“They leave before they leave.”

Part of an occasional series about phrases that this therapist finds himself repeating, often.

As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I frequently hear myself saying to parents of older children and adolescents is this: “They leave before they leave.” While we often focus on the “big” separations between parents and children such as leaving home, I am often reminded that there are lots of little separations along the way.

As with most issues in therapy, but also in life, there is not a simple either/or, all or nothing. Leaving home is a long, slow process.

Although it starts with small separations, as they age there is less and less time at home, more time with activities, with work, and with friends. They are leaving us.

They were always leaving us, and that is their purpose.

If you are a parent, you may think back to what may have been the first big separation for you: kindergarten. For our local school, the staff would take all of us into a room together and read The Kissing Hand. Yes, of course, there were tears. But the book puts forth a sort of “both/and” scenario: you are both apart and together … as long as you both remember that kiss in the hand throughout the day.

Then later that day, when they come home for that time of reunification, your child can tell you about their day, about the things that they tried, about what they felt along the way too.

And even if you do not think that what happened at their table or in the hallway is important, they do! This is the sharing of feeling and story that is the foundation of relationship. Even though there was separation (leaving), being present during their sharing is important.

Being aware of their leaving reminds us to be present with them while they are here.

This is where we remember a first sleepover, or time away at a camp or some other activity away from their parents. As a parent, it is important to see our life as separate from childrearing. The growing child also begins to feel their separate sense of self grow too! Remember, this is what they are supposed to do.

You had a life before them, and you will have a life after them.

A phrase that an old friend of mine shared with me once was “Let’s stop while it is still fun.” His mother would proclaim this when she wanted them to stop an activity. My friend said it to his cat as he dragged the feline around in a shoebox. But the truth is the same: good endings make for good beginnings. We are more likely to re-engage with someone when we left on good and gracious terms.

While teenagers will sometimes make you wish for the day when they are no longer in the home, we do need to strive to relate to each other, to still have fun, to make efforts to be present with them, even in the midst of the challenges that they are facing.

Because our children do come around again. And while the separation that late adolescence brings can be painful, it is our job as parents to not make it so painful that our children do not want to return … or feel that they cannot return.

They may travel away from you in their ideas too.

Part of what is most troubling to many parents with whom I work is not always the behaviors that teens display, but the way in which they test out ideas. Often these ideas are diametrically opposed to what a parent believes politically, religiously, or socially.

Remember that once again they are stretching out away from us, testing the limits, and exploring their world.

Just because they believe something today does not mean that they will believe it tomorrow, next month, or next year. But don’t tell them that … or they will run harder and faster in this opposing direction just to show you how independent they are!

Remember that they do return.

They were always leaving, but then they are always returning too. We notice it more when they are leaving home for this activity or that, for work or for time with friends. But then you look for those signs of return. You may just catch them saying something that you always say. Sometimes our children even return to some of the lessons or ideas that you taught them! And [shudder], they may even start to look like our older selves too in their physical selves, whether they are biologically related or not.

You will always be their parent. They will always be your child.

Being present with them in their childhood and adolescence nurtures a relationship that changes and grows and eventually flowers. It is a gift to be able to be present for that part too!

clinical social worker, spiritual director, author, husband, father, son, runner in Georgia, co-author of When Anxiety Strikes from Kregel Publications.

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