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Helping your teen/adult move into adulthood with healthy independence

It’s normal for parents to feel like they aren’t doing enough to prepare their children for independence. It can be hard to strike a balance between guiding your kids along and letting go of the reins a little. You may make some blunders you can learn from, even though that can be painful for parents to watch. This blog will be geared towards the parents of emerging adults as well as current high school students.  This week’s blog will include some ideas, tips, and encouragement for this exciting and potentially difficult process of allowing (and encouraging) your child to need you less and less in terms of their daily functioning.

when do you start teaching Independence to a young adult or teen?

Independence certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Ideally, you’ll start with making some small then bigger and bigger steps over time with your young person toward learning independence. The younger you start positive independence lessons/activities/responsibilities, the more resilient and adaptable your child can become.

To be clear, independence doesn’t have to mean emotional distance, though sometimes that goes along with it. As children mature, they may want to have physical and emotional space between themselves and their parents, which can be a difficult transition for everyone involved. However, fostering independence in your child doesn’t have to mean sacrificing emotional closeness or connection. On the contrary, you’ll find new ways of relating to the evolving person before you. Your conversations may look different and they may not “need” you for the same types of things, but they definitely still need your support, encouragement, and reassurance. Your job is to create a safe environment for your kids to try things, make mistakes, and learn from them in (hopefully) low risk situations. The goal being that they don’t end up moving into their dorm room in college and realize they have no idea how to do laundry without wrecking their clothes or how to identify when their car may need serviced before the motor blows up.

Where do I Start with teaching independence to my child

Preparing another human for independent living can be a daunting task! Thankfully, we’re here to give you some pointers and encouragement. It’ll be an evolving process that you’ll likely have to tweak along the way. Remember, there is not one “right” way to do it, and you’ll find out what works for you and your child. Independence tasks can start way back in toddlerhood with tasks like allowing and encouraging your child to clean up after themselves, work out how to solve problems/puzzles, pick out outfits, and help prepare meals. As they grow, the responsibilities you give them can grow too. This does not mean to hand over doing everything for them, but to slowly start including them in the actual “doing” of tasks so that they are learning by doing and taking care of themselves and their space becomes a normal part of their routines.

Emotionally, it helps to pay attention to what comes up for you when you think about letting go of some control and giving over responsibilities (maybe even allowing natural consequences to happen should they not meet the responsibilities). Does it increase your anxiety that they may not do them correctly, forget, or resent you in some way? Do you feel like a “bad parent” after their pushback or complaints about adding chores and tasks to their normal daily routines? Do you see it as your “job” to make sure that things go smoothly and not want to deal with the hassle of slowing down to teach them to do your work? All of these are normal struggles that parents wrestle with when deciding what to release and what to hold on to. Allow yourself to explore internally what you are feeling and what is contributing to those emotions. This may be your own baggage and unprocessed past, and it may benefit you to work through that so that you can be more there for your child and their development in the present.

The importance of chores for your child’s mental health and learning life skills

Below are some areas to start with that we will elaborate on:

  • Laundry
  • Cooking
  • Cleaning
  • Money Management
Laundry

As children grow up and they are able to function more and more independently, it becomes a privilege for you do to certain things for them—laundry can be included! You may want to start out with them helping you with laundry: measuring out detergent or dropping in pods, helping to separate colors, fold clean clothes, match socks, and understanding the different cycles along with what can go in hot/cold water. Some of these steps can be started in elementary school with added responsibilities as they grow. It’s okay to allow some natural consequences to occur if your child doesn’t fulfill a responsibility. For instance, maybe your 19-year-old is living at home while working or going to school and they didn’t do their laundry so they don’t’ have clean clothes to wear. You realize this the night before but choose NOT to do the laundry for them. The next day when they may have to wear a wrinkled/slightly stinky shirt will be a deterrent to future lack of planning and no lasting harm will be done! Natural consequences can provide important motivation.

Cooking

Some kids may have no interest in cooking and others may take to it right away. Even if there is lack of interest, it’s a necessary skill. The younger you start teaching this skill, the more buy-in you will get. When kids are small, they love to help, to feel useful and to get involved. Yes, it can be frustrating to have to slow down to teach them when you are already busy or running behind, and it is far easier to do things yourself when they are small. But taking that time when they are younger pays off with interest as they grow. 

