Raising Kids to Leave the Nest

Brought to you by Creative Healing for Youth in Pain's Parenting Blog

Samantha Levy, Ph.D.
October 31, 2022 / 5 mins read

“A mother’s job is to teach her children not to need her anymore.

The hardest part of the job is accepting success.” Rochelle B. Weinstein

For children who have chronic pain, their ability to grow their independence is often delayed. The need for their parents’ support because of their medical issues prolongs dependence on the parents, which then is often reinforced by a multitude of factors.

For example, it is my observation that the vast majority of youth with chronic pain get their driver’s licenses later than kids without pain disorders. This delay can be because they aren’t well enough to drive, or they have too many other therapies and appointments to attend, or they are behind in school and don’t have time for driver’s education, and so on. These reasons make logistical sense.

But I find that even when these factors are no longer an issue, these teens still hesitate to get their licenses. I feel that many of them become more reliant on their parents because of their pain disorders and feel uncomfortable setting out on their own, which driving symbolizes. One of my clients told me that he felt like it would “just be scary and lonely to be alone in a car.” This sentiment is in stark contrast to my clients and teens without pain disorders, who cannot wait to be alone and free in a car!

Relying on Parents Rather Than Themselves

As kids become more reliant on their parents because of chronic pain, they begin to internalize the feeling that they cannot rely on themselves. I find that parents of youth with pain also do not see their children as capable of being independent. They are so understandably entangled in the lives of their children, they forget to encourage their children to be independent in whatever ways they can.

These parents also become used to being with their child so much, that often the thought of separation is even harder than it would be for parents whose children do not have pain disorders. Neither the child nor the parent has had the typical gradual process of individuation and letting go. These sensitive teens pick up on their parents’ sadness and often express to me that they feel bad about leaving their parents – even if it’s just to go out with friends.

As a parent of grown daughters living across the country, I get it. It is hard to let go, especially when your child suffers from medical and/or psychiatric problems. You want to always take care of them. But if you have done your job, they can take care of themselves – with continued support from you.

Supporting Your Child, Not Doing For Them

“…I would have let him go one finger at a time, until, without his realizing,

he’d be floating without me. And then I thought perhaps that is what it means

to be a parent—to teach your child to live without you.” Nicole Krauss

Our job is to raise young adults who do not feel homesick when they go away! That is a sign that they feel self-sufficient and confident in their relationship with their parents. But this is complicated with a child with chronic pain who has had to rely on you so heavily. So, what can you do?

As Dan Siegel wrote, your job is to lend your child (especially teens) support while supporting their separation. You are there to support your child, not do for them. In a previous blog, I wrote about the steps of teaching your child a skill: First, show them how to do it; second, help them do it; third, watch them do it; and, fourth, let them do it independently. This template can be used for so many skills.

For example, children should be able to speak with their teachers about a problem independently by the end of elementary school, email teachers in middle school, and self-advocate with teachers and deans in high school. These skills can be accomplished by using the steps above. If you always communicate on behalf of your child, and do everything for your child, you take away your child’s feeling of accomplishment. Your child will not have the vital experience of learning from making mistakes. Your child will be robbed of the feeling of pride after finally succeeding in a task that has taken effort to master.

Don’t Become Overly Invested in Your Child’s Activities

Resist being more invested in any given interest or activity than your child is. I have seen endless kids start off with excitement and passion about an activity, only to become anxious and not want to continue once the parent becomes overly involved.

Of course, we want to show interest and excitement about our child’s hobbies and passions. However, if we get too involved and become more invested than our child, the child is no longer taking the lead. It becomes about us instead of about our child.

Youth with chronic pain tend to be very sensitive and perfectionistic. If your child senses that you are so excited about her accomplishments in a given area, rather than on the experience or fun of it, your child may then feel pressure to succeed in this area, taking away the enjoyment of it. If a sensitive child picks up on a high level of pride and excitement by a parent, that child may eventually feel scared to fail. The activity then becomes about succeeding rather than about a growth mindset in which the process is key and mistakes are helpful.

Trisha was a soccer player. She loved the sport and the team environment. She was very successful as a player from the beginning, having both natural skill and determination. Her parents – intending to be supportive and loving – often proudly touted her skills.

Her dad started to look up drills and “work” with her between practices. She felt she could not say no because he was so enthusiastic about it. This parental pride started to feel like pressure to do well in each game. As we worked through her chronic pain, it became clear that one of her fears about recovering was the idea of having to go back to soccer because she worried she would no longer be the star on the field.

We have a tendency to knock the fun out of much of our children’s play by inadvertently putting pressure on them to “succeed” instead of just having fun. Why am I talking about this in a blog about letting your child individuate and leave the nest? Because, if your child does not trust his ability to make his own decisions about how his time is spent, to make mistakes, and to be his own advocate, he will not be able to leave the nest. He will be too anxious and concerned about success and failure to venture out on his own.

Encourage Your Child’s Independence and Self-Sufficiency

Even if your child is limited by chronic pain and by a lack of independence because of it, you must encourage and expect any level of independence – even in tiny steps. Have your child call in an order for food after you have reviewed it, pay at the counter when shopping with you, email a practitioner about scheduling an appointment, email a teacher about getting an extension, and so on. Try to resist just doing it for them because it is easier or you don’t want to burden your child. Eventually, this will lead to burn out and resentment on your part, and a feeling of inadequacy in your child.

Be sure to show your child that you are okay when they exert their independence. Do not say you will miss them when they go out with a friend or make a sad face if they want to attend a school football game instead of watching movies with you on a Friday night. Do not question whether they will be OK, or subtly discourage their independence with comments like, “Are you sure it won’t be too tiring?” or “Do you think your friends will walk slowly enough for you?”

If the activity is something that is a huge step, then it may warrant discussing whether it is too much for your child to take on. But typically, any steps towards independence are positive. Let your child know that you are happy for her to get out and have fun and that you will be available, if needed. If it is a flop, let your child know that you are so proud of the effort and that it will get easier.

Ideally, we want our kids to maintain a close relationship with us as they grow up because they want to, not because they need to. If they are encouraged to become independent and trust themselves, they will feel confident enough to turn to us for help when they need it, but will generally be self-sufficient. If they do not feel they are capable, they will remain attached in an unhealthy way and not experience the excitement and pleasure of failing and succeeding on their own.