New parents watch with delight as their infant moves from helplessness to agility, applauding each and every accomplishment along the way. Yet somewhere between delivery and daycare, parents often lose their enthusiasm for their child’s burgeoning independence. Convinced that only they can plot the course, they begin to smother their child’s natural inclination toward autonomy. Use the following guidelines to help your child acquire age-appropriate competencies that will lead to the self-reliance you once applauded—and hope he’ll exhibit as he matures.
The characteristics that support independence and success are formed early in life through the magic of DNA melding with environment—a good deal of the latter having to do with parental influence.
During the early years, you can prepare your child for independence by helping him develop the characteristics that are fundamental to success: confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, connection, communication skills, and cooperative behavior. With that as your goal focus on:
- Providing a safe and predictable physical environment
- Maintaining regular routines and rhythms of activity
- Encouraging exploration and enjoyment of the world
- Acknowledging and praising mastery and development
Keep in mind that parents are the first and most important teachers. As you talk, play, and work together, your child will learn by doing and watching.
By the time your child enters middle school, his unique academic and personal assets and deficits will be apparent. At this developmental stage, you are likely to notice the beginning of puberty. While the onset and course of puberty vary widely among early adolescents, most begin to weather the tempestuous passage during the middle-school years. You’ll recognize it by the physical changes as well as the emotional ups and downs.
At the same time your child is struggling to harness raging hormones, his relationship with school is beginning to change. Suddenly he is expected to interpret increasingly abstract material on his own. In the classroom, he is required to sustain attention over a lengthy period of time while completing more complex tasks. He is expected to accept responsibility for his actions, interact with a diverse group of peers and adults, and resolve personal and academic challenges with reason and logic.
Parents can support their child through this stage by incorporating the following behaviors into family interactions:
- Provide a quiet and distraction-free environment for doing homework.
- Monitor and address problems concerning time management, study skills, and organization.
- Help develop a logical schedule for completing assignments.
- Praise her for positive behaviors and smart decisions. In a non-judgmental manner, discuss how similar events could have been handled better.
- Give him the opportunity to make choices, but help him see and experience the consequences of those choices.
- Discuss events in the news that affect people outside of his immediate environment.
For even the most confident social butterfly or accomplished scholar, high school is a difficult and demanding time. To maintain independence at this stage adolescents must know their own needs and be able to stand up to peer pressure. Along with school pressure and extra-curricular pursuits, high schoolers are also contending with becoming independent of family, learning to form close, personal relationships, becoming comfortable with body and self-image, and developing an individual identity based on realistic life goals.
Many struggle with these development goals long after adolescence, but you can help your child by considering the following guidelines:
- Know and uphold your values.
- Provide supervision and insist upon adult supervision at outside events.
- Know who your child’s friends are, and get to know them in a cordial, non-intrusive manner.
- Talk to your teens about alcohol, drugs, sex, internet privacy, and peer pressure—even if you think they are not listening.
- Help your child deal with strong emotions and feelings. If you can’t do that, find someone who can.
- Give your teen the technological literacy to deal with social and academic needs.
- Help her understand her learning profile and needs.
- Discuss goal-oriented, proactive measures for the future.
In essence, each stage requires that you find the age-appropriate balance between staying back, but not staying away. When done with thought and care, you’ll learn to enjoy your child’s budding independence just as you enjoyed those first tentative steps.