02/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Love, Limits, Letting Go: Good Enough for Obama

I want to warn you. I am on a rant. One about parents who do not let go of their sons and daughters at age appropriate times and in this way show them that they believe they will be able to take care of themselves.

The rant has been growing, but a few hours ago it came to a roar. Today I met with a wonderful college sophomore, bright, articulate, caring, all qualities that his parents' devotion helped to instill in him. But this caring young person is drug- and sex-addicted. He wants to numb himself because he has been unable to deal with parents who give him no time to think or live without their constant involvements and intrusions.

"The only time I can breathe," this nineteen year old tells me, "is when I am high on sex or drugs."

And I met with another equally talented young person, determined not to finish college, although he is a senior honor student. He explains: "My parents are suffocating me. This is the only way I can teach them a lesson!"

Here is what kids need: Love, Limits, and Letting go......

A few years ago I wrote a book about five cycles of emotional abuse. Parents who learned about the book easily understood three of the cycles: rage, rejection/abandonment, and complete neglect. What they had trouble with were two at the opposite end of the spectrum:

1. Enmeshment -- caused by parents who insist that the family is and must remain one big blob: no privacy, no closed doors, no time alone for their adolescent children, and the stated belief that no one can or will ever be as important to them as "blood family."

2. Extreme over-protection and overindulgence -- caused by coddling children and suffocating them with far more than they need, and in this way stifling their self esteem and natural talents, often creating spoiled brats who lack confidence to face pressures in the real world and are impossible for others to have relationships with...

I work with so many college students who, like the students described earlier, suffer horrifically because of parents who mean well and are completely unaware of the harm they inflict on their children. If you are one of these parents, I ask you to be brave enough to examine your problem of loving too much and perhaps needing to live through and control your sons and daughters. To do so will be the most important of gifts to their futures.

Here are some of the ways damage is done: insisting on helping your kids chose the courses they take; driving, training, or flying to their sides when a romantic relationship hurts them or they have trouble with a professor that they are capable of handling; writing papers for them, or having your office staff do this, which among many things is also dishonest; and constantly using today's electronic "you name it" and in this way depriving your kids of breathing space.

Here's what the above does loud and clear: It deprives sons and daughters who are dearly loved of the confidence they will need to make their own choices, the ones that are right for them in avenues of friendship, love and work. It deprives them of developing the ability to handle anxiety, learn and grow from their mistakes, and move on to something better.

If only I could tell you the number of kids I have met who feel so guilty separating from their parents that they completely overlook friendships that will be good for them. Or, to please and fulfill parents they need and love, they pick majors and fields of concentration that are all wrong for them or partners in life who will ultimately cause them misery.

I have seen wonderful young people pick drifters or rejecting partners because they find what they describe as "relaxation with someone who does not push me." I have seen them pick nasty partners because they feel they deserve to be punished for wanting to feel fulfilled away from parents or study a field their parents do not approve of.

So if your kids are in high school, here is what you can practice. Encourage them to do their own college selections, with the help of their school counselors, and insist that they write their own application essays. Be there to discuss, but let them know that their choice is all about what they need, not anything to do with you. Tell them that college is the time for them to continue to learn to pick themselves up when things go wrong, learn from the experience, and move on. Tell them that at their age there really are no mistakes, only opportunities to learn, grow, change. Tell them how much you believe in them, and prove it by practicing the art of letting go. This does not mean going away; it means responding to their needs appropriately, respectfully, non-instrusively.

If you need any documentation that this philosophy of love, limits and letting go at age appropriate times is the way to go, think about our 44th President of the United States. He got enough of everything, but not too much. He learned how to chart his course in work and love. And he learned that other people are every bit as important and deserving as he is.