Full Show Notes
The day will come when you have to drop off your child in their new room and go home without them. They’ll likely be smiling, waving as you depart, from their cozy new dorm room. It’s a surreal moment of mixed emotions to see your child grow up and start living on their own for the first time.
The process of letting your teen go on their own can be frightening for parents. The world is vast and chaotic, and leaving your child to figure things out is both a time of pride and fear. On college drop-off day, it’s normal for parents to experience both excitement and dread.
I have a lot of burning questions about this monumental moment.
How can families prepare for a teen to leave the nest?
Is it more important to teach teens about independence, or following the rules?
Will teens be in danger without parental supervision?
To get to the bottom of these questions, I interviewed Lisa Heffernan about control, the process of letting go, and finding a balance between it all as teens enter their own world.
Lisa is the co-author of Grown and Flown, which collects information, advice, and helpful tips from teen experts about teens leaving home. Lisa was a parent who found herself without any helpful information on parenting tips from the ages of 15-25. This caused her to start the blog called Grown and Flown with her co-founder and collaborator Mary Dell Harrington. The blog has received millions of page views since the opening, and spurned Lisa and her team to go further by creating a Facebook group which has grown to over 130,000+ members.
Today, Lisa helped answer everything about the art of letting go with hot topics such as helicopter parenting and monitoring your child’s grades. The trick, Lisa tells me, is to strike a balance between following rules and giving autonomy for your teen. Without being overprotective, here are a few of Lisa’s top insights and tips on creating a relationship that will guide your teen towards healthy choices and being grown and flown.
One of the most common parenting tropes today is the idea of a “helicopter parent,” who ties to control every minutia of their teen’s life. Lisa says that the concept of being a helicopter parent is so undesirable that many parents are fraught with anxiety over their actions because they don’t want to be seen as a helicopter parent. Helicopter parenting can be a huge roadblock in having your teen become grown and flown.
First, it is helpful to know what a helicopter parent is. Helicopter parenting would be returning to your teen’s dorm every week to clean and inspect their room. Or, another example of helicopter parenting would be to steer your child into a desired career field which will make them a lot of money over letting them choose a career on their own. Helicopter parenting is characterized by a parent’s overinvolvement in their child or teen’s life. By controlling your child down to the smallest level, teens aren’t able to form their own ideas about what they want to do or develop any sense of independence to become grown and flown.
When teens aren’t able to establish an independent identity, there is a risk that they will not understand how to function when they are grown and flown. This can make the transition to independent living much more challenging for teenagers than it would have been if they had an idea of who they were before going on their own. In the worst cases, a teen having an identity crisis while they are living on their own can result in dangerous situations for both parties if they are unprepared. That is why it is so important to nurture independence in the household, and to strike a balance between the two when it comes to raising your teen.
One tip to practice balancing independence and authority Lisa has identified is the oversight a parent maintains over the grades of their teenager. Technological advancements have allowed for student’s grades to be viewed on demand for parents instead of having to wait the entire semester to receive a report card. Many parents have access to their teen’s grades through the websites services that schools use to record this information, complete with their own password and login. Parents who slip into the “helicopter parent” mentality over their child’s academic performance might check their child’s grades daily, sometimes even twice or three times a day!
Monitoring Your Child’s Grades
I asked Lisa where here research has led her on the topic of monitoring grades, and parents can do this in a balanced manner. First, Lisa shared that it is important to keep an eye on how your teen is doing academically. If there are warning signs that your teen is struggling, then it is crucial to stay up-to-date on that information. However, parents do need to understand that they need to give their teen some form of autonomy over their grades and allow them to succeed or fail on their own.
An example of helicopter parenting your teen’s grades would be hovering over the parent portal, waiting all day to see what they got on their most recent exam. This is not the way for a parent to go about checking grades. A better tip for parents to demonstrate trust in their teen is to take a step back from grade monitoring. This will absolutely build the skillset to make your teen grown and flown.
On the other hand, don’t be an uninvolved parent. Being uninvolved in your teen’s grades would be forgetting to check on them, or blindly trusting your teen to report them to you. You want to give them autonomy, but at the same time parents shouldn’t be in a place where they can’t extend oversight to what their teens are doing. They are only teenagers, after all, and shouldn’t be expected to function as a grown and flown child.
