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Ages & Stages

Independence, One Step at a Time

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 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 thinks 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.

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.

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 positioned to think of how best to phase in new privileges and what kinds of support and 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 demonstrate he’s ready to assume more responsibility. A thoughtful step-wise strategy will help both your child and you gain confidence, and will allow you to give a little bit of rope at a time and tighten up again as needed.

Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP
Last Updated
Adapted from Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century (Copyright © 2011 Avery)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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