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How much independence should a teenager have?

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Hurtling to adulthood

It’s a challenging time for everyone. As much as you know your job as a mom is teach your children to leave you, it feels too close, too soon. That time of leaving is approaching rapidly, and as much as your heart might want to pull back, you know you need to promote independence in your teen. You need to allow your teen more and more autonomy and responsibility -- with you as a safety net -- before it’s time to let go completely. It’s scary for both of you.

independent-teen

There's no absolute formula for granting a teen independence. Lucky for everyone, independence is a process. It doesn't happen all at one, but rather builds over time. The kind of independence you grant your 14-year-old is not the same as what you grant your 17-year-old -- but hopefully the independence you grant at 14 will help build a foundation for what happens at 17.

A greater goal

There are lots of things a teenager can do. Everything from just plain spending time alone or with friends, to taking on a part time job, to taking responsibility for more chores at home and beyond. Some of it you may have taken for granted! But all of these are part of building independence and trust in your child so that when it does come time for your little (big!) bird to fly the nest, you'll both be confident that he or she will do so confidently and successfully. Start by granting a little more freedom -- a little later curfew, a little more trust -- as time passes (and with appropriate checks and balances). Before you know it, you'll have a confident, trust-worthy young adult in your household -- even as you miss the tiny baby he once was.

A little push

As with every age and stage, not every teen is ready for certain responsibilities or levels of independence at that same age. For some, it's appropriate to hold back -- and for some, a little push is okay. Your daughter, for example, might not like the idea of a week away from you on a church mission trip even if she loves the idea and is committed to her youth group. It's likely okay to give her a little push and insist she go. She'd be in a well-organized group with a safety net, after all. It's a risk for both of you -- and hopefully one that will end with your daughter saying, "Mom, you were right. I can be away and be okay. I can use a hammer and build things. I can do a lot of things."

A little pull

Sometimes, though, as with the middle school years, you need to pull back. Sometimes a level of independence is too much, too soon. Maybe allowing your son to set his own part-time work schedule around school didn't work so well -- and grades suffered. Just because you need to pull back doesn't mean your child will never be able to handle that level of independence -- it just means not yet. It means you have an opportunity to do a little more teaching and supervising.

Freedom to fail

As your child slowly becomes more independent through the teen years, he or she also needs the freedom to make mistakes, to fail and face the consequences. Yes, you are the safety net during this time of transition, but there may be things you can't or shouldn't fix. This, it seems, can be the worst, most painful part of helping your child become an independent adult. Whether it's a failed exam, losing a job or a friend or something else (and, please, oh, please, nothing worse!), independence also means making mistakes. You can be counsel when these mistakes happen, offer guidance and sympathy -- but in the end your not-quite adult child must live with the consequences.

Someday, some way, your child will become completely independent from you. At some point, your child may no longer need you, but likely will still want you. With luck and patience and thought, you will parent your child to this point -- and it will have seemed to have happened in the blink of any eye. Keep some tissues handy.

More on kids and independence

Nurturing independence at any age
Real Moms Guide: Kids and independence
How much independence should I give my child?


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