Independence is the ultimate goal of adolescence. Even though it’s sometimes hard for parents to think about letting go of their child, the best relationships are the ones that teens come back to, as adults, recognizing how their parents have helped them into adulthood by not clinging or pushing them away too soon.
We recommend that parents look for opportunities to teach independence, starting in childhood. Giving choices, encouraging (reasonable) risk-taking and allowing a child to make mistakes are all ways that parents build the skills that make independence possible.
We’ve talked a lot about the push-and-pull of adolescence; teens desperately want to become adults, but are also afraid of it. You can help make this process feel at least a little safer by helping your teen to prepare gradually. Trying new things, making choices and making mistakes becomes even more important in the teen years. Here are some areas that can offer good practice for independence.
Encourage your teen to be responsible for his or her own time. “How much time do you need for homework?” “How long to do you need to unwind after school?” If the answers to these questions are “None” and “Until midnight”, then your teen needs some help making a schedule. Many teens can come up with a reasonable time for getting things done, with some practice and initial limits from you. You may want to let her try out her schedule through, say, one grading period. If grades go down, the schedule needs work and maybe more supervision from you.
Getting themselves up
Many parents complain about the daily battles trying to get their teen out of bed. Teens need almost as much sleep as infants, and often don’t get enough of it. After you’ve done your part in limiting the distractions before bedtime (TV and phone calls are common culprits!), help your teen be responsible for getting himself up. Every teen should have his own alarm clock. The natural consequence of not getting up could be a detention at school, or losing a job. After a few repetitions, your teen will likely get the message, and you don’t have to do anything. If you feel your teen is deliberately avoiding school, there may be a more serious problem that requires outside help.
Learning to Handle Money
Not knowing basic financial skills can be one the first things to trip up a newly independent young adult. Look for chances to teach basic money skills. Some parents give their teen a set amount of money and let her plan the weekly grocery shopping or family vacation. Have her help you pay utility bills and budget for expenses. A few experiments can teach a lot more than lectures. Explain carefully about credit cards and limit access to credit. Teens are impulsive, and easily get stuck in the trap of charging more than they can pay off. An after-school job is a great opportunity for your teen to start practicing the Law of Thirds: Save /invest a third, spend a third, donate a third. Teens should have their own savings accounts.
More than anything else, teens learn from making mistakes. As a parent, your job is to try to make sure that the mistakes your teen makes aren’t life-threatening, like getting into the car with a drunk driver. In other articles we’ve recommended creating a safety agreement with your teen so that, for example, your teen can call home and get a ride with no questions asked rather than drive drunk. Talk with your teen about the safety agreements you feel are important.
Most mistakes, though, will not fall into that category. No one is perfect, especially parents. It’s important that you teen see that that you do not expect perfection from him or from yourself, and that you can admit your mistakes when you make them. Letting your teen make mistakes, and letting him suffer the consequences of a mistake, can be hard to do. But when you give your teen permission to make mistakes, and let him know you love him anyway, you tell him that you believe in his ability to take a fall, get up and learn from it. And that’s what being an adult is all about.
Remember, stay patient, keep talking and keep trying. You and your teen are worth it!