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How to Let Go and Let Your Child Grow Up

Janis is a mental health professional in private practice in Washington, DC. She holds a Master's degree in counseling psychology.

Letting Your Child Grow Up

As children advance in school or enter college, parents are confronted with the reality of the child growing up. The parent is suddenly faced with letting go of that parental attachment they held from birth.

This notion of "letting go" can create levels of anxiety most parents have not prepared for, in an intensity they did not expect. Many report experiencing feelings of mourning and loss.

When the time comes, it is much easier said than done to break the parent-child connection and begin the establishment of a child's autonomy and independence.

The mother-daughter bond is hard to break when it's time to let her grow up.

The mother-daughter bond is hard to break when it's time to let her grow up.

Letting Go at Each Stage of Your Child's Development

Certain events in your child's development mark the times when you must let go and allow your son or daughter to take another step toward becoming a free-standing human being. Whether it's the end of breastfeeding, the first day of kindergarten, going away to college, or a wedding day, letting go can be difficult for a parent.

The teenage years are probably the most difficult, as you have less and less control over your child's developing autonomy and need to make his or her own decisions. Your teenaged child begins, in earnest, to move away from their dependency on you.

How to Let Go of Your Child

There is no one way to tackle and move through stages of your child's development. Every child requires different parenting, and every parent will do their best based on knowledge, experience, and available parenting tools. The following are basic tips to assist parents as they move through the difficult transition of letting go, when that time comes. Starting early will help create a good foundation upon which you can build successes at each critical stage of your child's development.

  • Learn to recognize the difference between your child's needs and your own (scroll down to read more about a parent's dependency on the parent-child bond).
  • Set boundaries for yourself; practice giving your child space to grow.
  • Give your child a chance to master tasks alone and learn from mistakes.
  • Trust that the values you've instilled will inform their decisions.
  • Acknowledge that you've done your best as a parent and that the hands-on phase of parenting does come to an end.
  • Treat the letting-go process as a transitional loss and grieve accordingly; see a family therapist if necessary.
  • As your child matures, build a new relationship with them that is less about dependency and more about mutual respect, admiration, and a celebration of a budding, capable young adult.
  • Develop social, recreational, and self-care activities to help distract from the life-long focus of parenting your children.

The Limits of the Parent-Child Bond

Overparenting: Recognizing Your Own Dependencies and Needs

Becoming aware of the reasons behind your need to be a parent to your child indefinitely is a good place to begin your letting-go process. Sorting out those mixed feelings that prevent you from letting go is the first step toward understanding and conquering one of the most painful parts of parenting. It requires looking within.

Your emotional struggle could be due to a dependency on your child. In my work counseling parents, some have spoken about the strength of the "love bond" between parent and child, a bond that supplies the parent's need for love, affection, and companionship. They admit how this bond affects their ability to separate from the child, causing emotional conflicts and disruptions in their personal and professional lives.

Signs of a Parent's Dependency on the Parent-Child Bond

  • Delays in using a sitter to care for the child.
  • A frequent need to "reconnect" or check on the child's welfare at daycare, school, or college.
  • Being unable to socialize or vacation away from the child for long or extended periods of time.
  • Relationship conflicts stemming from decreased intimacy and quality time between parents.
  • Delayed weaning of child from your bed to his own bed.
  • Conflicts about obligations to career or commitments to shift work, especially where basic childcare or breastfeeding is interrupted.

Letting Go Creates Parental Guilt and Internal Conflict

The conflicts noted above are experienced by many parents, especially mothers. In these instances—most often occurring during the child's early development—feelings of guilt, conflicting loyalties, and internal struggles to make sacrifices can overwhelm a parent.

The truth is, there is no other love that compares to the love a mother or father has for a child. Nothing can replace the bond that comes with caring for and protecting that child. Thus, a parent is operating out of pure love, reciprocated by the child, which creates the intense, unexpected love bond that is hard to break. It's no wonder parents have a tough time letting go and allowing the child to become independent, no wonder a parent experiences such an overwhelming flood of emotions and protective love when a teenager enters college.

This flood of emotion is only exacerbated by increased reports in the media of violence in public school classrooms, on college campuses, and in places of recreation which add to the gut-wrenching fear parents experience when faced with having to let go of their children.

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Read More From Wehavekids

Parents Talk About Letting Go of College-Bound Children

Are You Scared to Let Your Child Grow Up?

