Engagement-Disengagement: The Art of Letting Go

If you hold an infant in your arms and gaze quietly into their eyes, they will reciprocate by looking back. And then the beautiful dance begins, where the baby takes the lead as much as the parent in drawing each other into the interaction. If the baby looks away, then a parent who is sensitive to the child’s needs will avert their gaze until the baby is ready once again to engage. This intricate back-and-forth rhythm becomes the template for all subsequent relationships in the child’s life.

Think about toddlers who sit on their parents laps, and then wiggle down and go off to explore the world, only to come back looking for some love. Parents are their anchors; the safe home base kids come back to for reassurance.  A similar experience is when a 5th grader doesn’t want you to walk them to the bus stop any longer, and yet will fill your ear with stories about their day when you tuck them into bed at night. It’s the same reason teens leaving  for college warn their parents that they want to come back at semester to the same house, parents in the same marriage and careers, and to stay sitting by the phone for their calls, but to never be upset if they don’t phone. Oh, and “Don’t change my bedroom!”

We need to accept their need for space and disengagement, trusting that more autonomy will lead to growth and self-efficacy. And the times when the door opens, when they want to be with us and share, drop everything and be there at 100%, fully present. As kids grow into teenagers and then adults, those times become fewer and far between, but they are still invaluable for both parties.

Engagement, disengagement; connection,disconnection; time together, time apart; actively parenting, stepping aside; this is a normal process that allows kids tho grow into independent, confident adults. Don’t take the disengaged times personally, and don’t hold on too tight. Sand, held loosely and gently in the palm of your hand will remain there, intact; squeeze too tightly and much of it slips through your fingers. Relationships with our children react the same way.


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