong, confident, curious, beautiful woman.

I am discovering that a lot of my job as a parent is not to force my daughters’ growth but work within myself so I don’t get in the way. This work is proving to be rewarding for the both of us.

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