Independence, One Step at a Time

Fostering a relationship that will sustain both of you for a lifetime

Posted Aug 01, 2011

It is an adolescent's job to gain the confidence to be able to stand on his own. As challenging as it is to watch our children grow up, it is critical to their well-being and to the health of our relationships that we honor their growing independence. When we hold them back they rebel against us. When we monitor their safety while guiding them towards independence - sometimes actively and sometimes by getting out of the way - they appreciate us. When our children know that we supported them to become independent, they will soon return to us for that interdependence that defines loving families well beyond childhood.

It's everyday issues, even seemingly mundane ones, that trigger most parent-child struggles and offer opportunities for fostering independence. Your child might think she should be allowed a new privilege just because she's a certain age or because her friends are doing it, but she might lack the skills needed to manage the situation. If you focus on preparing your adolescent, you will turn potential sources of conflict and rebellion into opportunities for your child to master new skills and demonstrate responsibility.

Adolescence is naturally filled with opportunities for trial and error and ultimately success. Your challenge is to make sure your adolescent learns from day-to-day mistakes rather than views them as catastrophes. At the same time you need to be vigilant in helping your teen avoid those errors that could cause irreparable harm. Just as importantly, you want to ensure your child doesn't miss out on the many possibilities for growth that are coming along. If you are overprotective it will limit his opportunity to gain valuable positive life experiences and just as importantly to make those mistakes that offer the chance to learn how to rebound, recover, and move on. You want your teen to make errors while still under your watchful eye when you can offer the life lessons that build enduring resilience.

The answer to when your child is ready to meet a new challenge is about recognizing when there are enough pieces in place so the chances for success are enhanced. A request by your 14 year old to spend the afternoon at the mall won't hinge on answering on the spot "Is she old enough?" if you've taught her, in part through your example, about spending wisely and treating clerks with respect. The day your teen begins to drive won't be so nerve-wracking if you've modeled safe driving behaviors and made it clear you will monitor your teen's progress even after he gets his license. Your knuckles won't be as white when she goes on her first date if you have raised her to have self-respect, the skills to recognize and respond to pressure, and the knowledge to protect herself.

Sometimes you should start by doing some observing. Think back to when you baby-proofed your home. If you just guessed what needed safeguarding, you might have missed some opportunities to protect your baby. The first step was to walk around on your knees and see the surroundings at the same level as your toddler. Once you saw the world from his vantage point, you knew to turn that pot handle inward. That same sort of observing - getting a "kid's eye view" of the mall or the route to school - will heighten your senses about the challenges your teen is likely to encounter. You'll be better prepared to think of how best to phase in new privileges and what kinds of emotional support as well as monitoring need to be in place to help things go smoothly.

It is important to use a step-by-step approach to allow your child to succeed, sometimes recover from failure, and then demonstrate he's ready to assume more responsibility. It starts by understanding the environment he will need to navigate. You'll be so much better prepared to offer practical guidance if you have observed the reality your child will face, rather than your fantasy of what it might look like. Next, your ability to individualize guidance rests on your considering his temperament and unique developmental needs. Although this may sound like you need a PhD in parenting, nobody matches the expertise you have on your child. The next step involves listening. Listen respectfully to what your adolescent thinks she can handle and ask what guidance or support she seeks. Invite her to develop a plan with you. Approach the conversation with the attitude that even though she is young, she is still the greatest expert on herself.

Finally, generate a roadmap of each step that needs to be mastered to gain the skills and confidence that will prepare her to meet the overall challenge. Help her to understand that she will continue to gain more independence and privileges as long as she continues to demonstrate responsibility. When she knows that your goal is to help her ultimately get to her goal, she'll be much less likely to complain that you are carefully monitoring the process.

If only it were as easy as applying a one-size-fits-all recipe to each issue.

The truth is that each challenge requires a different strategy. Our new book "Letting Go with Love and Confidence" hopes to make you more comfortable supporting independence in a measured stepwise manner by helping you to think about how to approach a wide variety of issues. You'll be ready to carefully consider how to maximize your adolescent's opportunity to succeed while minimizing any risk to his safety. It will help you know when to give a little bit of rope and when you may need to tighten it up again. It is written to help both your child and you to gain confidence in his developing maturity - and even celebrate his growing independence. Above all, I hope it helps you to foster the kind of relationship that will nourish and sustain both of you for a lifetime.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg and Susan FitzGerald are the authors of "Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century."