With school graduations coming up or already behind us, one topic that I often hear is how to teach teenagers to be independent.  It can be frustrating knowing that our children will soon be legally independent, but wondering if they will have the skills they need in time to be functionally independent.  It can be particularly frustrating for teens who have suffered trauma, as they often are less mature than their chronological age.  Over the years, I’ve learned (more often stumbled over) some helpful principles.

Start with a Nurturing Foundation

We have to establish a foundation of love and respect with our kids.  Otherwise, everything that we do to encourage independence will just come across as harsh and punitive.  If our kids don’t think that we have their backs, they won’t be willing to listen to us.  On the other hand, if they believe that we can accept mistakes and help them pick up the pieces, then they’ll be more willing to risk making their own decision.  

Part of a nurturing foundation is our accepting that our kids will make mistakes when they make their own decisions.  It’s just part of learning, and their brains just aren’t developed enough for them to understand long-term consequences.  It would be nice if they would learn from our lectures, but that’s not the way humans are wired.  We have to learn from taking risks and making mistakes.  Before our kids will be willing to take the risks of making independent decisions, they have to know that we will accept and help them recover from their mistakes.

Start Early

One important principle is to start encouraging kids to make decisions as early as possible.  Give them space to make age-appropriate decisions, such as what clothes they wear and what their room looks like.  You can set boundaries, but allow as many decisions as possible within those boundaries.  For example, we learned to require our middle and high school kids to participate in one extracurricular activity.  We let them choose, and it could be anything from Boy Scouts to a school club to classes at the local recreation center.  That experience of figuring out where their interests and skills fit helped them learn how to decide more important issues later.

Another important area is money management.  I’ve sat through a lot of independent-living classes with my kids, and they were mostly useless (not to mention boring).  Children learn a lot more from having their own money to manage.  Nothing quite compares to the life lesson of running out of money.

With our teens, we gave them control over their clothing budget.  Sometimes they made decisions we didn’t expect or agree with — yes, you can save a lot of money if you quit having your hair cut — but the experience helped teach them how to manage money when they were adults and had more at risk.  Debit cards not connected to our bank account turned out to the be simplest solution, and many companies offer those.  

Start Doing Less

Parents have a strong temptation to do things for our kids.  It’s part of our caretaking instincts, and sometimes it’s just easier to do it ourselves.  But we can end up actively harming our kids by not letting them learn how to handle tasks.  We need to stop taking care of things that are within their skill set.  Teens can make their own lunch, do their own laundry, manage their homework, and make sure their rehearsals/practices are on the family calendar.  We need to let them do that.

Start Letting Them Fail

It’s really hard to watch our kids fail, but we have to let them live with the consequences of their decisions.  Our kids will learn best from that experience.  A child who forgets his lunch will be much more likely to remember it if he has to go hungry for a day. Of course, we always have to keep them safe — a child who has a history of food insecurity may have trauma issues from missing lunch — but most of our kids will be better off if we just step aside and let events happen.

Start Talking Through Decisions

Teenagers are notoriously resistant to listening to adults, but sometimes they do want our thoughts.  In those situations, resist the temptation to tell them what they should do and instead help them think through all the ramifications.  For example, if they are trying to decide between college prep and technical classes in high school, discuss the relative merits of each.  Which fits better with their interests?  Where do their skills lie?  The old mantra that a college degree pays more than technical skills is no longer true, if it ever was.  Help them research the pay scales for the careers that interest them. Show them how to walk through important steps in making decisions.

Even if they don’t want to hear your opinion, you can model good steps in decision-making.  If you are thinking about a big purchase, tell them as much as you can about the process you are going through.  If it’s something they will use, such as a new appliance, ask their opinion.  Even if you don’t want the cool new neon color that they like, the discussion of why it won’t work will be good for them and for your relationship.

Helping teens be independent can be harrowing.  They want to be independent, but often start with all the wrong decisions.  We need to influence them where we can, and let them learn from experience as safely as we can.  There is no foolproof process, but we can increase their odds of success.  If we can learn how to relax and give our kids room to make decisions one step at a time, we can better help them learn the skills they need to be adults.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.