One tip for parents who want to develop trust between teens and their grades is by giving them the ability to try and fail on their own. Set some ground rules! You could tell your teen that you will only check their grades once a month, simply to stay up to date on how they are doing. Or, you could give them the option to report their grades to you, without even looking through the parent portal.
By allowing your teen to practice accountability in their school life, you can help them achieve a better version of independent thought and allow them to build skills that will lead them to become grown and flown. Finding this balance between oversight and independence is challenging but is totally achievable for parents.
You Can Achieve Grown and Flown Balance!
Striking a balance between protection and independence extends into so many other areas of parenting as well. In the rest of the podcast, Lisa and I talk about achieving balance to prepare for the grown and flown days. Other topics include…
- Parenting and tracking software
- How to help your teen through heartbreak
- Building a dialogue around alcohol
- How to remember the big moments
Wow! Thank you so much to Lisa Heffernan for sharing her wonderful knowledge on parenting teens who are ready to get out into the world. Lisa’s book, Grown and Flown, is a great parenting tool for finding the middle ground when it’s time for your teen to start living on their own.
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. At the start of each semester, set new expectations for the coming one:
“Let’s talk about what our expectations are around this semester. Last semester you did [x,y,z] what do you think you could do this semester? What kind of grades can you achieve in various classes? What level of keeping your work in on time can you achieve?”-Lisa Heffernan
2. To avoid conflict over access to your kids grades (on ‘the portal’), set expectations:(Members Only)
3. Call out soiling the nest when you see it:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: So for the people who don’t already know about you, can you give us a little background on you and your latest book?
Lisa: So I got my PhD in 1997, so I have been a fully practicing psychologist for more than 20 years. And of course I was doing clinical work before I got my PhD. So I’ve been at this for a while and I’ve taken care of adolescent girls, as most of the work that I do, for a long time.
Lisa: And about 10 years ago, something shifted in what I was hearing from girls. And this was true both in my private practice, and then also I consult two days a week at a girl’s school in our community called Laurel School, where I get to see girls in some ways much more in their natural environment, during the school day with their friends, around adults and teachers.
Lisa: And so in both of those settings I started to hear about, 10 years ago, girls and also parents talking about anxiety. “My daughter has anxiety. My daughter has tremendous stress. She suffers from anxiety.” And that felt like a shift from what we’d heard before, that I hadn’t heard anxiety as such a central and constant focus in conversations about how girls were doing.
Lisa: And what I can say is that, that transition, that shift to talking about anxiety has only accelerated. It now feels like it’s very broad and we hear about it all the time. And I had written Untangled about just normal adolescent development, and then was thinking about what feels necessary next? And it just felt so clear that we needed to try to wrap our hands around this question of where all this anxiety and stress is coming from, and then also what we as adults who care for girls can do to address it and to make it better for girls.
Andy: The first really interesting point that I had marked in this book is that you talk about how the anxiety isn’t always necessarily bad, and the first thing we can do is help our daughters take control of their anxiety. You say, we can teach them that anxiety is often their friend.
Lisa: If people take nothing from the book, what I want them to take is that we see stress and anxiety… By we, I mean, psychologists, we’ve always seen this, stress and anxiety is normal, healthy functions. The way psychologists have always understood anxiety is that this is an alarm system and it tells us when we need to pay attention and when we need to keep ourselves safe.
Lisa: And so, for example, if you’re driving and somebody near to you is swerving, you should have an anxiety response, your alarm should off and you should become uncomfortable. And it’s the discomfort of the anxiety that will compel you to take steps to address it. And so if you get an anxious response when someone’s swerving and then you think, “Okay, I’m changing lanes to get away from this person,” that’s anxiety doing its job.
Andy: And you have to care about something to get anxious about it, right? If you didn’t care about it, you wouldn’t have any anxiety. It’s like the kid before the test who just doesn’t care, he’s not anxious about it, but he’s not really working that hard to study.
Lisa: Exactly, exactly. And so anxiety works both for external threats, like swerving cars, and it works for internal threats. It works for, “I’ve got a test coming up.” And when I meet with girls and they say, “I’m super anxious about this test that’s coming.”
