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Parents, Teens, and Independence

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

In a recent article in Time Magazine, Ziauddin Yousafazi, father of Malala Yousafazi, the youngest-ever recipient of the Noble Peace Prize, made the following statement:

“Good parents should want their children to be independent as early as possible.”

Most parents would agree with that sentiment.

However, there are ideas embedded in that statement that mean different things to different parents and families. Let’s look at the two most obvious:

  1. What is independence?
  2. When is early?

We’ll start with independence.

Independence means, at its most basic level, the ability to do things without the help of another person. When parents raise kids, their ultimate goal is for their kids to be able to do literally everything, from the ground up, by themselves. During the elementary school years, independence starts with the basics like tying shoes and getting dressed, then moves on to things like cleaning up bedrooms and helping with household chores. During middle school and high school, independence expands to include things like academics and personal responsibility. Late in high school, parents start teaching kids about the things they’ll have to deal with in life: jobs, finances, and a million tasks that fall under the category of adulting.

Then, during college or immediately post-high school, big shifts occur. If kids are just starting to learn independence at this stage, most would consider them a little bit late. If they’re already fully independent at this age, most would consider them just a little bit early.

Either way, this is the time when these humans – who were once children and once teens – become adults and need to start adulting on their own.

By this time – around age 18 or 20, depending on the child and the family – they should be ready to handle the fundamentals of adult life, such as applying for and securing jobs, searching for and finding places to live, and experiencing the joys of getting utilities – gas, electricty, etc. –  set up, turned on, and ready to go.

That’s the goal – but it’s not always the reality.

A New Poll Assesses Teen Independence

In February 2019, researchers from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan analyzed the results of a nationwide poll – The Teen Independence Poll – that included responses from 877 parents with at least one child between 14 and 18 years old. The results were weighted to accurately represent overall population figures based on the 2010 U.S. Census, which means statisticians did some fancy math to ensure the answers were a reliable reflection of the general public, as opposed to answers specific to that particular set of respondents.

To read the actual poll questions, click here.

The goal of the poll was to determine how independent teens in the U.S. are, in general, and what steps, if any, parents take to foster that independence. It focused on the what and the how of teen independence, with regard to the role and the extent to which parents participate in various tasks related to school, health, stress, and financial matters.

Here’s what the researchers found.

Parents and Teen Independence: Key Results

  • 97% of parents report using at least one technique to help their teen become more independent.
    • 86% reported letting teens make more of their own choices
    • 74% reported encouraging teens to handle some things on their own
    • 65% reported they no longer do certain things for their teens
  • 63% of parents agree they’re doing enough to prepare their teen for adulthood.
    • 24% of parents strongly agree they’re doing enough to prepare their teen for adulthood.
  • 52% of parents agree it’s important for teens to have chances to make mistakes in order to learn from them.
    • 43% strongly agree teens need to make mistakes to learn
  • 55% of parents agree parents should prevent teens from making mistakes that are too serious
    • 31% strongly agree parents should prevent teens from making serious mistakes

All of that makes perfect sense and aligns with what most of us would consider common sense. Yes, almost all parents help their teens become independent in some manner. Yes – most think they’re probably doing enough to help their teen become independent, and a few are certain they are. About half of parents think teens should be allowed to make their own mistakes – but agree parents need to shield teens from the worst consequences of their underdeveloped cognitive skills, which include abilities like risk assessment and impulse control.

There’s more to the data than that, though.

Barriers to Independence

The consensus among adults and teens is that teens need to become independent so they can function in the world as adults. They need to be able to take care of the necessities of life without asking their parents for help.

Everyone agrees on that.

So what are the barriers to teen independence?

Parents provided the pollsters with the following answers:

  • 60% said their teens themselves are the main barrier to their own independence
  • 24% said their teens aren’t mature enough to be independent
  • 22% said their teens don’t have the time to be independent
  • 14% said their teens don’t know enough to take on more responsibility.

Here’s where the answers got interesting:

  • 25% of parents said they are the main barrier to their teen’s independence
  • 19%  of parents said it’s faster and easier to do things for teens, rather than allow them to do things themselves
  • 7%  of parents said they don’t think about ways they can give their kids more responsibility.

We’ll spend a moment talking about these bullet points – the first set, first.

From our point of view, these numbers represent a serious chicken/egg situation: parents in this poll say teens themselves are barriers to their own independence, yet between 20-25% of the parents – when asked exactly what it is they do for their kids – cite tasks that teens can accomplish, if given the opportunity.

Put a pin in that for a moment.

The next set of bullet points talks about parents who realize they’re getting in the way of their teen’s independence. And they’re honest about why: it’s faster and easier. But everyone reading this knows faster and easier does not automatically mean better.

Okay, take the pin out, and let’s look at the big picture.

The Middle Ground: A Safe Path to Independence

Teens need to become independent – that’s a given.

In some cases, teens are the barriers to their own independence. In others, parents are the barriers to their teen’s independence.

What needs to happen – if we may be so bold – is that parents and teens need to collaborate on independence. They need to start early, but not too early – around elementary school is a good time to lay the foundations of independence and responsibility.

Parents can start kids with small jobs around the house that offer bite size tastes of independence and accountability. Then, as a team, parents and kids can increase the size and scope of the jobs over time, incrementally, in a safe and responsible manner. Kids prove to parents what they can handle, and parents wait until kids demonstrate they’re ready for what’s next.

Yes, kids need to be protected from their own mistakes.

But they absolutely have to make some mistakes on their own in order to learn.

Not everyone has to go to proverbial school of hard knocks, but kids – and especially teens – need to learn how to get up, dust themselves off, and try again after a disappointment or a failure of some sort. Whether the challenge is academic, personal, social, or emotional, each person – eventually – has to meet the challenges of life themselves: that’s how life works.

As much as some parents may want to, they can’t live their teenager’s lives for them. And as much as some teens may want them to, parents can’t stand in the background every moment of their lives and correct every mistake they make.

That’s why this topic is important: it’s not easy to figure out how to balance a child’s need to become a fully functional adult.

We suggest the collaborative, middle path: start early, build stepwise on experiences, and by the time they’re 18 – or maybe a little later, after college – they’ll be ready to join the world as adults. Meaning, of course, they get the privilege of meeting a brand-new set of adult-sized challenges – which they’ll overcome, because you started preparing them early.

Right?

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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Connect with Other Parents

We know parents need support, too. That is exactly why we offer a chance for parents of teens to connect virtually in a safe space! Each week parents meet to share resources and talk through the struggles of balancing child care, work responsibilities, and self-care.

More questions? We’re here for you.