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Helping Your Child Learn Independence

How much independence should I give my child?

As children enter adolescence, they often beg for more freedom. Parents walk a tightrope between wanting their children to be confident and able to do things for themselves and knowing that the world can be a scary place with threats to their children's health and safety.

Some parents allow too much of the wrong kind of freedom or they offer freedom before the adolescent is ready to accept it. Other parents cling too tightly, denying young teens both the responsibilities they require to develop maturity and the opportunities they need to make choices and accept their consequences.

Research tells us that adolescents do best when they remain closely connected to their parents but at the same time are allowed to have their own points of view and even to disagree with their parents. Here are some tips to help balance closeness and independence:

    • Set limits. All children sometimes resist limits, but they want them and they need them. In a world that can seem too hectic for adults and adolescents alike, limits provide a security. Oftentimes, adolescents whose parents do not set limits feel unloved. Setting limits is most effective when it begins early. It is harder but not impossible, however, to establish limits during early adolescence.
    • Be clear. Most young teens respond best to specific instructions, which are repeated regularly. As middle school teacher Sharon Sikora notes, "Don't just say, 'I want your room clean,' because they don't know what that means. Say, in a non-argumentative way, 'This is how I perceive a clean room.' They may say, 'I don't really want the lamp over here, I want it over there.' Give them the freedom to express themselves."
    • Give reasonable choices. Choices make young teens more open to guidance. For example, you can tell your son that his algebra homework must be done before bedtime, but that he has a choice of completing it either before or after supper. And you can tell your 14-year-old daughter that she can't hang around the video arcade with her friends on Saturday night, but she can have a group of friends over to your house to watch a movie.Using humor and creativity as you give choices may also make your child more willing to accept them. One middle school teacher couldn't get her own child to hang up clean clothes or put dirty clothes in the laundry basket. So she gave her daughter two options - either all the clothes had to be picked up or everything would go on the floor. "I was washing the clothes, then putting them in piles on the floor," the teacher recalls. "It made me crazy, but it worked." After two weeks, her daughter got tired of the stacks on the floor and she began picking up her clothes.
    • Grant independence in stages. The more mature and responsible a young teen's behavior is, the more privileges parents can grant. You might first give your young teen the right to choose which sneakers to buy within a certain price range. Later you can let him make other clothing purchases - with the understanding that price tags won't be removed until you approve the items. Eventually, you can give him a clothing allowance to spend as he likes.
    • Health and safety come first. Your most important responsibility as a parent is to protect your child's health and safety. Your child needs to know that your love for her requires you to veto activities and choices that threaten either of these. Let your child know what things threaten her health and safety - and often the health and safety of others - and put your foot down. Doing this is made more difficult, though, because adolescents have a sense that nothing can hurt them. At the same time that he feels that everything he experiences is new and unique, an adolescent also believes that what happens to others will not happen to him. His beliefs are based on the fact that adolescence is the healthiest period of time during our lives. In this period, physical illnesses are not common and fatal disease is rare. The important thing to emphasize to your child is that, while he may be very healthy, death and injury during adolescence are most often caused by violence and accidents.Your child needs to know that your love for her requires you to veto activities and choices that threaten either of these.
    • Say no to choices that cut off future options. Some things aren't worth fighting about. It may offend you if your son wears a shirt to school that clashes wildly with his pants, but this isn't a choice that can cut off future possibilities for him. Young teens may have a growing sense of the future, but they still lack the experiences required to fully understand how a decision they make today can affect them tomorrow. They may have heard that smoking is unhealthy, but they do not fully understand what it means to die of lung cancer at the age of 45. Talk to your children about the lifelong consequences of choices they make. Help them understand there are good and bad decisions and that knowing one from the other can make all the difference in their lives. Let your child know that you are "the keeper of options" until he is old enough and responsible enough to assume this responsibility: He may not skip school and he may not avoid taking tough courses that will prepare him for college.
    • Guide, but resist the temptation to control. The earlier section on being an effective parent discussed the importance of striking a good balance between laying down the law and allowing too much freedom. With most young teens, it's easiest to maintain this balance by guiding but not controlling. Young teens need opportunities to explore different roles, try on new personalities and experiment. They need to learn that choices have consequences. That means making some mistakes and accepting the results. But parents need to provide guidance so that young teens avoid making too many poor choices.You can guide by being a good listener and by asking questions that help your child to think about the results of her actions: "What could happen if you let someone who is drunk drive you home?" Your guidance may be better appreciated if you ask your child's advice on a range of matters and follow the advice if it seems reasonable: "What should we cook for Daddy's birthday?" "I don't have to work on Saturday. Is there anything special you'd like to do?"The fine line between guiding and controlling may be different for different children. Some children, whether they are 7 or 17, need firmer guidance and fewer privileges than do other children at the same age. One middle school teacher explains how the different behavior of her own two teens created a need for different limits: "My daughter understood a midnight curfew to mean that she either had to be in the house with the door locked by 12 or else she must have placed the call from the emergency room informing her parents that she had broken her leg. My son, who was 15 months younger, understood a midnight curfew to mean that he could call at 11:59 p.m. to inform his parents that he'd be home after the pizza he'd ordered with his buddies had arrived and been consumed and he'd driven home his 6 friends."
    • Let kids make mistakes. We want our children to grow into adults who can solve problems and make good choices. These abilities are a critical part of being independent. To develop these abilities, however, young teens on occasion may need to fail, provided the stakes aren't too high and no one's health or safety is at risk. Making mistakes also allows young teens to learn one critical skill - how to bounce back. It's hard for a child to learn how to pick himself up and start over if his parents always rescue him from difficulties.
  • Make actions have consequences. If you tell your child that she must be home by 10 p.m., do not ignore her midnight arrival. You lose credibility with your child if she suffers no consequences for returning home two hours late. However, the punishment should fit the crime. Grounding a child for six weeks restricts the entire family. Instead, you might talk with your child about how coming in two hours late has affected you. You've been up worrying and have missed your sleep. But you'll still have to get up the next morning at your regular time, make breakfast, do your chores and go to work. Because her lack of consideration has made your life harder, she will have to complete some of your chores so that you can get to bed earlier the next night.

Finally and despite what we often hear and read, adolescents look to their parents first and foremost in shaping their lives. When it comes to morals and ethics, political beliefs and religion, teenagers almost always have more in common with their parents than their parents believe. As a parent, you should look beyond the surface, beyond the specific behaviors to who your child is becoming. Your teenager may want to dye her hair purple and pierce most parts of her body, but these expressions may be independent of her sense of who she is and who she will become. At the same time that many of your child's behaviors are ultimately harmless, some of them may not only be harmful but also deadly.

Parents need to talk to their children and make it clear that many of the major threats to their future health and happiness are not a matter of chance, but are a matter of choice - choices like drinking and driving, smoking, drugs, sexual activity, and dropping out of school.

Research tells us that adolescents who engage in one risky behavior are more likely to participate in others, so parents need to be front and center, talking to their children about the potentially deadly consequences of opening that Pandora's box.

Source: US Department of Education
Last Modified: 09/11/2003

Reviewed by athealth on February 5, 2014.