As my daughter’s senior year in high school approached, weird things started to happen. Bethany, my typically compliant, easygoing firstborn, morphed into a somewhat assertive, opinionated, self-determined creature.
While these changes were intriguing and mildly amusing, a downside emerged. Minor skirmishes between us developed into head-on collisions. “Who are you, and what have you done with my daughter?” I wanted to ask.
One particularly surprising and confusing conflict, punctuated by tears, prompted me to step back and prayerfully examine what dynamic was at work in our relationship. Here we were, on the cusp of Bethany’s senior year. Would it be a disastrous year of power struggles? What underlying need did her attitude changes express? Had I changed, too?
I didn’t need much reflection to zero in on my own parental separation anxiety. The overarching demands of senior year — college visits, applications, deadlines and so many important decisions coupled with the dreaded anticipation of Bethany leaving home — brought into focus all that seemed unfinished in my parenting. I had one year left to tie up the loose ends.
It had been only four years since my divorce, and life was going to change again. Raising my children had always been about preparing them for successful adulthood, but now I wanted to hold on, as if to somehow fend off the inevitable feelings of loss those changes would bring.
When she was little, Bethany followed my lead. Over the years, as she demonstrated maturity and competency, her privileges and responsibilities gradually expanded. I realized that Bethany’s new assertiveness signaled her need to take the lead more than ever in our relationship dance. She was emotionally preparing to dance on her own.
“Bethany, our relationship is changing, and we need to learn new dance steps so we don’t sidestep what we’re feeling,” I told her. “Somehow we have to get through this year without stepping on each other’s toes so we’ll still love each other a year from now!”
From that point on, tensions reminded us when we were “doing the dance” again and not effectively communicating. Stepping back enabled us to see beyond the immediate situation, respect one another’s feelings and monitor our responses. These insights proved invaluable for the preservation, protection and success of our relationship throughout the year.
For Bethany, learning new dance steps meant behaving more maturely, responsibly managing her growing independence, respecting my authority and remaining teachable. For me it meant applying familiar parenting principles in new ways to meet both our underlying needs during this time of transition:
Relinquish control. I learned to empower my daughter by allowing her to make mistakes and learn worthwhile lessons. I offered guidance as suggestions for her consideration, and only rarely did I insist something be accomplished according to my timetable and guidelines.
I became less of a coach and more of a cheerleader by being prayerful and supportive from the sidelines. I would often send concerns or reminders via e-mail, which gave her the prerogative to weigh my input without lengthy discussions.
Respect our differences. I’m a linear thinker; Bethany is circular. I’m left-brained; she’s right-brained. Respecting our differences often meant biting my tongue, painfully refusing the temptation to tell her how to do life my way. I had to trust that Bethany would achieve the same end through her own creative route.
Recognize God’s sovereignty. My prayer for Bethany as she navigated the road to college was Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Acknowledging His faithfulness to accomplish His sovereign purposes in my daughter’s life freed me to entrust her life and path to Him. Challenging Bethany to thoroughly pray through her final college decision resulted in a faith-building change of mind and direction, a milestone that marked her own dependence on God’s guidance.
Remember the goal. The Psalms remind us that a quiver full of arrows (children) is a blessing, but a timely sermon reminded me that arrows cannot fulfill their purpose until they are launched. Visiting colleges with my daughter last fall, I felt excited for her. God assured me that she was well prepared to face her unfolding future. As surely as God has been preparing her to leave, He has been preparing me to release her.
Too soon, Bethany will leave for college. When I think about it, I well up with excitement and tears. When the time comes, we will both cry, already missing one another. Bethany has expressed how thankful she is that our relationship has stayed positive.
Although we still unintentionally step on each other’s toes, our new dance steps have become more graceful, freeing us to enjoy one another and cherish our relationship. By the grace of God, we are each embracing a new season of life. Joyfully, the dance goes on!
Carol Floch dances with her daughter in Dallas.
This article appeared in Focus on the Family magazine.
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