Not only will they learn a major life skill, but it builds your relationship with them, increases their ability to conceptualize and problem solve, allows them to practice math skills in normal settings, and it is amazing what you can learn about your own child/teen when they are in an occupied setting such as helping with cooking and their defenses are down. As they grow, you may want to move from them helping you to encouraging and/or requiring your teen to cook at least one meal a week for themselves or the family, maybe with your guidance at first and then independently. This can start off with something basic/easy like maybe making fried eggs and bacon for breakfast on Saturday or Sunday or repeating a recipe that you have shown them multiple times over the years. One major key here is to positively reinforce the effort even if the meal doesn’t come out perfectly.

Cleaning

Maybe you’ve already required your kids to clean up after themselves, or maybe they believe that things magically get placed back where they belong. Regardless of where you are with this, you can start requiring your young adults to do dishes or help dust, vacuum, tidy up their own rooms, or tidy up a communal living area. 

This may come with some groans, but in the long run, a clutter free environment leads to decreased stress—you can instill this helpful habit early on. And of course, if there is extreme resistance, consequences like grounding or taking a cell phone/video games until the chore is done are always an option. This can be a fun thing though, and not meant to be a punishment. Put on your kid’s favorite tunes while you both clean and rock out! They may be embarrassed by you, but that’s half the fun, isn’t it? Again, this is an area that the younger you start the better; get children into habits of automatically doing some cleaning behaviors and you will have less of a struggle as they are older.

However, it is NEVER TOO LATE to start teaching responsibilities. The key here will be consistency and follow through. If they are expected to do a task, how are you reinforcing this? Are your expectations the same from day to day, and is there a process of positively reinforcing them for their efforts afterwards?

Teaching healthy money management to teens and young adults

Budgeting and money management is one of the most important skills your child will need to learn that can decrease long term struggling and stress as they move into their adult life. Making children more aware of money management at young ages with allowances, earning spending money through chores, setting up savings accounts/goals, and teaching them how you budget can start to shape the way their brains think about money as a concept. It’s helpful to talk about money as a normal focus for your family; share how you make purchase decisions, how you save for emergencies, and in some areas how you have to made the decision NOT to buy things you want. Please take caution how you approach this. Children can over-focus on money at times and become highly stressed by fears of not being able to have household bills paid. This is mainly affected by your tone of voice, choice of wording, and blame/shame used around money topics. The byproduct of taking this approach is that it can make you more aware of your own spending habits and internal money messages.

As kids become teens and young adults, you may want to start creating a budget with them. This may look like saving half of a paycheck from a job and putting it toward college and/or a car, and the remaining funds they can do with as they please. Another idea is coming up with “matching” funds if they meet certain savings goals within a certain period of time. You can do this for things you feel like you might have bought for them anyway but weren’t “necessities.”

Teaching money management to teens can especially come in handy when a young adult wants something major—maybe a first car. This helps them create realistic goals and expectations and increases their drive to find ways to meet these goals versus expecting others to provide it. Typically, people end up appreciating things more and taking better care of them if they had to work for them!

It is hard to keep straight of all of the “necessary information” that your child might need to be a successful adult. We found this great checklist online that gives you a run-down of suggestions and tasks that are an important part of the growing process. Click here to view and print this out. Share a copy with your child and ask them which things they feel they have already accomplished and what they still need to work on. You may be surprised be what they do and do not already know by just having that conversation.

It’s Never Too Late to start teaching life skills!

If you feel like you missed a good starting window with your child, don’t fret! It is never too late to start. Now, you may be met with some resistance if they are used to you doing things for them, but if you assert AND MAINTAIN new boundaries, your young adult will adapt and will likely appreciate the lessons (even if they don’t acknowledge it until much later).

Ongoing Support

Even adults recognize that “adulting” is hard! Remember to communicate your thoughts and feelings with your coparent, extended family, and friend support system. You do not have to do this alone and bouncing thoughts off someone else can really help reduce the stress and anxiety that you feel in the process. One of our therapists will be glad to help support your navigation of negotiating new rules, boundaries, and responsibilities with your emerging adult! If you feel like you would benefit from some extra tips, support, and ongoing processing, counseling is always an option.

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