Being A Parent Is A Long Process Of Letting Go



“Letting go of one’s guilt about your child’s disabilities is one way to avoid being overprotective. Setting and sticking to rules makes it easier to avoid doing everything for your child.” – Wallander 1

We are both parents and grandparents. We raised newborns to the age when they entered kindergarten and followed them through elementary school, middle school and high school. We hung their crayon drawn masterpieces on our walls as they rolled out of the early years of school, attended their school shows, applauded their certificates of academic performance, listened with smiles to the eerie early sounds of music as they learned to pluck and bow strings and press valves for the school orchestra instruments. We watched them go off to summer camps, relieved with our time off, but worried about their ability to survive without our ever present guidance.

Then they were teenagers – learning about those difficult first stages of involvement with other teenagers.

“Most 15-year-olds can’t make it on their own in the adult world yet; they need opportunity to try, ‘fail, practice, scare Mom and fail again.’ All this trying can be very wearing on us as parents.” 2

All those things that we cherished about our special children were being jumbled with the appearance of “those other types” of teenagers. And then add the fact that they were driving cars and staying out beyond something called curfews.

They entered college at some place beyond the horizon and every once in a while remembered to let you know they still were alive and well; if only to ask for some desperately needed financial assistance to purchase new clothing so that they could attend an event. “Money isn’t everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch.” 2 At college they met THE ONE. Before we could get used to THE ONE, we were transformed from parents into IN-LAWS. We learned to “tip-toe” around in our new status to ensure that tranquility would rein supreme.

In short order, with joy, delight, happiness and just about every other adjective we could muster, we were transformed again, but to a much more exalted status – we were GRANDPARENTS. But gradually we learned that all our experience as parents was somehow irrelevant. Our darling child and THE ONE wanted to do “it” on their own. They would listen and merrily do it their way. Indeed we reached the point where we had to learn to “let go.”

Why is “letting go” so difficult?

“Letting go of adult children is a struggle for all parents… When we consider that nearly twenty years of our lives are invested in raising, nurturing, and caring for a child, it’s easy to see why letting go of that role is a daunting task. For most parents, child-rearing consumes our time, energy, love, and concern for two decades. We invest our hearts, minds and spirits into their physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being, and it can be very difficult when that part of our lives comes to an end. Parents who find themselves in the “empty nest” often struggle to find an appropriate balance of love and concern for their adult children while resisting the impulse to continue to control… So what is the parents’ role as children become adults? Certainly we never ‘let go’ of them in the sense of abandoning them. We are still their parents and always will be. But while we no longer nurture and guard them physically, we are still concerned for their welfare.” 3

“Modern parenting seems to be in trouble when it comes to managing the boundaries between the generations. In some households, (Mom) and Dad pretend to be their children’s ‘best friends.’” 4

“All parents ‘fail’ in some sense… No, I do not underestimate the challenges. But I do suggest that an overprotected child is a deprived one and if they find themselves in an arrested stage of development they should make a claim for psychological abuse.” 4

As many parents have discovered, there are no guarantees that our children will become the adults we thought they would.5


A “helicopter” or hovering parent is one who pays extremely close attention to a child’s or children’s experiences and problems. A snow plowing parent is another one who “clears a path” of the many obstacles that could delay or interfere with a child’s abilities to achieve their or their parents’ goals. The reality is that we (to some degree) have been guilty of “helicoptering” and/or “plowing”— but naturally, only with the best of intensions. Like so many other grandparents, we are “experts” on raising children to adulthood – we’ve done it a number of times and now our own children are starting the “steeplechase race” with all its obstacles with their children. We are guilty only trying to help and making it easier. (At least that’s the way we see it.)


