Grown and Flown’s Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington on Parenting Teens and Young Adults

Fall is officially here and, for many parents with teens heading off to college, it can be a bittersweet time as they face an empty house — and the uncertainty of how to parent kids who are almost grown and on their own for the first time. Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington experienced this isolating feeling firsthand as parents and so they created Grown and Flown seven years ago as a resource and community for other parents of teens and young adults. Read our conversation below about their new book, which provides really valuable information for parents so they can help and support their kids during this transition period and even make it “the most challenging, joyful and consequential years of parenting”…

Katie Couric: The teenage years are such a crucial time for parents to be involved in their kids’ lives…why do you think so many parenting books and other resources tend not to address this pivotal phase?
Lisa Heffernan & Mary Dell Harrington: There are lots of wonderful websites and online groups around parenting younger children because it is so much easier to discuss their issues without concerns for their privacy. With our teens, their stories may not be ours to tell but that doesn’t mean we don’t need advice and community. Many parenting bloggers and websites pull back from sharing content around the teen years, but parents need this information just as much as in the younger years.

Much of what we know about teens, we are still learning. Brain studies over the last decade have increased our understanding but there is still much we don’t know. Books about babies and young children can focus on what we think of as the “milestone mentality” — our kids reaching certain markers at certain ages. This becomes far less relevant with our teens and college kids who mature emotionally, intellectually and physically at vastly different rates.

Finally, we think there was a sense, until recently, that parenting was winding down and largely over during the high school and college years, but as we talk about later, it is just transitioning and is far from complete.

Katie: You make the important point that parenting never really “ends.” Why do you think we tend to think that way and is it changing?
Lisa and Mary: Research shows that our kids have a closer relationship with us than we had with our own parents. There has been a fundamental shift in the relationship between teens and young adults and their parents. Our kids are more willing to talk to us about their careers, money, romantic life and all that matters to them most. Studies have shown that this is beneficial to both generations, and that the relationship is enduring or as we say, it never ends.

However that is not the same as saying it doesn’t change and evolve. As our kids move through the teen years we migrate into a mentor roll, making ourselves available for advice and counsel and often to just lend an ear. When a class is frustrating, when a break-up is painful or a boss difficult, parents can help their kids by listening to their problems sympathetically and offering advice if asked. This “mentor” role can last for decades or even a lifetime. And of course we are always available as a moving service, from home to the dorm to home to the apartment and back again and again!

Katie: I thought it was really inspiring that you wrote this book because of your own sense of “isolation” as parents, which I think a lot of other parents will relate to. Tell us more about what drove you…
Lisa and Mary: We get feedback quite often from many of the 125,000 members in our Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group expressing relief to have found community. Many have said our group is larger, and more diverse, than the towns they live in. As a parent, you might not have ever known someone in your real life whose teen is going through the challenges that yours is experiencing and this can be very isolating. Research has shown that we feel less secure as parents, and less happy, during the teenage years, yet for many of us this is the time when our community and experts disappear. We may see and speak less with our teen’s teachers, doctors and coaches, and we may have less interaction with the parent community we had when our kids were small. And of course we are more concerned with our teen’s privacy and that causes us to refrain from speaking openly with others. Yet, we would argue that this is the very moment when parents need insight, support, and expert resources. These are the most challenging, joyful and consequential years of parenting. We urge parents not to take the journey alone. The book covers many of these years and offers reassurances, expertise (not ours!) and concrete ideas for parents.

Katie: Let’s talk about some of those experts! Can you share some of the best nuggets of advice that you learned in your research?
Lisa and Mary: Sure, here are a few great ones…
Dr. Ken Ginsburg: Pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania: “Our overemphasis on independence may undermine what has allowed us to thrive throughout millennia. We thrive best, and indeed survive, when we remain connected…But ultimately, we want to raise children who choose interdependence, knowing that nothing is more meaningful than being surrounded by those we love.” (xxiii) The closeness of our families does not make us helicopter parents and does not keep our kids from becoming independent adults, but it is the most important thing in our lives. Do not confuse your close communication with your teens and adult children for over parenting, they are not the same thing.

Dr. Karen Fingerman, Professor of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Texas at Austin, interviewed 3500 patients over two decades. She points out that the way parents and their teens separated in the 1960s, 70s, 80s was an outlier. ‘Most cultures have maintained closeness between parents and children. In America, the middle twentieth century was an anomaly – in some ways, the baby boomers are the odd ones.” (xxii) Let go of your preconceptions about your own adolescence and how you separated from your parents when you went to college. Your relationship with your older teen and then young adult will probably be very different, and potentially closer, and you will need to find your own path with them.

Dr. Alan Schlechter, Clinical Associate Professor at NYU and Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinic at Bellevue Hospital and Daniel Lerner, speaker and performance coach – together, they co-teach the most popular elective at NYU, “The Science of Happiness”: “The number one factor that predicts whether you are going to pass your first year in college is the feeling that you belong where you are. So after parents discuss things that might have brought joy into their students’ days, they should ask them about their connections on campus.” How well our kids do in college and if they thrive on the campus they chose will have much to do with their involvement and connection to those in their new community. Studying is of course important, but students who are the happiest on campus and after college, have made connections to groups, faculty members and friends and found meaningful activities in which to involve themselves. Encourage your teen to get involved as soon as they get to campus.

The book is full of content designed to be actionable for parents. We have high school teachers, college professors and psychologists and psychiatrists lending their expertise around this age group with information on things like: Signs You May be Over-Parenting Your Teen, Constructive Ways to Help Your Teen Manage Stress, Ways to Start College on the Right Foot and Important Things Parents Need to Understand on the Day They Leave Their Teen at College.

Katie: Teenagers are notoriously difficult to fully understand as they navigate the transition to adulthood…what do you think it’s most important for parents to understand about this phase of life and how to help their kids with its twists and turns?
Lisa and Mary: The teenage brain is at a dynamic stage with the frontal lobe (seat of judgment) not yet fully developed. This is a time in our teens’ lives that offers them both the greatest opportunity for learning and serious risks with abuse coming from drugs or alcohol. We include an interview with Dr. Frances Jensen, chair of the neurology department at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school and author, to help parents better understand exactly what is lacking in teen brain development. With more knowledge, parents might be both more patient and better able to discuss these risks with their teens.

Katie: Even though parenting never “ends,” there is still an inevitable “empty nest” feeling that strikes when our kids leave the house…what should parents know about navigating that emotion, particularly at this time of year as college calls?
Lisa and Mary: The moment you leave your teen at their freshman dorm, and watch them walk away from you, is a moment neither one of you will ever forget. It is memorable like their birth or their first day of kindergarten and should be one where you convey how much you love them and what you hope their college years will be for them. (You do not want them to remember that your parting words were “don’t forget to separate whites from darks when you do laundry.”) We talk about why parents can become so emotional at this moment. Helene Wingens, Managing Editor of G&F and contributor of the book, expresses it beautifully: “The moment when you walked away from us on campus, we went one way and you went the other, You walked into a bright new chapter of your life where the possibilities are endless. I was walking away from a piece of my heart, and the poignancy of that moment is not lost on me.”

Katie: Very well said indeed. Thanks so much, Lisa and Mary!

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