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Adulting 101: Teaching Your Teen to be Independent

Indianapolis mom Jessica Sandvold believes in teaching independence.

She requires her 16-year-old daughter to make her own appointments for sports physicals. She taught her how to set up and use a checking account. Even going to the grocery store includes lessons in independence. Now, Sandvold’s daughter has a part-time job and manages her own money, making Sandvold a pretty proud mama.

Sandvold, like many other parents, believes that independence is critical for getting their kids ready for college and, ultimately, life. But for many parents, the question of how and when to grant freedom is confusing and a little worrisome.

Mary Dell Harrington, coauthor of the book Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family and Raise Independent Adults, knows a lot about teenage independence. Ever since her book was published, she has seen almost 150,000 parents discuss these issues through the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group.

According to Harrington, parents can be reluctant to grant their teens independence because they fear risks to their safety. So, when parents worry, they may try to control their teens, thinking that a “heavier parenting hand will keep their teens out of trouble,” Harrington says. Often, this just challenges teens even more.

Some of this worry, though, stems from the fact that parents anticipate their teen leaving the nest. Because all parents want a successful future for their kids, “seeing them leave is life-changing, and emotionally, that can be a very difficult ‘letting go’ for many parents,” Harrington says.

When parents worry, they may sometimes overcompensate. Call it “intensive parenting,” or “helicopter parenting,” — the current generation of parents has earned that reputation, perhaps unjustifiably, Harrington says.

“Research shows that having a close relationship with your children is extremely beneficial to them,” Harrington says. Sandvold agrees. “This is not a time to ease up and be hands-off,” she says. “Kids will make mistakes, but they are still looking to you for help and advice.”

Teaching “adulting skills” gradually throughout their lives while they are at home not only gives teens a chance to practice these skills with the support of a parent nearby, but also means parents are there to correct and encourage along the way. It also builds confidence.

Parents must remember that gaining independence is a long-term goal, often starting as early as the toddler years. “It is a slow and steady process — like letting the string out on a kite,” Harrington says.

Here are some skills parents might want to teach to help their teens gain more independence:

  • Give your teen the responsibility of making appointments for their own dentist, sports physicals, haircuts and other dates.
  • Teach your teen methods for coping with mistakes, disappointments and failure, starting with refusing to bring forgotten items to school.
  • Encourage your teen to seek help when they need it by talking to teachers, coaches, counselors or other authority figures when they have questions or concerns.
  • Teach your kids about money: how to save, how to budget and how to manage it.
  • Teach your teen to prioritize safety when driving, using social media, meeting new people, dealing with emergencies and other risks.

In the end, sending your teen off to adult life can be heart-wrenching — it’s hard to watch them go. “This is the person you brought into the world 18 years before,” Harrington says, “a moment that altered your life forever.” The process can be difficult, but deep down, knowing that your child can be independent will make it a whole lot easier.

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