Lisa: I’ll say, “Well, have you studied?” And they say, “No.” And I said, “Well, good. You’re having the right reaction. You should be anxious. You don’t want to show up unprepared.” But then even the point you make, we know that anxiety also improves performance. We know that some tension makes people do a better job. And so we don’t want kids, even if they’ve prepared for a test, you actually don’t want a kid in a total Zen state on the way into a test, or a performance or a competition.
Lisa: You want them to have a sense of being revved a little bit, because we see that that actually helps them do better. And so most of it’s good. It’s good when it’s protective, it’s good when it gets your juices flowing, it’s good when it makes you do something that you were putting off or not taking seriously.
Lisa: But yes, it can also be bad. I think it’s hard for anyone to take psychologists seriously if we do nothing but cheer for anxiety. So I say like, “Here’s when it’s bad.” It’s bad when the alarm makes no sense. It’s bad if you have this kind of nagging alarm that is going off all of the time, but there’s nothing wrong. We don’t like that.
Lisa: And we don’t like the alarm if it’s hugely out of proportion to what’s going on. So we don’t like panic attacks over quizzes. That makes no sense. Up to that point, it’s good anxiety.
Andy: So what you’re saying here sounds like most of the time, for most of the things that you’re dealing with where you’re feeling anxious about them or where your teenager is feeling anxious about something that’s coming up, it’s actually probably a good thing.
Andy: You have a lot of really, really insightful things you could say, which is funny, because what we’ve been really finding with parents here is that one of the most helpful things is just examples of what you could say in different situations. And you got a lot of great ones in here about anxiety and examples of what you’ve said to students that you were working with.
Andy: One that I thought was really cool was you talk about this girl who’s really anxious about a piano recital that’s coming up. And so then you get her to agree that, “Okay, yeah. It’s not all bad.” But then your solution is, “Well, how can we start to work her towards the piano recital? What are the little things that she could do, the baby steps or something like that?”
Andy: How do you find those and how do you help push your teenager towards the thing that they’re anxious about in those baby step ways?
Lisa: So this gets to something else that really is what drove me to write the book. We have this completely well understood principle in our field that the thing that is most likely to heighten anxiety is actually avoidance, which is of course people’s first instinct. So in that scenario, this is a girl who’s scared of going to her piano recital, so she doesn’t want to go. She wants to be let out of it.
Lisa: And it’s very easy as a parent to think, “Oh, it’s not that big a deal,” or, “Just this once,” or, “She seems so upset and I can make her feel so much better if I just say, ‘Okay, fine. We’ll just call in sick.'” And everything on the academic side is, “This is going to make it way worse.” And we know why it makes it worse. And what it does, if we just go to really basic reinforcement principles in psychology, two things happen at once when you avoid a feared thing. So the first thing is you feel great. You go from feeling horrible-
Andy: “Ooh, I don’t have to do that.”
Lisa: Exactly. And anxiety is miserable enough that if something comes in and just wipes it out, that’s a really powerfully reinforcing moment. So what that sets up is the next recital here comes the anxiety and here comes the, “Wait, no, give me that fabulous relief I had before.”
Lisa: You’re setting the table for future avoidance. But then the other thing, and this is why it becomes such an entrenched pattern, is that when people avoid what they fear, they never discover that they probably could have managed it. So if I am frightened of dogs and I cross the street every time a dog comes near me, I never meet a nice dog, and they remain as horrifying in my mind as I’ve ever created them. So if this kid doesn’t show up at the recital, recitals remain this huge, daunting, overwhelming thing and they get bigger every time she avoids them.
Lisa: As opposed to, if we could find a way to get her there, and I’ll come back to this baby step piece, then she might be like, “Oh wait, it wasn’t that big a deal after all,” or, “I was uncomfortable, but I could handle it.” When we need people to approach things they’d rather avoid, when we need people to go against their instinct, which is to run from something that’s frightening, what really does help is to explain everything I just explained here. To say, “Here’s why that will make it worse.” And I will say to kids, I’ll say, “Look, avoiding this is a phenomenal short term solution to the problem. It is a terrible long term solution. You’re going to make it much, much worse.”
