The In-Between

From the care of teens to emerging adulthood

5 Steps to Help Your Teen Leave the Nest

The skills kids and teens need to learn to prepare for independence

What do you need to do to prepare your teen to leave home?

If you’re like most parents of a teen, you’re probably wondering what you can do to prepare your teen for independence. Research studies show that young people today grow up in a setting that is fundamentally different from the world when their parents left home. High school graduation was once a clear line that delineated childhood from adulthood, but now there is no precise line. More and more, parents find that young adult kids are not ready to soar out on their own. According to Pew Research, a larger percentage of young adults live at home with their parents than in generations past.

Adulthood was once defined by social scientists and psychologists using five parameters: completing education, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having children. Over time, that definition has been revamped to a broader definition than the marriage and family route. Kenneth Keniston, a psychologist and writer in the 1960s, defined adulthood as answering “questions of relationship to the existing society, questions of vocation, questions of social roles and lifestyle." JJ Arnett, who coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe a new stage of life between adolescence and adulthood, developed his own list of three criteria: accepting responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent. The evolving definition of adulthood has come as a result of growing numbers of young adults delaying adult roles, a phenomenon increasing over the past 30 years in westernized societies.

A 2013 Belgian study found that separation/individuation begins in adolescence and is ongoing when an emerging adult leaves the nest. Teens are getting ready to separate when they stop idealizing parents, decrease their desire for dependence, and explore who they are apart from the family. They shift from regulation by parents to self-regulation. It is about striking a balance between individuality and connectedness. If it doesn’t go well, they can have separation anxiety on one end of the spectrum, or on the other end they can become rigidly independent and uncomfortable with emotional intimacy. Both extremes are associated with higher rates of self-criticism, anxiety, and depression.

So, what steps can you take to give your teen the strongest chance for success?

First, prepare yourself. Separation can be surprisingly difficult for parents who may be unprepared. As a parent of a teen ready to fly from the nest, you may struggle with worries about your teen’s safety and well being. If you have trouble letting go, it can complicate the process for your child. Studies on separation anxiety have long shown an association between parents’ anxiety and children’s anxiety. And even if your teen is not anxious about leaving the nest, if you cling-on and suffocate her need for autonomy, she may develop a kind of rigid independence that can be associated with self-criticism and depression in later life. 

Start as early as possible. The truth is, you began preparing your child for independence from the beginning, when you helped him learn language and adherence to rules. But as your child has grown into a teen, you may have stopped thinking about specific lessons he needs to learn before leaving the nest. Even if you’re the parent of a preteen or a younger child, it helps to begin thinking about what skills you want your child to have when he’s out on his own, and be attentive to those lessons now.

Teach specific skills your child will need away from home. Give your teen room to take on responsibilities and make mistakes while he still lives at home. Provide abundant opportunities for supervised practice. Base your support and expectations on your child's abilities, level of emotional security, and history—and not on their chronological age or what their peers are doing.

Skills every teen should develop:

  • Emotional/psychological skills: These include the ability to identify emotions, self soothe, exhibit self-control of inner emotional states, wait patiently, solve problems, delay gratification, tolerate uncomfortable feelings, and maintain control of behavior. Teens with well-developed emotional/psychological skills know how to walk away from a fight and how to exit an out-of-control social situation (such as a gathering of friends using drugs).
  • Friendship/interpersonal relationship skills: Good social skills and manners go a long way. Teens should know how to carry on a conversation with a person of any age. They should be good judges of character. They should learn to speak up, stand up for a friend, keep a secret (or refuse to keep a secret), ignore bad behavior, and to confront someone who is out of line. Likewise they need to learn to really listen, admit fault and apologize, talk out a conflict with a friend (or roommate), say I love you, and hug.
  • Romantic/intimate relationship skills: Teen dating can help kids learn to distinguish between love and infatuation. They can learn to ask someone to dance, to navigate romantic feelings, and eventually to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. They can also learn to cope with rejection, say no, and control the urge to advance physical relationships too quickly.
  • Financial skills: Before leaving home, teens need practice budgeting, managing money, balancing a checkbook, saving for emergencies, maintaining bank accounts, and paying bills.
  • Academic/work skills: Learning how to be a productive student or employee begins with learning basic responsibility. When teens know how to be punctual, stay on task, and pay attention to details they are better equipped for school and career. Volunteering or working part time while living with parents can build these skills further.
  • Domestic/maintenance skills: Basic cooking skills, auto maintenance—like learning when the car should be serviced and how to change a tire—washing and folding laundry, cleaning skills for a dorm room or apartment, and handling small household emergencies like a clogged toilet are all skills necessary to build before teens move out.
  • Self-care skills: Your teen should be equipped to ask for help, say no, and be assertive. Most teens need to learn to be in a quiet place to regroup, talk or write about difficult problems, and to plug into a faith community for support.
  • Medical care skills: Every adult needs to have healthcare knowledge to be capable of giving a medical history, filling a prescription at a pharmacy, or knowing how to self-diagnose simple illnesses, use a thermometer, and take over-the-counter medications. 

Discuss how you will (or won’t) be available to help your emerging adult child after she moves out. Setting the framework will help her know when it’s okay to ask you for help, and when she needs to solve a problem herself. If you won’t bail her out of a budget catastrophe, explaining your limits well in advance will help keep her mindful of her spending habits. Teenagers need to know how long they can live at home and whether or not their parents will help them with their first apartment rental, pay college tuition, keep them on the family health insurance, etc. Provide ongoing emotional support even after your young adult moves out of your home. Parents can remain supportive and may need to guide young adults through first time experiences like filing taxes. Your support will help them adjust.

Plan for every possible contingency you can imagine. If your daughter is heading to college with your financial help, have you discussed what will happen if she makes poor grades, gets homesick, or wants to change schools? If your son is moving to a new city to start a job, did you talk about how you’ll respond if he calls asking for money because he doesn’t make enough to cover expenses? A clear plan can keep parents from having to make a hasty decision at a time when emotions are running high.

Melissa Deuter, M.D., is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.

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