The poem below, "For My Child," speaks to this struggle and the reconciliation as seen from the parent's point of view.

"For My Child"

I make my plans for you from birth

Carefully carving out your worth

So wrapped up in who you'll be

I neglect your individuality

I want to protect you all your life

Keep you safe from danger and strife

Temptation and pressure attack you all day

How as a parent can I keep it away?

I pray that you'll receive God's grace

And when you need to, slow your pace

Will my guidance be enough?

To guard and keep you from all that stuff?

My goal in life is to see you succeed

What's the best way to plant that seed?

I'll give you the room to make a mistake

I'll trust you with each step you take

I'll tell you "I LOVE YOU" when you make a mess

I'll tell you "NO" when I want to say, "YES."

I'll give you the space to set your tone

Adjust my expectations as you create your own.

[JLE 2006 Poetry Verse Form: Heroic Couplet]

Letting your child go is like letting him walk down a dark tunnel without you. But the journey is inevitable and will allow them the opportunity to grow as humans.

Letting your child go is like letting him walk down a dark tunnel without you. But the journey is inevitable and will allow them the opportunity to grow as humans.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: How do I help my mom let go of me? She struggled with my leaving in the past when I left for college but now I’m 30 and live in the same city as she does and will be moving soon. She is upset, fearful and hurtful in her words because of her fear.

Answer: It's hard to see your mom hurting but you eventually have to leave her to move forward with your life. Remind her of how she was able to get through the first time when you left for college. Encourage her to talk it through with a grief counselor to help with the feelings of hurt and loss. As much as you want to ease her pain, she will have to face this transition and do most of the work herself. It would certainly help to let her know how much you appreciate her and that your relationship will continue long-distance with new boundaries.

Question: My mom can’t come to terms with the fact that I am turning 18 in September and still thinks I need a curfew and strict rules. Although I am living under “their roof”, I have a job and am going to cosmetology school in November. I also have a boyfriend, and the 11 pm curfew is getting frustrating. Is she overreacting?

Answer: Not necessarily. Parents come across as overprotective when they are either afraid or trying to maintain discipline. I hear that the tug-of-war between following the rules and establishing autonomy can be extremely frustrating. Show your mom you can be trusted with those rules. It will show her that you can be mature and responsible. This may help her to let go enough to ease those rules gradually and give you the independence you deserve as you grow into an adult. I hope this helps. Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Good luck with your endeavors.

Question: My daughter left a note and moved out. How do I cope? She’s eighteen, and a senior in high school?

Answer: This is a very difficult time for you and probably quite painful. The first thing you want to establish is that she's safe. Hopefully, you still have contact with her or can check on her through her friends. Unfortunately, you may have to ride this time out and wait, especially because she is of age. For her to leave like this indicates there may have been some tension about her need for autonomy. If there is contact, use this time to hear her out, listen to her grievances, and let her know you are still there for her no matter where she is. As for you, use the space to adjust to what it most certainly feels like to have to let go. Also, use this time for self-care that you otherwise may have been neglecting because parenting is a 24/7 job. Take good care of yourself and thanks for reading.

Question: My daughter has twice run off with a guy. Once when she was 17 and again recently at 19. She’s told lies about me and my husband and forever quits jobs. She’s now couch surfing. My mom thinks it’s my job to have her come. I don’t know the right thing to do?

Answer: Sounds like there may be some built of resentment affecting the family dynamics because no one has control over your daughter. Until she takes control of herself, it will be difficult for her and you to move forward. Maybe counseling would help. You are doing the best you can under the circumstances, there is no right or wrong, only letting go and making her accountable for her own behavior. Setting limits about how much time she spends "surfing the couch" may help.

Question: I have a 10 year old son that suffers from ADHD and a 14 year old daughter. I've never traveled anywhere and if I have, it's been with my kids. My son because of his developmental delay is very attached to me. I'm having trouble teaching him how to be independent. Also in the meantime, my daughter is getting to travel for a school activity and I'm not able to accompany her. Just thinking about letting go of my kids puts me to tears. Any advice is well taken. Help?

Answer: It sounds very painful for you to even think of letting go of your kids. The question is, as they grow, at whatever pace, how much will they actually need you. You may need to give yourself small challenges to transition into giving them space, for example, a structured camp for kids or recreational/cultural trips and activities offered by local agencies.