Lisa: And so then once they see how they’re actually making it way worse in the long run if they avoid it in the short term, then you can say, “Look, you don’t have to get on the stage, do the whole recital. You don’t have to do that. You need to engage it somehow. Can you go, and then figure out once you get there, what you’re going to do? Can you go, and can you listen to everybody else? Can you talk with your piano teacher about if there’s a way that you can go to the place where the recital is going to be held and practice once there and see how it feels?”
Lisa: That’s where it’s really fun, and that’s where psychologists get to be creative. What bearable version of this can do engage? And the other thing we do, and again, this gets lost in the panic and anxiety, we can teach people how to control their anxiety when it comes around. We can teach them, “You’re going to get there and it’s going to feel crummy, here are all your strategies.”
Lisa: And of course, high, high, high on the list are things like breathing and muscle relaxation, which really work. And sometimes you have to show people how they really work, but they really work. So it’s not like we’re throwing people overboard and saying, “Well, good luck.” I mean, we’re going to throw them overboard, we’re going to teach them how to swim in that anxiety, and then we’re going to see how deep they can get into the pool.
Andy: Yeah, I love that because I feel like there are so many times in your life where you are not sure if you can do something or where you surprise yourself. And if you let your teenager off the hook all the time whenever they’re feeling anxious, then they miss out on those opportunities to push themself and surprise themself with what they’re able to do.
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Andy: There’s a couple of words that you mention in your book that you use a lot when you’re talking about this kind of stuff, and the two words are a stinks and handle. Why are these such popular words for you, and do you recommend parents use them as well?
Lisa: Yes. So these, for me, have changed my practice. If you said, “You only get two words to work with your own clinical practice,” I’ll be like, “Leave me stinks and handle.” So what we’re up against, is this sense that you’re not supposed to feel anxious, and anxiety is bad.
Lisa: And what we’re also up against is the fact that it is quite uncomfortable, that bad things happen, stress feels bad, anxiety feels bad, and it’s very easy for people to make the leap that if this doesn’t feel good, it can’t be good for me. Which I get where people start with that, but then I always think, “Yeah, well, exercise doesn’t feel good and we know it’s good for you.” So you can’t use the fact that it’s uncomfortable as a sign that it’s not permissible.
Andy: Right. Brussels sprouts are great for you too.
Lisa: Brussels sprouts are great for you. There’s lots of things in life that we know are good for you, that you may or may not enjoy, or that may be flat out unpleasant. And that’s a thing that I think we need to revisit and revisit, because there has been this shift in the culture.
Lisa: And I worry that there has been this selling of this idea that you’re supposed to feel good all the time, which no generation before us ever thought this. This is just not something that I think is a very useful idea. It may even be a very harmful idea. So to bring it back to those words, so when kids and teenagers tell me about something that was awful, they got cut from the team, they got in a terrible fight with their friend, they got a flat tire, they felt bad, they got upset about something, often the unspoken message and what they’re saying to me is, “I felt bad. I shouldn’t have felt bad. Like there’s something wrong that I even felt bad.”
Lisa: And I don’t feel that way. I feel like feeling bad is part of getting out of bed. At some point today you’re probably going to feel bad. And so what I say back to them is, “That stinks.” And I rest on it, and what I hope my unspoken message is, “Here’s a ton of empathy, but I have no problem with the fact that that occurred to you.”
Lisa: Or I fully accept that stuff like this is going to go down. And so when things stinks, and stopping there. I’m saying, “I’m going to give you the… I’m doing nothing to try to fix this or undo it.”
Andy: Right. I’m not jumping into how dare they mode. Yeah, right.
Lisa: Exactly. “Oh man, that stinks.” It’s got that other unspoken message like, “Oh yeah, stuff like that happens.”
Andy: Man, stuff like that happens to me too.
Lisa: So you don’t have to say all that, but, “Oh yeah, that one, that stinks.” That’s all in there. And so first you do that, and then you move into the question of whether it’s in the bucket of stuff they could possibly manage. And the way for me, all the back thinking on this is life comes in two categories, things that are life and annoying and frustrating and most of the things that stinks, and things that are full on crises.
