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The Push and Pull of Fostering Teen Independence

Learn how to strike a balance between being overly protective and giving your teen too much freedom.

By Melinda Sacks

During a recent breakfast argument over how many hours a day he spent watching TV, our son turned to me in exasperation.

"Mom!" he nearly shouted. "I am 18 now!"

Alex is right. This spring he turned 18, becoming a legal adult in the state of California. He can vote, he can sign a lease to rent an apartment, he can have his own bank account, and he can keep his medical and school records private.

But as a teen who struggles with significant learning disabilities (LD) and more than a touch of AD/HD, he can also be highly impulsive, forgetful of time, obsessively stubborn, and impervious to rules and authority.

For his father and me, walking the line between being overly protective parents (who won't let their son grow up) and giving him too much freedom (that could lead to devastating consequences) is a constant balancing act. The same old battles are there even though he is 18 - TV and computer time, curfew, being on the phone late into the night, and limits on his social life. But can we insist on the same rules when we are dealing with an 18-year-old?

The Dangers of Comparing your Child to his Peers

Is my child really ready to drive? Is he prepared to manage his own money? Housesit for a friend? Travel overseas? These rites of independence may be no big deal for the average 18-year-old, but when your child has the emotional maturity of someone three to five years younger, as studies suggest is the case for youngsters with AD/HD, the answers are rarely clear cut.

The most important thing parents need to remember is that kids with AD/HD and LD "tend to be less emotionally mature than their counterparts," advises Eileen Bailey, a professional "guide" for parents who write to the informational website Bailey, whose own son deals with these issues, has counseled hundreds of parents.

"It's really important for kids and parents to realize where they are, not where they should be," she says. "Get rid of the notion that your friend's kid is doing something so therefore your child should be doing the same thing, and start from where your child is."

It is sound advice, I know from experience. Just because our son's friends were out getting their driver's licenses the day they turned 16 didn't mean Alex was ready to do so. For teens with attention issues and the kind of impulsivity that leads them to act before they think, getting behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle is a scary thought. Likewise, opening a bank account has been a challenge. The day he turned 18 Alex headed to the local bank where he'd had a joint account with me for two years to open his own checking and savings account. But a month after he opened the accounts, his balance was zero because he'd been so generous taking friends and family members out to dinner. He had thought since his ATM card still worked there was no problem. We had assumed he knew how to handle the account but hadn't provided adequate guidance. Another lesson learned.

Step-by-Step Progress toward Independence

"All of the normal things you want a teen to learn so he can become independent obviously also apply to teens with ADD and LD, but they take extra training," notes social worker Tonia Casselman, who holds a Ph.D. in child development and is a professor at the University of Oklahoma, in addition to running a private practice focusing on adolescents.

"While maybe another adolescent would pick up money management or good driving by watching peers or learning from a class or listening to his parents, [your] kid may not internalize the good choices about these things. It requires a parent to intervene, and this is where it gets sticky. It requires supervision and interaction right at a time when the child wants less supervision."

Casselman suggests enlisting extended family members, teachers, neighbors, and other young adults, to assist in teaching basic skills of independence. Teens will be less resistant when the one offering advice or help is not a parent, she says. She recalls asking a plumber who came to her house to show her son what he was doing. While her son would not have let her show him anything, Casselman says, he was open to the instruction when it came from someone he saw as a professional.