I hope you're working with a counselor, especially regarding your son. Despite his developmental delays, he still needs the chance to be independent in his own time with support and appropriate resources. That means you'll have to grieve the need to protect him and slowly let go. It will take time, be gentle with yourself. Focus on the love and teachings you've already instilled in them and trust that it will be enough.

Question: My oldest is sixteen and has an infant. She has left home twice, and repeatedly says I need to let her go. Is it time? I feel like there are still things I need to show her, do for her, protect her from...I don't know how she can make it out there on her own, at this age, with a child.

Answer: I understand your concerns because she's still so young with adult responsibilities. If she has other supportive family and friends she can count on; maybe she'll be okay. She also has the option to plug into community resources to help her as well. But the bottom line for you is that as her mom and legal guardian, you want to uphold your responsibility to her, and she's pushing back. It's a tough call. Maybe you can ask what she needs from you and give her a certain amount of independence to make some decisions.

Question: I have two sons, ages 33 and 28, both still dealing with life struggles (job, finances, stability). Each one says, 'you do more for him than you do for me.' I'm at wits end with both of them not showing me respect and pushing harder to help them see it's harder in life than what they think. What can I do at this point to let them see I have done all I can to help them?

Answer: Is it possible that your internal struggle with trusting them to take care of themselves may be contributing to your tendency to enable them? Have you completely let go in order to let them challenge themselves to do better? They see how upset it makes you and may use that to get under your skin. They need to see that you care without the emotional attachment that is exhausting you. You no longer have control over how they will turn out. It's up to them to succeed or fail. It is no longer a reflection on you when they can make adult choices for their lives on their own. You must decide to let go emotionally, set boundaries, and no longer let them blame and attack you for their inability to move forward. Have fewer conversations and lectures about the issue and offer more well wishes.

Question: Every time I think of my son leaving for college in the fall I cry. How do I get past this stage?

Answer: It won't be easy so go ahead and get your cries out now. You are experiencing a normal stage in your own development as a parent, so there is no getting around the emotion. Try to focus more on how you've prepared him and that you've given him your best as a parent. Trust that he will do well and has all that he needs to be independent. Of course, you will miss his presence. It's a difficult stage, but you'll get through it. Thanks for reading, wishing you peace.

Question: Should I give our daughter money now that she is eighteen and moving out?

Answer: Yes, if she's shown you, she can be responsible, that's not a bad idea at all. But it's probably just as important to have her earning and saving on her own to learn money management skills toward financial autonomy. It is a blessing to have a family to help get young people started financially and provide the cushion needed to get them on their way to independence.

I noticed you posed your question, "Should I give our daughter money . . ." If there is parental conflict about this, it may definitely warrant discussion between both parents before a decision is made. Is she moving out on good terms or bad terms? Weigh the options based on her needs and demonstrated a level of maturity and responsibility. If there is disagreement, try to resolve it and make a united decision. Thanks for reading, I wish you well.

Question: My boyfriend is expecting me to move in with him when my daughter (17) graduates high school this year. She is expected to be on her own at that time, while his daughter will remain at home in his home with us. I feel it is unfair to expect me to basically abandon her right after high school. Would I be doing wrong by my daughter?

Answer: If your daughter is ready to move on and become independent, you are not abandoning her. Sounds like your questioning your own readiness to let go of her because your boyfriend has decided not to let go of his daughter at this time. Each child has different maturity levels so you cannot compare which one is more prepared against another. Maybe moving on with your own life isn't as easy as you thought if it means being a mom will no longer be your primary role. Give yourself some time to evaluate your readiness to take this step and prepare emotionally for the transition.

Question: My child will be four in August. I have never let her stay the night with anyone or let them babysit her. She's only ridden in the car with me. How do I let go a little?

Answer: Try letting someone keep her for thirty minutes during a weekend when you have access to her in case you get anxious and need to get her earlier. Gradually increase the time by five-minute increments. This will help you take small steps toward letting go and still have control over picking her up when you need to.

Question: How do I let go of my grown kids who are 22 and one is about to be 21? They are starting to show signs of no respect or loyalty for me. They also don’t want to follow the rules or listen to me at all or even speak while staying in my house, not paying any bills or anything. Do I let them run over me and do whatever they want or will I be a bad mom if I tell them "no", it’s time for them to go?

