I grew up during a time when front doors went unlocked and kids roamed neighborhoods without a care in the world. If I fell down, ate mud, got a bug bite, or just felt sad, I either did it all in the comfort of my backyard or by taking a solo walk around the block. There was no question that I had a sense of freedom as a young person to do things away from my parents’ watchful eyes, and I learned a lot about myself in the process.
While I certainly had caregivers who wanted to protect me from the world, I also experienced ongoing abuse and trauma at home from a young age. This was an overwhelmingly mixed message to receive as I learned autonomy and conscious decision-making during my youth. I think having the respite of unsupervised time outside during a childhood rife with chaos came with both comfort and heartbreak. I had no adult support outside of my parents, kept the secret of my lifelong abuse locked away from others, and leaned on my unfettered imagination to keep me distracted from the pain. Much of how I processed (or didn’t process) my trauma came in the form of independent play outside.
Added to these challenges was the pressure I constantly felt to overachieve as I grew. I was placed in every single extracurricular activity that was available to me, competed in talent competitions, maintained a glowing report card, and never complained to my parents about the chronic bouts of low self-esteem, inner shame, and panic that flooded my mind with each new academic year. My extreme independence coupled with trauma and perfectionism led to a complex PTSD diagnosis in adulthood. Apparently, I have been unconsciously living with this mental health disorder since I was a young teen.
As a parent, I’ve had my fair share of moments when I question what I’m doing. I’ve devoured conscious parenting books and podcasts, worked through my own past traumas in therapy, and talked on the daily with my husband about ways we can help our kids spread their wings more. I constantly wonder whether I’m giving my children enough space, encouraging the right amount of responsibility, and cultivating a true sense of resilience with everything I model. My son and daughter are experiencing a vastly different childhood than I ever did, so I’m always considering ways to help them grow up in a modern society that so often values helicopter parenting over free-range care-taking.
All of my research and lived experience has personally taught me that raising kids can be as simple as it is daunting. Our children need to know first and foremost that they are loved, accepted, safe, and supported. Boundaries are great, natural consequences are a helpful guide, and teaching them how to contribute to society-at-large is awesome. But none of that matters if we don’t embody love from the inside out for them and share that love willingly and openly whenever they need our support.
I think this is an especially notable topic of conversation when we consider the teens in our lives who are struggling with anxiety and overwhelm from their endless lists of academic obligations. My 14-year-old stepdaughter Bella is in this exact demographic, and she’s definitely drowning in the onslaught of responsibilities being piled onto her. According to the World Health Organization, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents across the world, and suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-19 year olds. It’s a well-known truth that our teens are maxed out with a societal message that teaches them to measure their own worth by how highly they perform, how independently capable they are, and what activities they are taking on to prove their future value in the workforce.
But when we focus solely on either a “let them fail” or “push them to succeed” mentality, we are completely ignoring that our teenagers are vulnerable, sensitive, and delicate human beings whose brains have not yet fully developed to handle all of this pressure. Something’s got to give, and it starts with us parents evolving to a way of raising our children that includes helping them as they learn how to grow up, as this recent Facebook post by The Guilty Chocoholic Mama so eloquently describes.
“I know so many grown children who do not have a story of life made easier to tell,” blogger Elizabeth Spencer writes in her post. “They have parents who made (and make) life harder for them. My heart breaks and aches for them. If this is you, my heart breaks and aches for you. But as parents ourselves, we are still writing our stories with our children. We still have the chance to earn this telling by them: ‘My parents made life easier for me.’ This is not enabling. This is not co-dependence. This is not stunting growth. This is relationship. This is love. This is life. It’s rarely easy for long. But lived together, it can be made easier.”
Adding these kind of empathetic and supportive parenting principles to our daily lives can be a tall order for any adults who struggle with asking others for help, speaking kindly to themselves, and being open to new ways of thinking. Which is exactly why I advocate for every single grown-up to embark on their own self-love journey as they discover how to generously love their children and teens.
So how can self-love help us parent our kids with a more supportive spirit? Well, if my trauma recovery journey has taught me anything, it’s that learning to love ourselves is the greatest tool I have in raising my children. My son and daughter will always have the example of a mother who is learning how to extend herself from a place of inner worth. They’ll be able to come to me in the midst of challenging moments and undoubtedly feel my unconditional presence with no strings attached. I will encourage them to fly and soar and fall and get back up. I will also keep my arms wide open for them to run to anywhere and anytime.
This does not mean that I stop letting my kids encounter challenges, work through problems themselves, or stumble along the way. It means that I make myself available to them should they need to lean on me, feel seen and heard, or just want a break when they’re aching for one.
It’s easy to look at the words “independence” and “responsibility” and think only in terms of stringent, assertive control. We are regularly encouraged to push our children and teens to stay in line with how the world operates. We teach them to buck up, do their part, and not be an asshole. We champion “tough love” parenting in the hopes that it produces adults in this world who think beyond themselves. The major problem I find with exclusively raising kids in this way is that it can leave very little room for empathy, gentleness, and interdependence.
Many adults in my world have criticized me for being too permissive with my kids, hugging them for too long, and letting them emotionally unravel for as long as they need. They lecture me about giving my young children daily chores, expecting more from them when they act out, and using a reward-and-punishment system as a way of getting them to listen. While this could certainly create enough fear and superficial incentive for my kids to do what I need them to do and leave me alone when I want them to be independent, at its core this kind of lifestyle doesn’t address ways to cultivate their self-worth, their innate intuitiveness, or their inherent need to belong and connect.
As a mother, I personally see each of my children as the unique human expressions that they are. I remember that they need as much love and ease as I do in this life. And I guide them to make positive, thoughtful choices without the worry of harsh repercussions. This has resulted in a four-year-old daughter who plays out in our backyard on her own with wild abandon, helps me around the house when she sees me cleaning, and loves her little brother fiercely and fully. She is an attentive, kind friend to her classmates and is sure to ask the grownups in her life if they need any help. She is a conscious risk taker, dreams big, and persists even in the face of uncertainty. She owns up to the moments when she acts out and can even articulate why she did. And she has shown me a better example of resilience than anyone I’ve seen in my life.
It’s so important for us parents to ask ourselves a few things. How often do we individually seek out help when we need it? Are we allowing ourselves to be authentically seen and vulnerably heard with our loved ones? And how open are we to evolving and healing if we grew up without the necessary loving support we so deserved? The answers to these questions can be the greatest key to wholeheartedly parenting our children. We want kids who do stuff for themselves and are of service to those around them. But without giving them the foundation of the unconditional love we all benefit from receiving, their actions may ultimately be half-hearted.
Whether they communicate it or not, our children are begging for us to hold their hands for as long as they need, cheer them on when they try something new, and lovingly support them as they boldly and compassionately show up in this world. Let’s please be willing to trust that our ongoing parental support is one of the greatest forms of empowerment we can offer our kids. If we let them, they will ask for help as often as they honestly feel they want it. If we allow them to lead using their own inner compass, they will assuredly clue us in to the moments when they need dependence. And by knowing they can come to their parents at any given moment, no matter what, our children will be stronger for it.