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parents, we're bumpers

Parenting has got to be the hardest job in the world. Relationships, in and of themselves, are difficult to navigate and pose challenges for all of us, but I can't think of a more challenging relationship than the one between parent and child.

I remember the exhaustion and near-delirium that comes with being a first-time parent, and the focus required to parent an into-everything toddler. Then there's the responsibility, fear, and sadness of handing your child over to teachers and caregivers, trusting that they, too, have your child's best interests at heart. As parents, we have to referee between siblings and friends, nurse playground wounds, help them choose sports or music or art, all while making sure they do their homework. If we're doing it well, we give up much of our free time and invest it in their growth and development. We keep them fed, keep them warm, keep them safe, and love them well.

And then there's adolescence.

If you have a teenage child, or if you've survived living with a teenager, you know how the rest of this goes. There are tears. Lots of them. Sometimes the tears are yours, sometimes they're your teens. There are arguments, disagreements, miscommunications. Emotions can be intense. Decisions can be painful.

By their very nature, teenagers want to pull away from their parents, form their own identities and make their own choices. And we parents still want to keep them fed, keep them warm, keep them safe, and love them well. But it's hard. We hear ourselves saying many of the things our parents said to us when we were teenagers, right? And we can't believe those words are escaping our lips.

I work with parents every day who are trying so hard to parent in the "right" way, who want answers and quick-fixes to the difficulties they and their teenage children face. But life is more complicated than that, and each parent and child are unique, with their own temperaments, experiences, and goals. It's impossible for me to provide any quick and easy solutions.

But there is one thing I share with all my parents, and it seems to be helpful in some way, so I want to share it with you.

Parents, we are bumpers.

Not car bumpers -- bowling lane bumpers. Did you ever see those? Did you ever go bowling with your young child and have the bumpers raised on the lane so your child's bowling ball wouldn't roll into the gutter? Well that's us. We're the bumpers.

When our kids are babies, we carry them in our arms as we walk down the path of life. We hold them and provide all they need, and their searching eyes gaze into ours, never looking away. We are Life to them. When they're learning to walk, we stand close by, prepared to catch them before they fall. They don't get very far, and neither do we, as they begin to explore their exciting ability to move.

Then they learn to walk, and we hold their tiny hands. We walk together down the path, leading them or allowing them to lead us for a bit, as long as the path is safe. We are side by side. With each new turn or bump or detour, they look back at us with a need for security and certainty. "I've got you." We are the bumpers that keep them on the path, that prevent them from falling by the wayside.

As those precious children grow, we begin to move a little farther to the side. The path gets a little wider. The room to explore expands a little, and our child no longer requires the permanent bumper. We're still present, still watching, still prepared to rush in when required; but, for a time, they've got it.

When the path enters adolescent territory, the urge for parents is to become permanent bumpers again, edging right up beside the child. The urge for adolescents is to run off the path as quickly as possible, forge a new path or follow someone else's, and forget the bumpers were ever present. And this brings trouble for the tumultuous parent-teen relationship.

I try to help my teenage clients understand that the job description of their parents is to be a bumper, and as they travel through the adolescent years those bumpers will be there to bump them back onto the right path. The path of greatest security, respect, awareness, and love. I try to help parents understand that it's okay to be a bumper--it's preferable to be a bumper--but the distance between the bumper and the child is variable. I wouldn't allow a 2-year-old child to walk a rocky path unless I was there to hold his hand and keep him steady. But when that same child, at 16, decides the rocky path is the way he should go, I'm going to hang back a bit. I'm going to see how he handles it. If he starts to slip, I'll come running. If he falls off completely, I'll be the one to brush him off and set him back on the path. And I'll worry that he'll fall again. Each tender step could be a mistake, a slip, or it could be a success. Sometimes I can see it coming, and sometimes I can't.

But if I don't let him walk that path, how will he know he can? How will he figure out his next move? Will he ever trust himself to make it when the bumper is gone?

Be the bumper, parents. Trust your intuition to tell you how close to stand. It's okay, it's in the job description.

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