Lisa: And there are crises. Most of what kids bring when they’re feeling very, very distressed, is in the handle bucket. So I try to articulate that, “Oh, this is not a crisis. This is in the handle bucket.” So I’ll say to the kids like, “Oh man, that really stinks that you didn’t make the team. I know you wanted that. I know you wanted that.” And then I’ll pause and I’ll say, “How can we help you handle this?”
Lisa: And it’s a vote of confidence, of this is in your capacity to manage and not enjoy, nor does it require an adult to call the coach and make a thing of it, I’m here to help you find a way to weather it. And those two words, in my experience, economically do so much work.
Andy: So another section is about helping girls dealing with situations with boys, and there’s a really cool part of this where you’re talking about situations that are kind of murky.
Andy: Because people are more complicated than they are on TV, and it’s not just always so obvious that someone is doing something that is crossing the line. So how do you, as a parent, prepare teenage girls to deal with those murky situations with boys where they feel like, “That’s not really okay with me, but I’m not really sure if that’s something I should make a big deal about?”
Lisa: I’m really glad we’re talking about it. I will tell you, this was the hardest part of the book to write, because I wade into, like you say, really murky waters, and one would really rather not. It exposes you to critique and it raises questions about the strength of one’s feminism.
Lisa: It’s easier for me to just stick to the dogma, but here is the dogma, and I think this is what you’re referring to. And I’ve been part of this dogma, is that when we talk with young women about the physical side of their romantic lives, we talk about these moments where they may be engaged in something, making out with somebody, and it starts to go to a place they don’t want to go.
Lisa: And we say to them, “In those moments you need to say, ‘No.’ You need to say, ‘No, this is not what I want.'” And this is really well-meaning advice. The idea behind it being it’s crystal clear, there’s no wiggle room for interpretation. And then also, and I hate to say this, but I know that this was part of what informs our advice to young women is, when these things end up in court, which they sometimes do-
Andy: Exactly right. Or just the judiciary process of your college or anybody who’s looking at it later on.
Lisa: Exactly. One of the critical questions is going to be, “Did you say no?” So this is where advice comes from, and this is why I gave it for years and years myself. But then I’m sitting with my own clients and I’m talking to colleagues who sit with similar clients, and here’s what we keep hearing. We keep hearing from fabulous, smart, totally know themselves, know what they’re doing young women, that they were in romantic situations where things started to go down a path they didn’t want to go.
Lisa: And they were very well aware in the moment that it was a path they didn’t want to go, and yet they could not. And they knew the advice, they knew what they were “supposed” to do, and they could not say the word. In unpacking it, there were two reasons. Two reasons come up that they can’t say the word, and these reasons, it turns out, has been explored in the linguistic literature and are backed by people who look at language and the impact of language.
Lisa: So the first reason is that they actually like the person. They like the guy, they are building a relationship with a guy, or would like to have an ongoing building relationship with the guy. And they are aware to say to someone, ‘No,” is actually a very rare thing. That there’s actually highly developed, what linguists call, refusal strategies that every culture has, and they’re very well prescribed and everybody knows them, even if we’re not conscious of them.
Lisa: So the American refusal strategy is if I invite you to my dinner party and you don’t want to come, the first thing you will do is you will pause. The next thing you’ll do is say, “Oh, thank you so much for thinking of me.” The next thing you will do is you will offer me an excuse, “I’m so bummed, we already have plans.”
Andy: I’d love to.
Lisa: And the worst thing you will do is you will say, “I’m so sorry.” It has a little bit of variance, but that is the American set strategy for refusal. If I invite you to my dinner party, if I say, “Hey, would you like to come to my dinner party?” And you said, “No,” that would be a bizarre thing to do, and it would be perceived in our culture as really hostile, really rude, and basically relationship rupturing.
Lisa: I mean would you maintain a friendship with somebody? And then refusal strategies are very, very culturally bounded. So I don’t know much about this, but I know in Japan, there are refusal strategies where there are yeses that are understood to be nos.
Lisa: I mean it’s a really elaborate thing. So here we have one situation, girl likes the guy and doesn’t want to blow up the relationship. So we’ve only given her an option that in our culture, does that. So that’s one reason why they don’t use no. Another reason is, like I said, it is an aggressive move. It is antagonizing. If I say to you, “Do you want to come to my dinner party?” And you’re like, “No,” I mean, you’re almost starting a fight.
