Weaning Teens (Off Dependency)

Katy BurkeUncategorized

Babys hands making a mess of spaghetti and sauce

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We all know someone whose maturity, for no apparent medical reason, is stunted somewhere in adolescence. It may be a friend, a coworker, maybe even a parent.  This person may be attention-seeking, self-centered, irresponsible, people-pleasing, prone to tantrums, or simply unrealized.  How is it that the body matures without a hiccup, but the mind doesn’t always follow? The body grows under certain conditions, primarily good nutrition, and I believe the mind also needs certain conditions to be met in order to mature as expected. So what sort of diet nurtures mental and emotional growth? It should go without saying that a stable environment free of trauma, and caring family and friends best support maturation. In my previous post, The Trouble with Growing up, I talked about the importance of normalizing the awkward nature of becoming an adult.  I explain how perspective can significantly impact the maturation process. Beyond this, a sizable portion of NEED stimulates the transition from dependent child to self-actualized adult. To a healthy degree, the more young people feel the need to feed their contentment on their own, the more likely they will be to mature on schedule.

What do I mean by “need”? Consider a nursing child…he may get dissatisfied with nursing when his growing appetite creates a need for denser food or he may stay perfectly content while his mother grows evermore weary. At some point (likely when he gets teeth), she cries “Enough!” and weans her baby. How does she wean him? By gradually removing his preferred food supply, creating a need for something new. It may sound cruel, but we all know it’s not. The process is not all that different with teenagers who are also going through a growth spurt in more ways than one. Some teens feel their need for independence more intensely than their parents do, and some are perfectly content with their dependence while their parents are desperate to see them pick up responsibility. In the former case, the parents should not stand in their child’s way even if it is difficult to let go, and in the latter case, it is perfectly reasonable for the parents to “wean” their teenager.

Weaning teens from their dependency is a much better approach than “making lazy kids responsible,” though, like weaning a baby, it will take effort. The model of creating responsible kids usually relies on a lot of parental pressure without creating need in the child.  Heavy pressure without personal need is a surefire way to exasperate kids and deteriorate parent-child relationships. I had a taste of this growing up when my mother and I entered the “Dishwasher Wars,” which lasted approximately five years and remains one of the longest running ceasefires next to that of North and South Korea. To this day, I don’t own a dishwasher, and I like it that way.

My mother didn’t require much of me in my teen years, but the one chore she slotted for my daily upkeep was emptying the dishwasher. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but I loathed the job. For one, the work was highly unsatisfying and boring. If you look in a kitchen with an emptied dishwasher, it looks no different than one with it full. Secondly, and more importantly, it was to be emptied on my mom’s timetable—when she, the cook and dirty-dish-creator, had need for it, usually when I least expected it and was in the middle of doing something else. I was supposed to monitor when it was full and clean, but I always forgot and she always reminded. I admit, I was sort of a brat about this issue. However, you can see that this was a task of which I had little control and no need. In fact, my only need was to keep my mom “off my back,” which didn’t help our relationship in the slightest. It was a recipe for war. I resisted, my mom came down harder, I got resentful, she got resentful, and it often erupted into fits of yelling. Apparently, this isn’t unusual. My colleague, Alison, remembers running away from the house and jumping a chain link fence in response to a dishwasher battle with her mom. If possible, we should avoid this—yelling, resentment, fence-jumping.

Alternatively, a more effective approach is to take advantage of organic situations in which teens experience high personal need and little external pressure (especially from parents). Where I failed in dishwashing, I made up with laundry.  I started washing my own clothes around sixteen when I made an amazing discovery one day, a discovery that was born out of need. I worked at a local supermarket and realized that I didn’t have a clean uniform for my shift later. Rather than bothering my mom, I decided to wash all my clothes myself. This must have been monumental because the memory is permanently fixed in my mind. Once I figured out the soap ratio, I remember closing the lid to the washer and being hit with a revelation. “Oh my goodness, I could just do this, like, ALL THE TIME. Then, I will always have the clothes I need…and I won’t have to fight with my mom about it…and I don’t have to worry about stuff getting shrunk because I know what needs to be hung.” Now, I doubt my mom was shrinking my clothes on purpose, but if she was, WOW. Brilliant. Then came the bigger revelation…”Maybe I could do other stuff myself too…then I can do more of what I want. And people will leave me alone.” It was stunning. I did become a much more independent person, and I believe this experience had a lot to do with it. I knew my mom could and would do things for me. I knew it would be easier than learning myself, but I also knew it came with a cost to my personal freedom. Needless to say, I was never that college kid who brought laundry home on the weekend (ironically, to my mother’s chagrin—she missed me).

Parents can help their older children come to the same realization I did by simply pulling back on the physical support that teens can manage on their own. This may mean discontinuing to wash their laundry. At the very least it means not washing it on their timetable, based on their need, when they are capable of doing it themselves. Parents can certainly help with any new task if their child has questions, perhaps doing it together at first. But the idea is to wean them off that dependency eventually. Psychologist and author of Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up, by Mark McConville, believes that kids will pick up the slack when they see a real need. In an interview, he refers to the exasperated father of his patient, a young man who failed to get a job. McConville asked the father why the boy should work when he doesn’t have any bills. It’s a great question. How many adults would keep working if they didn’t have bills? Clothing and entertainment expenses, phone bills, car payments, insurance, and eventually even rent are reasonable costs for any young person to incur who is capable of working and at least partially supporting him/herself. How old is old enough? It’s the parent’s discretion as much as it is a nursing mother’s.  However, I believe what’s best for the child is to pull back as soon as they are capable of the work at hand. 

As a parent it can be very difficult to discern when and how to help our kids move on to more independence. When my daughter was a toddler, I remember trying in vain to teach her to wipe her own bum. “But I can’t reach!!” she wailed. Finally, in frustration, I measured her arm. To my utter disappointment, she was right. “Another year of this,” I thought. We’re going to make mistakes. We need to listen to our kids and our gut, and through that find solutions that make sense, then try them out. We must prepare for things to get messy, like an infant trying pasta sauce. But if we keep working at it, just as we did when they were babes, they’ll grow up.

Update: Since originally writing this, the Dishwasher Wars have ended peaceably. Up until recently, when visiting my mother’s house, I would occasionally do her dishes, but always strictly by hand, refusing the dishwasher just an arm’s reach away. This past week, I not only used the dishwasher, but committed to always do the dishes for her when visiting, especially since she’s kind enough to cook. It seems even I, a grownup, am capable of growing up more still.

[Photo Credit: charlotte coneybeer, messy hands, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]