Parenting and Teen Independence

Guiding Your Teenager to Independence and Self-Reliance

by Stephanie Partridge

Mom amd son talkingAs your teen grows, he or she will begin to move in a direction that makes them more independent.  They will begin to rely more on themselves and less on you.  For some parents that is difficult and for most teens it is quite tough, but it is a necessary part of becoming an adult.  Growing up means growing apart in many ways.

The question then becomes how can we as parents help our kids?  How can we guide them to becoming self reliant?  I asked three psychologists who work with teenagers and families to weigh in on this issue.  Here is what they had to say.

“Adolescence is where parents reap what they have sown during the earlier years,” says Katie McCorkle, Ph.D., family and child psychologist and founder and CEO of Balanced Heart Healing Center (www.balancedheart.org). “If they have allowed independent thinking and respected the child’s wishes on important matters throughout childhood, the teenage years will be an easier rider for both parent and teen.  If parents have made all the decisions previously (and thus fostered dependence), teens are more likely to assert their independence in ways which don’t please the parents.  It’s all about bi-directional RESPECT in the relationship, and focusing the teen’s attention on who they really want to be, and how in/consistent they are being in expressing that in their daily life.”

McCorkle offers these tips for parents who want to guide their teens to independence.

  • Commit to each other’s safety – Good things only happen when everyone feels safe, so negotiating boundaries and rules where everyone wins is important.  Otherwise, teens may lie and hide to get some of what they want, and parents may become overprotective when they have safety fears.
  • Ask, don’t tell – Especially ask “what” and “how” questions rather than “why questions.  Why puts the other on the defensive, and what/how questions are easier to answer and more likely to lead to a solution. Leading questions are fine.  When teens come up with their own answers, they’re more committed to those solutions.
  • Allow room to make mistakes, and learn from them – We often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes, because we tend to pay more attention to them and to their consequences.  Offer teens a “safe” realm of authority in their own lives, so they can learn.  One way my mother taught me to manage money was to add up what she spent on me for certain things (clothes, entertainment, travel, toiletries, etc.) for a year, divide it by 12, and give me a monthly allowance in that amount.  I LOVED this, because it gave me room to change the priorities (spend more on entertainment and less on clothes, etc.)

Alexa Foster, Ph.D. of Off the Couch Psychology in Mission Viejo, California and the parent of two teenage boys, is a clinical psychologist who works with many teens and parents.  Teen independence is a topic that comes up often and she provides direction to parents so that they can keep their kids on the right track.

  • Start early –  Teaching independence is a slow but steady process, with incremental increases over time.  It starts in elementary school.
  • Independence Should be Earned –  Teens crave independence and see it as a privilege.  Certain aspects of independence (driving, reduced supervision, etc.) must be earned by responsible behavior.
  • Contributing to the Family is a First Step Toward Independence - Independence is, ideally, embedded within a structure of values communicated by parents to children.  Teens need to buy into house rules and values – they do not respond well to simple demands of compliance.  Parents need to communicate why independent responsible behavior is important.  Ideally, a parent should communicate that teens have a mission that includes learning how to contribute to their family and community, and that independence is an essential part of that mission.  For example, parents may tell a teen that he or she needs to pay for car insurance in order to contribute to the family’s financial stability (or specific financial goals).  Another example is that a teen may receive the privilege of driving in part because he or she contributes to the family’s overall functioning by driving siblings to appointments.
  • Teens Need to Know What the “Real World” is Like - As teens get older, they need experiences to help them see the value of hard work, planning ahead and delaying gratification.  Therefore, they need minimum-wage jobs and other experiences that provide a realistic view of what choices they will have if they do not follow through on academic responsibilities.
  • Teens need to be Allowed to Fail –  All of this is easier if parents resist the urge to rescue their children from consequences.  A small example: high school students should use alarm clocks rather than parents waking them up.  If they forget to set the alarm, they will get to school late.

“With regards to specifics, such as paying rent at home, when to encourage jobs, etc., these are often context related,” says Foster.  “However, if a teen has 1) become non-productive or is 2) exploiting parents’ desire to provide for them and failing to contribute back, parents will need to make home life less comfortable.  At this point, tough love is needed and that will likely include paying for room and board and getting a job.”

Dr. Stephen Trudeau of Human’s Guide (www.HumansGuide.com) works with teens in his psychology practice in Westlake Village, California.  He stresses to parents that a teen can not be expected to become independent over night.  Instead, it should be a gradual transition that allows the teen to learn how to be independent a little at a time.

Trudeau says, “As with most life skills, it helps if the demands are not too great or too soon.  A teen who has had a cushy lifestyle and is then demanded to pay rent, and take care of themselves can easily falter.  Progressively adding responsibilities allows for a period of adjustment.  Think of the responsibility of riding a bicycle safely:  First comes the training wheels, then when they are off, the parent holds on  to the back of the seat and gently guides them until they feel they can try it on their own.  A new rider is pretty wobbly but soon gets the hang of it.  Same for teens, when they first take responsibility for themselves, they are a bit wobbly but with enough practice they will get it right.”

Guiding your teen to become independent means that you must also allow them to become independent.  You have to let them make their own mistakes, but lovingly guide and support them.  Then you just have to let them go.

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