Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington started Grown & Flown, a community for parents of kids ages 15 to 25, because they found so little information out there pegged at parents with kids in that range.
The site, as well as their book of the same name that comes out next week, focuses on successfully navigating the teen years while getting your kids ready to fly the nest.
“There’s very little out there once your kid turns 13. It’s as if it suddenly gets easy, but all the data will tell you the opposite,” Heffernan told HuffPost. “Not only does it get harder, not only do the decisions become more consequential, but the mistakes become more consequential. … Most parents find the middle and high school years the most difficult and lonely time to be a parent.”
In search of some sage advice that perhaps it does get better or easier or just to commiserate, HuffPost spoke with Heffernan, who has three grown sons, about raising independent kids, the hardest years and raising boys through rejection.
What advice have you come back to over the years about raising younger kids?
Once you pick up a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” you get into a milestone mindset, where we start to feel like this happens, then that happens. We start our parenting journey with the belief that they are on a schedule and that they are going to follow certain patterns and if they don’t, we need to talk to their pediatrician or psychologist or their teachers. And one of the biggest lessons of letting go of that milestone mindset and really understanding that mental, emotional and physical maturity are paths that kids take is that they are all going to the same place but they are not going at the same speed. Letting go of that whole mindset of their development was huge. The sooner you let go of it, the better off you’ll be.
“The entire arc of parenting is walking that balance beam between doing too much and doing too little.”
What were some of the hardest years for you, especially as they become independent?
Research shows that the most challenging time is around middle school. The whole independence thing is all about fits and starts and one thing we write in the book is that at no point will you feel, “You know, I got this!” I have 20-somethings and I’m not sure I have it right. The entire arc of parenting is walking that balance beam between doing too much and doing too little. You never know if you got it right, you just keep trying and iterating. So you ask yourself these kinds of questions: “Am I doing this because he or she needs me to do it? Or is it about me?” “Am I helping them because I need to do this or is this because they need my help?” “Is there a learning opportunity here?” “Is there a new skill, specifically an intellectual or emotional skill, I can be teaching through this process?” Make sure you’re not trying to get rid of stress ― it’s really hard to watch our kids deal with stress ― but a lot of experts agree that stress is where the learning happens. You want to make sure they’re at the edge of what they can handle but not what harms them.
We spoke with a psychiatrist who teaches a popular class at New York University ― The Science of Happiness, Dr. Alan Schlechter. He talks about reframing stress. It’s not that you’re stressed, it’s that you have a challenge, that you’re excited. So I think one of the things we can really, really do to make our kids more independent is to teach them how to deal with stress. We tend to swoop in and intervene. So the answer shouldn’t be how can I save them, it should be ― and this is even at 6 years old ― about reframing that in his mind.
So what would you say to a 6-year-old?
Teaching kids to say, “I may be nervous but I’m also excited” by looking at the new-ness. Try to get them excited about the new opportunity, whatever that may be. Reframe the excitement of the possibility, not how stressful the adaptation can potentially be. You’re doing them a favor for a lifetime, aren’t you?
Talk to me about teaching them to deal with rejection.
Rejection happens ― one of the painful ones is college but one of the other painful ones is romantic relationships. They often have their first really painful heartbreak in high school maybe even in middle school and that is so hard to watch as a parent. So some of it is just being there and listening and some of it is making sure, especially with the college process, that they have put second choice options in place. And when someone breaks up with you, sometimes it’s about you, sometimes it’s not about you. Sometimes they can’t be in a relationship right now. Teach your kids to try and figure out when it’s about them, when is it not about them. Because we’re gonna get rejected in a lot of things in life that are not going to be about us. It’s really hard because in the emotional moment it can be really, really painful but it’s super important. Sometimes you wait for the dust to settle and then say, “OK, that didn’t work out. What can we do constructively going forward to keep something like that from happening again?”
“They will get around you, they will understand more than you, you will make mistakes out of sheer stupidity.”
You have three boys. How have you taught your sons about rejection in that way?
I think that the way to think about some of these things is that these are conversations that last a lifetime. A lot of parents say, “Well, I had the conversation about sexual assault.” That’s not a conversation, that is a series of conversations that happen over many years. It is so rare that you can handle a consequential topic in a single sitting. You had “the talk about drugs”? No, that is a conversation you have over years; even maybe when they’re in late elementary school before the drugs appear in your kids’ lives and then in middle school when we know the drugs are available, that’s when the conversation is really going to ramp up. It’s long, evolving conversations that are going to get more specific to the point at which it is positively uncomfortable in high school, the explicit nature of the conversations we have to have with our kids. If you started them earlier, it is so much easier.
How do you navigate social media when you don’t know what things are?
I navigated from a point of lack of knowledge. I didn’t think I needed to be involved in social media and then I tried to parent them through it. It’s important to get up the learning curve as fast as you can. You can’t parent from the vantage point of naïveté. They will get around you, they will understand more than you, you will make mistakes out of sheer stupidity. You’re not that interested and it’s like “ugh, one more thing” but it’s really important.
How do you foster a good relationship with your teenager?
We love this book called “The Teenage Brain” by Frances Jensen. It’s so much easier to understand and be compassionate with your irrational 13-year-old when you understand there’s just not malice, there’s no ill will, it’s not about the parent, it’s just the development of their brain. It allows you to reason with them in the way that they think.
A lot of our problems with kids that are like 13 is their inability to project into the future the way we project into the future, and see consequences the way we see consequences. We project out 10 years; they can’t even project out 10 days. So a lot of it is bringing things down to their timeline and breaking things down into smaller parts. Set short-term goals, short-term reasons why they need to do things.
All the research about teens and young adults right now is that they are having a fundamentally different relationship with us than we had with our parents. So they like us more, they’re closer to us, they talk to us more, they’re more willing to talk to us about their jobs, their romantic life, their school situations. This doesn’t mean they’re not independent. We should never conflate closeness with independence. There’s a new paradigm going on. Some of it is enabled by technology. Kids text us, they message us, they put us in a group chat, so my family is literally always talking. I describe it as the digital dinner table. The conversation that was going on for 18 to 22 years at a wooden table is now carried on in the digital space and that is a wholly positive thing. A lot of our anxiety as parents come from our own experience as teenagers. Meet them where they are.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.