Answer: The bottom line is if your children are self-sufficient and able to take care of themselves, maybe it is time for that conversation about leaving. That doesn't make you a bad mom. It lets them know that they have alternatives if they are not going to respect your home. It also lets them see that you can set boundaries with them and not let them continue to take you for granted. With that said, I also suspect that there's a part of you that isn't ready to let go. Of course, they are still young and most kids in their twenties these days are not ready to move out. So the dilemma lies within you: assess your readiness to encourage independence while setting strong boundaries and limits about how they treat you. Give them opportunities to take on responsibilities if they want to stay there. This will allow you and your children to prepare for adulthood and work toward becoming more respectful to you and responsible for themselves.

Question: My nom looks at my baby pictures and she has emotion episodes about me being a newborn and now she feels like I'm growing up so fast. What should I do for her so she would understand?

Answer: Your mom will need time to accept that her role as a mother has changed. You are not as dependent upon her as you were during infancy. That dependency gives parents purpose and fulfillment. Losing that can be difficult as it appears to be for your mom. You can help her by telling her you still need her but in different ways. Let her know how she can still be a mom to you as you become independent. No matter how old we get, we still need our moms. Let her know.

Question: As I’m turning 27 soon, my mum wants me to have adult responsibilities. Yet, she still treats me like a child, expecting me to report to her every time I leave the house and tell her what time I’m coming home. She can’t seem to leave my sister and I alone as if we have nothing to do. Is my frustration justified?

Answer: I would say yes, your frustration is justified. You're stuck in a situation where you are a fully grown adult without full autonomy. The dilemma is you're apparently living under your mom's roof where the control tips in her favor. Some of her control is just due to worry. Maybe it's time to start thinking about a different living situation if possible, for you and your sister. Or is there an obligation to be there for your mother? I suggest you sort out your frustrations, possibly at yourself as well as your mum, and see where your control lies regarding your living situation.

Question: Is the difficulty some parents have letting their children grow up a real thing?

Answer: Yes, it is a very real thing.

Question: What do I do about an overbearing mom? She is trying to forbid me from staying at my boyfriend's, and I want to have a talk about it with her, but she’s so set in her ways.

Answer: That's a tough question when the overbearing mom is also the parent in charge. Depending on your age, maybe it's time for a conversation about moving out. But being out on your own takes a lot of planning and readiness. It might help to have a third party to help you, and your mom have a conversation. Maybe she will consider family counseling for both of you to work through any conflicts. You may also have to consider that there are rules that she will not bend on due to her parenting style and values. It is a tough call; you don't want to do anything impulsively that will make the situation worse. The best thing you can do at this point is to show her that you can be responsible in your choices so that she can see, by your behavior, that you can make mature decisions for yourself.

© 2013 Janis Leslie Evans


Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on August 27, 2020:

Thank you for posting this very difficult situation. It is certainly complicated in that nothing has improved in 10 years which essentially has put the growth of your relationship on hold. The issues run deep in the family dynamic you describe. It would take a willingness on his part to acknowledge the detrimental impact this has had on the relationship. But if he doesn't see it, therein lies your challenge.

Without there being a cost to the sacrifices already made, he may not see a reason to explore a better way to have a more vibrant relationship with you and maintain connection to his parents with distance. Counseling may be a first step for both of you, individually and as a couple, to weigh the costs and sacrifices in order to make some decisions about making adjustments to the way his parents can be a part of your lives.

Thank you for reading, glad you liked the articles. Excuse the delayed reply, I wish you peace.

Cookiewonder on July 13, 2020:

I’m enjoying reading your articles, they give a balanced view of the issues raised. Therefore it led me to seek your advice...The long story short it this. My partner of 3 and a half years has a strange living situation that is now impacting on us a couple. First of all we are long- distance (same country), his parents come from their home abroad every year to visit. They stay approx 4/6 months at a time. They don’t usually arrive or leave at the same time. My problem is that this situation does not give us quality time together. We are not able to visit each other freely. Yes, by all means he comes to see me, however I don’t go to his house to stay when his parents are there. Partly because of the lack of privacy, plus the size of his apartment does not comfortably accommodate 4 adults. Tried it couple times and it does not feel comfortable.

This makes things unbalanced for us as I have 3 children at home. I think the issue with this arrangement lies in the fact that his mother has not let go and he is in his forties! She always stays longer than her husband and operates as if his apartment is her second home. It’s frustrating especially when my partner becomes somewhat child-like in her presence. We don’t make plans regarding what the next step will be in our relationship because he doesn’t know know when they are coming or going. If he was to sell his apartment and we get somewhere together, they would have nowhere to go. They are in their seventies however, I see their behaviour as unreasonable and with no end, this current situation has been the same for over 10 years. I met him at a period when they were abroad. They seem oblivious to the fact that we are long distance and two adults in a relationship. I have spoken to him at length but he seems powerless to resolve the situation. I do feel that somewhere along the way the natural detachment as an adult has not taken place for any of them. It’s ended up being long winded!

