Some birds won’t learn to fly unless their mother pushes them out of the nest. Many parents of teenagers assume that we need to do the same thing for our teens. But guess what? We’re not birds! In addition to not having literal wings, the trajectory of our development happens in a different way than it does for our feathered friends.
While birds need that push to realize that they can flap their wings and fly, what promotes our teens “flight” (becoming their own person) is being deeply rooted in relationship to their primary caregiver(s).
Individuation is launched when attachment needs have been deeply and generously satiated. Remember how that worked with your toddler? After filling them up with snuggles and stories and food, they would proudly launch out of the room to “do it myself!” (only to return a short while later to be “re-filled”).
Our teens’ development works the same way: when we can generously and warmly fulfill their dependency needs the inner gears that launch maturation and individuation will begin to turn. As attachment is our primary drive, all our energy will go towards securing it, if need be. When we do the work of fulfilling our teens’ attachment needs then they don’t need to, which frees up their hearts and brains to get down to the important work of growing them up.
When we try to apply bird wisdom to humans, we end up pushing our teens away before they are ready. What happens then is not flight, but, instead, the search for a new nest. Considering that we, as their parents, are their best bet for providing the nest they need, pushing them into another nest (usually a nest populated by their peers) does not serve their maturation. Pushing independence only leads to transferred dependence. While this transferred dependence may, to our eyes, “look” more “independent,” (i.e. they are around less, they are less dependent on us, they are more “social”) it is not, in fact, what healthy emergence/individuation looks like.
Our challenge: Can we invite our teens dependence for as long as it is needed? Can we get over our society’s preoccupation with independence so that we can remember that it is only through deep attachment that true independence is born? Can we take responsibility for our relationship with our teens, thus freeing them up from having to work for attachment? If we can do this we will see that when we provide a big and deep attachment nest, our own baby birds will take wing and fly (and, joyfully!, will still be deeply connected – when it happens this way, it’s not an either/or thing).
My teacher, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, tells a story about one morning when his wife was hugging their three-year-old son. Their son was beaming in the loving arms of his mother and he said: “Mommy, when you hold me like this, I feel like I can fly!” And that is just how it works – we hold on so they can fly, no “pushes” necessary.