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Parents, Learn How to Foster Independence in Your Kids

05/28/2015 01:04 EDT | Updated 05/28/2016 05:59 EDT
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"I just want to start by saying I love my parents so much but they have always been really strict and I hate it so much. I'm not allowed to date. I'm not allowed to go out when it's dark. They put so many stupid restrictions on me and they say it's for my own well-being but this is doing more harm to me than good. They have no trust in me and I don't know why."

- Quote from Kids Help Phone website

What's the difference between being a protective parent and an over-protective one?

When it comes to knowing how much independence kids should have -- and need -- the lines between letting go and holding tight can easily become blurred, especially in today's hyper-connected world where home security systems can allow us to look inside our homes when we're not there, companies are selling GPS trackers for kids, and we can call, text, or DM each other within seconds.

And that's just the technological side of things: organized play-dates, extracurricular activities, homework and academic pressures and expectations can also impact a young person's sense of independence, leaving them with little unsupervised time or room for spontaneity.

"It's hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation," wrote Hanna Rosin last year in an article called "The Overprotected Kid" for The Atlantic. "Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the '70s -- walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap -- are now routine."

Independence -- or feeling a lack of it -- is something Kids Help Phone often hears about from young people. Trust issues within a family, cultural divides, and conflicting priorities between parents and kids are common themes underpinning these conversations.

Young people need to be safe, and they do need help from parents and other caring adults as they grow up -- whether that means making them a snack when they get home from kindergarten or encouragement in trying a new sport or activity.

But developing independence is part of growing up, and it's something that young people should be encouraged to develop at every age. Independence helps kids build decision-making skills, which they will need in their day-to-day lives both as young people and as adults; gives them confidence; and helps them develop resilience as they begin to learn, through trial and error, their own boundaries, abilities, and interests.

Independence supports a young person's overall sense of well-being, which is why it's so important that parents find balance between helping their kids as they grow and encouraging them to become more independent at the same time.

Decision-Making at All Ages

Start with setting age-appropriate boundaries that give young people the chance to make their own choices.

For a five-year-old, this might be letting them decide which t-shirt they would like to wear to school.

For a tween, you might want to ask if they would like to walk to school or be picked up.

For a teenager, it might be letting them choose which sports teams to try out for -- or choose not to try out at all -- or to determine their own homework and after-school schedules.

A lot of parents have questions about how old young people should be before they are left home alone, walk themselves to school, or go out with their friends, unsupervised. These are also important activities that can help kids develop independence.

Safety should always be a priority for parents, but kids' maturity should also be taken into consideration as well. When you show young people that you trust them, it helps kids to trust themselves.

Determining Boundaries and "House Rules"

Parents need to give young people enough freedom to make choices, and those choices will continually shift as kids get older. That's why keeping an open dialogue that gives young people opportunity to be heard can help your family set rules, boundaries, and compromises that everyone is comfortable with.

For some parents out there, certain phrases might be immediately springing to mind:

"My parents don't give me any freedom."

"There are too many rules at my house."

"My friends are allowed to do whatever they want and I'm not allowed to do anything."

Though these conversations might not always be easy to navigate as a family, there are some ways parents might be able to ease any tension that might arise.

First, it's healthy for young people to want more freedom in their lives, to show curiosity and enthusiasm for the world around them, and to be eager to develop friendships, skills, and goals.

If your kids are asking for more freedom -- and keep in mind that the way they ask may not be so direct -- give them chances to demonstrate that you can trust them.

That might mean making snacks for their younger siblings after school, or taking initiative to help with something around the house. It could also mean putting simple agreements in place, such as promising to call you when they are on their way home.

And allow young people to experience consequences. For example, if they don't put their bike away, it rusts in the rain, and they need to save their allowance to buy a new one, that helps them understand the importance of following through -- and also helps them see that their parents won't always be there to swoop in when something goes wrong.

Trouble "Letting Go"

But it's not always on kids to take the initiative to ask for more freedom -- parents still need to parent, and part of that means recognizing when it's time to let go and allow young people to make their own choices.

Although this might not always be easy for parents, it's important to know that when kids feel overprotected, or that their environments are too strict, they can start to feel stuck, particularly when it comes time to making a decision -- even a small one -- because they become used to being told what to do.

They can also begin to feel that others don't believe in them, they start to wonder: "why should I believe in myself?"

Parents who feel they might have trouble letting go could consider some of the following questions:

- Why do I have trouble getting out of my own comfort zone when it comes to my kid's independence?

- What kind of skills might I be holding back from my kids that they will need when they reach adulthood?

- What am I over-prioritizing in my kid's life that could be causing an imbalance in other areas?

- Where can I find examples within my own life of kids and parents who have found a healthy level of trust and independence?

Looking to other parents you trust can be a great place to start a conversation about how they came to decide on letting their kids borrow the car, walk home from school, or go to sleepovers, for example.

And remember, fostering independence in young people might feel like you're letting go, but you're actually helping them to learn that, if something does go wrong and they need help, that you will always be there to support them in taking their next step.

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