Your thoughts would be welcome.


Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on June 29, 2020:

Yes, Riffat, it's very common. I'm glad you found it helpful. Thanks for taking the time to visit. Blessings to you and your son.

Riffat Junaid from Pakistan on June 29, 2020:

Nice article you posted very helpful tips. My son is just one year old and I have fear in my heart about let him go to anywhere I thing every parent experience this.

Cindy Lou Dickey on April 18, 2020:

My daughter has been very sheltered life. She a CODA and little different in hearing world. But she has had 1 college semester and now want to intern with major company in another city. How can she live on her own and make it

Fanerm Fanerm on June 29, 2019:

the only thing we can do for our children is to support them on the ways they’ve chosen to develop. in every moment, when they are needed to ask for some help or advice, even when it comes about coursework or college paper (for this case there's ). and don't forget, they'll be always our children.

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on March 21, 2019:

John, I can imagine this hurts very much. You held on tight out of love and fear of letting them grow. It's good that you realize what happened. Forgive yourself and when they are ready to talk, you can express that realization to them as well. Give it some time, maybe send them a card to keep the connection alive. I wish you well, thanks for reading.

John on March 21, 2019:

My daughters moved to their moms while I was at work and I haven’t heard from them in almost 3 months. My oldest is 16 and my twins are 14. They didn’t leave a note and I found out by going to their moms to see what was going on. I think she brainwashed them some because she was saying false accusations about me. I found out my youngest told my niece that they need space and care for me. Being a single father for the 10 years raising them every other week I may have not let them have space and thats maybe why they moved. I am having trouble dealing with this because they won’t talk to me.

Janis Leslie Evans (author) from Washington, DC on December 25, 2018:

Thanks, MrsEAG. I actually appreciate your detailed post. In spite of your anxiety and fear of letting go, you are doing a good job with your daughter. Take a step back and see that you've done a good enough job that instilled confidence and autonomy. Your daughter is young but trust that she's on the road to independence and you can start letting, slowly but surely. I'm so glad you found this article helpful. I wish you success in your parenting as you move to the next phase of parenthood.

MrsEAG on December 25, 2018:

OMG am I glad I found this site.

I am struggling so much with my now 15-year old daughter wanting to "grow up". For a good many years, she was just scared to death of being treated like a grown-up girl. She would ask me all the time "okay, so I'm still a young girl, right?" It seemed that overnight, this changed, and now she wants me to leave and let be. Before, I was "Mommy" or "Mama", but now both me and my husband are "Mom and "Dad".

I started noticing this change when she started to become more and more curious about getting a learner's permit. Then, it graduated to her not letting me put her hair up in a ponytail anymore or helping her to pick out her clothes for the day. Heaven forbid I remind her of something when I'm dropping her off at school each day. She is a high-school freshman and I cannot believe how quickly time has flown.

She has a younger sister - twelve in April - who she has, without asking for it, become the "older sister with advice". Her little sister - a spitfire who can be enormously temperamental - does not really ask for this advice, and often will push her away when she does it. I hate seeing this, because I don't know how it came about where our older daughter felt it necessary to be the "bigger sister" in the first place.

I am sure a lion's share of my anxiety is because our older daughter has had an IEP ever since she was in Kindergarten, so I worry about her constantly. For eons, she struggled to find her place socially, and tended to keep only to herself in school settings. She is an excellent student, however, with a homework ethic that just blows my mind most days. Things have changed with her in the most noteworthy of ways. In the 6th grade, she struggled mightily with Mathematics, often times sobbing because she couldn't understand what she was trying so hard to master. Nowadays though, she finished out the first half of the 9th grade with a mid "B" in Freshman Algebra. During the 8th grade, she made the "A/B Dean's List". At the end of the 8th grade, she decided she wanted to go to the End-Of-The-Year Dance for her class. When we dropped her off outside the dance that night, my heart walked out the door with her. She didn't have a "group" to go with for this dance, but met up with some girls she had become friendly with throughout the year. The pictures from that dance turn me to mush each time I look at them.