Morning Zen Guest blogger ~ Lisa Lambert
One day, 17 years and 364 days after his or her birth, your child goes to bed and wakes up the next morning a legal adult. You have a party (okay, maybe just a cake), give presents and feel a flutter of anxiety in your stomach. For many young people, being 18 doesn’t mean much these days. They can vote, sign a contract and register for the draft. They have already been able to drive a car, see an NR-17 movie or consent to sex for at least a year. They have to wait until age 21 to legally drink, purchase a firearm or adopt a child. But if your son or daughter has mental health needs, when they turn 18 you are relegated to a special category. Now you are an adult ally.
Yes, that’s right. When your child went to bed, still age 17, you were a parent. But when they woke up as a young adult, your status changed to adult ally. Or in some mental health circles, that is what the current thinking is. Adult allies, the definition says, partner with young adults, view them as valuable resources and ensure they can speak up and participate.
However, parents are parents and have a completely unique role in their children’s lives. It’s part of parenting to try to balance how we support, interfere, teach, back away or say we are proud, disappointed or relieved. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. But that’s part of it, too – learning, adjusting, making mistakes and doing it better. No one gets a handbook as if your child is an appliance; there’s an art to parenting that simply cannot be captured precisely.
Sometimes it’s your job as a parent to be the “not-ally.” Instead of allying, you disagree with your son or daughter. It’s learning how to do it while respecting their right to make mistakes and being clear that you disagree with their decision or position, but still love them. That’s the trick. Like all skills, this takes practice.
But there is another reason to choose words that describe the parent role carefully. Parents know how they feel when certain terms are used. Some words make us feel respected while others feel derogatory. Some terms take away power while others make us feel powerful. Describing a family as dysfunctional, for instance, robs parents of their strengths. They feel judged, unworthy and unable to change that perception. On the other hand, when a family is described as a “resource” for their child or a “strong” family, they feel empowered and valued. Unfortunately, lumping parents into a category of adult allies shifts us out of a unique role and into one that limits us.
Not long ago, I told a colleague of mine, who has children in elementary school, about this idea that parents become an adult ally. She listened to me in disbelief and said, “I put my heart, soul, time and money into my children in a way that only parents can. If someone told me that I am suddenly not a parent, but an adult ally, I would be pissed.” When she heard this term she felt it lessened her role, not enhanced it.
There were days and weeks while my son was transitioning to young adulthood (we are on the far side of that now) when I would have happily relinquished my role as a parent to become an adult ally. It would have been far less demanding and a much clearer role. But what he needed was a parent, someone who had known him forever and knew his strengths and foibles. I would say things like, “That sounds great. You are a hands-on learner and this would work for you.” I’d also say things like, “That makes me worried. Sounds like you are putting yourself in harm’s way. ” Sometimes he’d agree and other times he would think I was wrong. But we’d talk it through together, because that’s our mother son relationship. Sometimes the conversations were heated or exhausting but they worked for us.
When providers, emergency services and mental health providers ignore parents of young adults, it can send a message. When adult mental health systems exclude family involvement, that message is even stronger. The message I hear when this happens is, We don’t value parents and family involvement. If I am hearing it, my son or daughter probably is as well. Sure, there are privacy concerns and it’s important that young adults learn to take the lead in treatment and life decisions. But they may not want to do that every time. Sometimes we all need a team and parents can be valuable team members.
Other adults in a young person’s life should be encouraged to be an ally. The Free Child Project encourages adults to be “allies to young people when they work with, connect, partner, and unite with young people in personal relationships.” They encourage adults to take on a partnership and support role and offer guidelines to do it well. But parents are not just any old adult. They are the only ones who can do all the things only parents can do. Why would we want to prune their role and stuff it into this thing called adult ally?
There has been a lot of recent attention, research and thinking about young people who are transitioning to adulthood. We understand better that the prefrontal cortex of the brain doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s. We now understand that transition is a unique time between adolescence and adulthood. And so, the thinking goes, if this is a unique time, then parents should behave in unique ways. But is that true? Should we just be version 2.0 or 15.0 of the parent we’ve always been?
I am not saying it’s easy to figure out your role when your child turns 18. It’s not. But it doesn’t easily fit into a slot either. Sometimes you are an ally and sometimes you’re the one saying, “Wait a minute here. “ Sometimes you are amazed and astounded at what your child knows and sometimes you shake your head and say, “Really, that’s your decision? Okaaaaaay.” We used to call this a generational gap but it’s more like an experience gap. Our experiences change how we look at things. It can make us cautious or cynical. Youth can have a fresh perspective. We sometimes have to remind ourselves how wonderful that is.
There is room at the table for many voices. Those voices change in tone, in volume and in how often they speak. Transition to adulthood is a time when that happens. As parents, we learn to be less the authority and more the coach or mentor. Sometimes we are not either one but simply the observer until we are asked to participate. That’s okay; that’s what all parents have to learn. What’s different for parents of young people with emotional and behavioral challenges is that we have to learn to set our anxiety or need to impact the outcome to one side and have faith our son or daughter will be okay. My father used to say, “You can’t learn to ice skate without falling down.” We need to believe it’s okay for them to fall down and just be there, when needed, after the fall. That’s what parents are for.
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Lisa Lambert, Executive Director, Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL) and Children's Mental Health Network Advisory Council member – Lisa Lambert is the executive director of Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL), a statewide, family-run, grassroots nonprofit organization based in Boston. Lisa serves on a number of committees in Massachusetts as well as the Building Bridges Initiative Youth and Family Partnership workgroup. She has been instrumental in working with local and national media to highlight the concerns of families and youth. She is dedicated to ensuring that family voice is included in every state and national conversation about the policies, practices or services that impact them.
PPAL website, May 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.the