Lisa: The other reason girls would say is, “I was scared. I was scared in that moment.” And so there’s this phenomenal linguist named Deborah Cameron, and she has studied this, and what she says is why would we urge young women who may feel threatened, to use a strategy that is widely received in our culture as antagonistic to basically anger someone who has more power and maybe really charged up sexually, in this moment?
Lisa: While it sounds great for us to say it in a classroom or in our guidance to girls, when we’re talking in the abstract-
Andy: It feels really empowering, “Just say no. Be strong.”
Lisa: Yeah, put it on the ground. And it doesn’t work in two situations that are actually pretty decently likely. Either she’s the person that doesn’t want to blow up the relationship, or this has started to go down a path that’s frightening, and she doesn’t want to antagonize the person.
Andy: It’s kind of like the misconception that we have about how sexual assault happens. It’s not some stranger. If it’s some person on the street or something who is in a dark alley trying to assault you, then yeah, say “No. Stop.” That would make sense.
Andy: But that’s not how sexual assault happens. It’s somebody that you know, it’s somebody that you’re even dating, and you don’t want to just completely blow up the relationship. You want to do something that lets them know you’re not okay with what’s happening, but still preserves that relationship going forward.
Lisa: Exactly. And also taking care of college aged women, and also I mean it’s not just college, it’s high school, the other thing we forget is you may or may not want to have an ongoing relationship with this person, but you’re all part of the same social network. So if you blow it up with this guy, this actually has widespread ramifications for who you hang out with at all next Saturday night. I mean, it gets very, very knotted.
Andy: Especially with someone popular.
Lisa: Exactly. So the one place where a no probably works, is where both parties are using what we call affirmative consent. Where at every step of the way the parties say, “Would you like this to happen?” And then you can say, “No.” I would love to think that was going on all the time, that would be great if that’s what’s going on all the time, but we also have to plan for other, probably much more likely possibilities.
Andy: Right, yeah.
Lisa: So what I have started to say to girls is that no is one option, but they have other options too. And so what I say to them is you can say that it’s not what you want in a wide variety of ways. You can’t be equivocal. You can’t say, “I’m not sure I want to do this.” That is too soft. What you can say is, “I’m really into this. I don’t want to do that.”
Lisa: That is an acceptable first pass at this. “I’m really into this, but I don’t want to do that.” Is a way to say, “I don’t want this, but I like you.” That you can have the two together, or some version of that. The other thing that I have watched girls do successfully, and for me what matters is the success of the strategy, is that they will say, “Oh my gosh, I just forgot I told a friend I would meet her. I have to go.”
Lisa: And that has, for some girls, gotten them out of situations where they didn’t want to do it and they were scared about how it would be received, or worried that it would be taken personally. And that gave them cover to immediately end the interaction without hurting the feelings or antagonizing the person they were turning down.
Lisa: And so what I like to think about is to say to girls, “Look, you have a whole toolbox of communication strategies at your disposal.” So you know that’s the hammer. If you’re in a bar and random dude shows up and starts being gross on you, say whatever you want to him. You don’t know him, you or safe, you can lay it down in really brutal terms if you want.
Lisa: That’s one tool in your toolbox. You also may have your canned air where you say to someone, “This is so fun. I really enjoy this. I hope we can hang out another time. I don’t want to do this tonight.” That is another option. And I feel like we have to acknowledge that young women are going to find themselves in a huge variety of situations. That communication is incredibly context driven, and they need to have a lot of tools at their disposal.
About Lisa Heffernan
Lisa’s writing, outside of Grown and Flown has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Forbes, and Vox.com. In addition to co-authoring and compiling her latest book Grown and Flown, Lisa is a best-selling solo author with titles including Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success, Optical Illusions: Lucent and the Crash of Telecom, and Be the Change.
Inspired by her own parenting experience and the lack of resources for parents of teens, Lisa and her co-founder Mary Dell-Harrington started Grown and Flown as a blog in the mid-2000s. Since then, it has grown to be a huge community of parents online, including a Facebook forum of over 137,000! Lisa and Mary were featured on People’s 2017 list of “25 Women Changing the World” and are still at it.
Residing in New York, Lisa is the mother of her own emerging adults.