“Lowered expectations and over protection of the individual with a disability can cause lowered self esteem which can result in a life time of underachievement and failure to reach their full potential. Both lowered expectations and over protection are forms of discrimination. Internalization of discrimination causes the person with a disability to believe that they are less capable than a person without a disability. Parents and care providers of children with disabilities may overprotect the child to shield them from harm; however this can actually cause more damage. Successful parenting skills are required to help children and adolescents develop a positive self concept and high self esteem.” 6

Shielding a child with disabilities from life experiences is a sensitive subject. It is all too often ignored by many well-meaning parents of children with disabilities. While most of them only want what is best for their children and will go to great lengths to do what they must to protect them, they often do not realize that being over-protective can cause just as many problems as it appears to solve. 7

“We will often find ourselves answering questions for our kids, interpreting for them, or hovering over them when they are socially engaged with other individuals. Some parents go as far as to only allow their children to interact with other disabled children because it’s ‘safer.” 8

Transition to adulthood is an ongoing process, from the earliest years of infancy to the many stages of adulthood. Depending upon the type and degree of disabilities, significant increased attention is essential in planning for the transition stages; especially the dramatic end to the years of formal education.

Up until that point, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), (first enacted in 1975) ensured children with disabilities that they would have the opportunity to receive a free appropriate public education, just like other children. The definition of transition used in the IDEA legislation includes a wide variety of approaches which focus on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities. These include post-secondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, and community participation. 9
• It can be hard not to cross the line between protective and overprotective parenting.
• Fear and anxiety about your child’s issues can lead you to be overprotective.
• Avoiding patterns of overprotective parenting can let you help your child be more independent.

Letting go of one’s guilt about your child’s disabilities is one way to avoid being overprotective. Setting and sticking to rules makes it easier to avoid doing everything for your child. Letting your child make mistakes help him/her to be more independent. 10

People with disabilities are living longer. Increasingly, they can be expected to outlive their parents. This is a source of great anxiety to many parents. “(However,) parents can be adamant that their son or daughter would never be able to live independently so there is no point in travel training, or learning to cook or manage a household budget. They will live at home with their parents and when that becomes too much for them they will select a nice residential home not far away. Is this psychological abuse? …The individual’s right to a lifestyle of their choice can not be overridden simply because the (parent) disapproves…” 11

The need to plan for future monetary considerations, supportative individuals and circumstances, etc. is essential for the child with disabilities! But so, too, it is necessary for the child and the youngster transforming to adulthood to grow to the limit of their abilities as watchful parents “let go.” •

H. Barry Waldman, DDS, MPH, PhD – Distinguished Teaching Professor, Department of General Dentistry at Stony Brook University, NY; E-mail:
Steven P. Perlman, DDS, MScD, DHL (Hon) is Global Clinical Director, Special Olympics, Special Smiles and Clinical Professor of Pediatric Dentistry, The Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine, Private pediatric dentistry practice – Lynn MA.
Matthew Cooke, DDS, MD, MPH is Associate Professor, Departments of Anesthesiology & Pediatric Dentistry University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine Pittsburgh PA; Assistant Clinical Professor, Departments of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery and Pediatric Dentistry Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry, Richmond, VA.

1. Wallander. Swedish Detective television series.
2. Focus on the family. Letting go of your teen. Available from: Accessed June 2, 2016.
3. Got questions?org. I am a parent; how can I let go of my adult children? Available from: Accessed June 2, 2016.
4. Hodson P. My message to the parents who can’t let their children go: grow up. Available from:
Accessed June 3, 2016.
5. Harder AF. Letting go of our adult children. Available from: Accessed June 3, 2016.
6. Sanders KY. Overprotection and lowered expectations of persons with disabilities: the unforeseen consequences. Work, 2006;27(2):181-8.
7. Lohar C. Isolating a child with disabilities can do life-long damage. Available from: Accessed June 6, 2016.
8. National Special Education Law. Are parents of children with disabilities too overprotective? Available from: Accessed June 6, 2016.
9. Center for Parent Information and Resources. Transition to adulthood. Available from: Accessed June 3, 2016.
10. Morin A. How to avoid being overprotective of your child. Available from: Accessed June 8, 2016.
11. McPherson B. When does families’ over protectiveness tip over into psychological abuse? Available from: Accessed June 9, 2016.