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First steps towards adult independence

Posted on 18 December 2017

First steps towards adult independence

Adolescence can be a fraught time for many families as their child, now young person, learns to become independent.

This is normal but the struggle to redefine the parent/child relationship can feel painful for both parties. Parents can feel their child, once happy to hold their hand, slipping through their fingers into a fog of grunts, mood swings and challenging behaviour. 

This doesn’t have to be the case. Advice from psychologists and experts in adolescent development suggest parent and child can emerge from this phase with strong foundations laid to enjoy a successful adult-to-adult relationship.  To achieve this, parents need to understand what is happening to their child in order to support their growth towards independence.  

Don’t take it personally

Teens develop physically, emotionally and mentally more at the ages of 11 to 21, than at any other time of life.  At around 12 to 13 a child starts to become aware of a larger world outside of their family, in which they will operate, one day, as an adult.  Alongside puberty, this awareness drives their efforts to be more adult like.

While parents can feel rejected by their behaviour and worn down by arguments it’s worth bearing in mind it is part of normal development.  
Your child isn’t walking away from their relationship with you but learning to have an adult relationship that is less dependent on you and in which they make more of their own decisions. 

Help your child take control

Here are five approaches, tried and tested by parents, to help smooth your child’s transition from parent-control to self-control:

1. Get on the same page

 It’s important to develop a shared understanding of what is happening to provide a context for those discussions that will inevitably arise down the line around specific behaviour or events.  

Start by explaining to your teen what it means to be independent in a way that convinces them they actually want to reach that state. Explain it means taking responsibility for things and doing them by themselves and that this will make them a stronger person in the long term. 

2. Help them master a sense of competence

 No child can function as an independent adult until they have mastered basic life skills such as doing the washing, cooking, tidying away, managing finances and travelling by themselves.  Parents can expect a child to take responsibility for developing these life skills in an age appropriate way from the age of ten. 

It’s not enough for your child to simply master skills they must also develop a sense of responsibility and accountability.  As parents we can develop these by rewarding responsible behaviour with increased freedom, holding our children to account for any bad choices they make and requiring them to earn what they desire rather than being handed it on a plate.  Sometimes it takes nerves of steel not to jump in and rescue our children from situations they have got themselves into but it’s the only way they will learn to deal with problems head on. 

3. Help them develop a strong self-identity

Until now your child’s identity was an extension of yours, during adolescence they begin to recognise their uniqueness, work out what separates them from their parents, what it means to be them and what are their longer term life-goals.    
Just as nursery provided a safe setting for your younger child to develop social skills, test boundaries and understand how to fit in, so does their peer group during adolescence.  Learn to value your child’s friends.  While at times it can feel your child is putting them before family, they are in fact learning how to love and be loved by people outside of their immediate family.   Friends provide emotional support as your child learns to be less emotionally dependent on you.  They are better able to understand what your child is going through and relate to their needs as they are going through the same thing.

4. Give them privacy

Privacy enables adults to feel respected, competent and in control. However well-intentioned, any snooping, be that tracking where your child is on your mobile device, checking messages on their devices or eves dropping on conversations erodes trust and will undermine parent-teen relations.  
The golden rule remains, not to snoop unless you have good reason to believe there is a serious problem, like self-harm or drug abuse.  Teens are more inclined to share personal information with parents who support rather than undermine their sense of privacy.  

5. Treat your teen as you wish them to treat you

Model the behavior you would like to receive from them.  The tone of voice and words a parent uses in conversation will shape the response they receive.  While some choices teens make may make parents wince, unless they are harmful to themselves or other people it’s best to remain non-judgmental. In doing so you will leave the door of communication open to explore the choices they made, away from the event, in a manner that isn’t taken as an attack on their newly emerging personal identify

Above all remember your teenager is not yet independent but learning to be independent.  They still need you and your parenting even though this may look and feel very different to the parenting they received as a child.