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Teaching your adolescent independence

The building blocks of adolescent independence must be taught.

A question I was asked about the readiness for independence (or lack thereof) during the last stage of adolescence (ages 18 - 23), was this: "How can parents teach independence?"

From what I've seen, there are at least four components to this training: responsibility, accountability, work, and self-help. And this instruction can start as soon as adolescence begins, (usually between ages 9 and 13) if not before.

Young people who learn independence can often say:
"I earned my freedom by acting responsibly (I did what was right even when it was hard to do),"
"I was held accountable for my bad choices and paid for my mistakes (I faced my consequences),"
"I worked to get get a lot of what I wanted (it wasn't all handed to me),"
"I developed the resourcefulness to help myself deal with difficulty (I met my problems head on)."

Young people who seem to get stuck in their dependent ways often have parents who, with the most loving motivation, undermine the growth of independence.

They give freedom without demanding evidence of responsibility. "If you really want to do it, that's enough for us to say okay."

They rescue from or ignore bad choices without insisting on accountability. "You didn't know any better so we'll overlook what you did."

They provide whatever is wanted without having the child work for any of it. "We'll just get it for you."

They weaken with so much help when difficulties arise that the capacity for self-help is disabled. "We'll fix what you did and take care of it."

Parents can teach RESPONSIBILITY by making sure the young person is taking care of business at home, at school, and out in the world before consenting to any new degree of freedom that is desired. "For the next several weeks get your chores done each night instead of making them a sometime thing, and then we will consider letting you go over to your friend's house after school."

Parents can teach ACCOUNTABILITY by making sure the young person connects choice and consequence by having to confront and recover from the errors of her ways. "When you thought it would be exciting to go shoplifting with friends, you broke the law. Now you are going to have to wait for me to pick you up at the detention center. Next, you are going to have to confront the store manager to hear what it was like to be stolen from. And finally you are going to have to work out some act of restitution to pay that person back for the harm you've done."

Parents can teach WORK by allowing the child to invest time and labor in obtaining something that is wanted. "If you want to be able to drive the car next fall, this summer get a job and make enough money to help pay for what it's going to cost to get you insured."

Parents can teach SELF-HELP by delaying assistance the child wants long enough so he has a chance to see what, by relying on his own resourcefulness, he can figure out for himself. "Before I say how I think you might deal with this problem, come up with a couple plans of your own first. See what possibilities you can think up before I jump in with my advice."

Of course, as many parents discover during the challenging final stage of adolescence (around ages18 - 23), the hardest help to give (and often most unappreciated at the time) is the denial of help. "We believe you are now old enough to help yourself, and we believe you have what it takes to do it."

Independence takes effort to learn for the adolescent and effort to teach for the parents. They need to support this effort being made when it may feel "easier" or more "harmonious" or "simpler" just to let the challenge go.

To not teach responsibility, accountability, work,and self-help, and then expect a graduating senior or college freshman to magically transform into an independent person is not a realistic expectation, while blaming them for crashing is cruel.

If parents will do their job of preparation for independence, last stage adolescents will do their job of acting independently (mostly) when more on their own.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: The Adolescent Only Child