The Art of Parenting: Knowing When to Step In, and When to Step Out

By: Dr Justin Coulson

Many of our children don’t like to admit this – and if they’re reading this article, they’ll say it’s not true – but until at least the age of 16, our children need us to be actively involved in a good portion of their lives. In reality, our children will do best if we remain involved in their lives for all of their lives! Obviously the degree of involvement will reduce over time, but the teen years are a time when they both need and want us.

The good news is that while they don’t like to admit it to us, they’re willing to admit it – even if it’s to strangers.

Just because they like us doesn’t mean they want us involved in every facet of their lives though. There is a fine line between being hands-on and involved, and over-reaching. We sometimes struggle to get the balance right when our children are younger, and many of us err on the side of over-involvement because we can get away with it.

Plus, they’re our kids. We love them and we want them to know it. But by the time they are adolescents, it becomes even more challenging to walk that line.

Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em

The greatest parents have a remarkable ability to know precisely when they should step in and get involved in their children’s lives, and when they are better off stepping back, and stepping out. This wisdom doesn’t come from a parenting column or self-help book. It is not found via google.

The parents who seem to walk the ‘involvement’ line best seem to do the following five things consistently:

1. Stay involved by staying available

Our adolescents may say they don’t need us at all. While this is false, they certainly don’t need us all the time. But when they do need us, the greatest parents are there. In fact, they make sure they’re available, even when they’re not needed – just in case. They have those brief, uneventful conversations that show interest. And from time to time, their teenager unexpectedly opens up and has a heart-to-heart.

2. Understand, but don’t fix

One of the classic parenting ‘mistakes’ is to try and give our teenagers the solutions to their problems. We sometimes do this uninvited – lecture style! But we also do it when our kids share a struggle or disappointment with us. We hear their pain and come to the rescue with a big dose of parental logic, and a ready remedy to fix the problem.

But if we instead choose to listen, label their emotions, and validate their feelings, they will often feel better. And they will develop solutions for themselves. They have good answers inside them. Stepping back from advice while stepping in towards emotions helps us walk that fine line between being supportive and being over-involved.

3. Schedule one-on-one time, even if it’s just a date with your child once a month

As our children get older they might feel it’s daggy to spend time on a date with mum or dad. But taking an hour or two to drive somewhere nice, walk somewhere nice, or eat somewhere nice – just the two of you – can keep communication open, and give great insight into your child’s life. You can remain involved by occasional dates, without being an unwelcome intrusion at all the wrong times.

4. Set limits with your child, not for your child

Another classic parenting ‘mistake’ is to dictate terms to teens. Research consistently shows that this kind of over-involvement leads to rebellion. And it harms the relationship. Rather than laying down the law, find a way to talk about the law. Discussions about limits that involve listening, deliberation, negotiation, and eventual agreement are more likely to be adhered to, promote stronger relationships, and reduce the chances that we’ll be accused of always being too involved in our teens’ lives.

5. Respect privacy – but by degrees

As our children become teenagers, their quest for privacy in most areas of their lives becomes enormous. We should honour that desire, but not all at once. As they demonstrate responsibility with small things, we can grant them more privacy. Privacy will always be a ‘values’ issue. You may grant privacy for physical situations, but not electronic. Or privacy may be okay for your daughter and her girlfriends, but your daughter and her boyfriend may have a lot less privacy.

The best way to describe parents who know when to step in and when to step out is that they support their children’s autonomy. They do this by actually taking the time to understand what it is their kids want (which requires availability), and then finding ways to support that in ways they, as parents, feel good about. This generally involves a lot of back-and-forth, but when the relationship is kept open and positive they not only walk the line, but their teens give them a broader line on which to walk.

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.