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The Push and Pull of Fostering Teen Independence

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By Melinda Sacks

Assessing your Teen's Readiness

Becoming truly independent is a complex process, but there are several skills and characteristics that are good indicators of a teen's readiness. Experts suggest evaluating these indicators in your own teen before making decisions about freedoms that usually go along with turning 18:

  • Can your child keep track of time? This skill will impact everything from keeping doctor appointments to showing up for a job interview on time or turning in a paper in school.
  • How impulsive is your child? For teens who act before they think, numerous tasks of adulthood are challenging. How does your daughter behave if another driver cuts her off on the road? Can your son keep his cool if the child he is babysitting pushes his limits?
  • How does your teen behave in emergencies? If he is home alone and there is an earthquake or fire, would he be able to cope?

As parents begin to answer these questions, they will be able to make decisions about how much independence is appropriate, and what skills still need to be taught, says Sheldon Horowitz, Director of Professional Services for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).

"Every parent wants his or her child to become independent, but clearly, the underlying goal is much more complicated," says Horowitz, who holds a Ph.D. in Education. "Being independent means getting your work done on time, caring for your personal belongings, adhering to a schedule and being on time for appointments and more. These are areas where adolescents and young adults with LD can certainly succeed with careful training and ongoing support."

Choosing your Battles: Tips from the Experts

In discussing the issues related to a teenager's freedom and independence, parents need to decide which things they care most about, and focus on those. Some suggestions from teen counselors include the following:

  • Use the data. Sharing information about the consequences of certain behaviors can be a powerful lesson. For example, social worker Casselman says, showing a child with AD/HD the statistics on the increased likelihood of an auto accident when the driver has attention problems is very compelling. Drivers with AD/HD are up to six times more likely to get a citation or be in an accident, according to recent studies. This information may be all the fodder a parent needs to enroll a teen in extra driver training.
  • Don't fight the "But everyone else is doing it" battle. Rather than engaging in the no-win argument about why friends can do things your teen is not allowed to do, try simply saying, "As long as you live in my house, you live by my rules. If you move out and support yourself, then you get to make the rules."
  • Gradually increase the level of independence you allow your child. If she consistently makes her 10 p.m. curfew for a month, move it up to 10:30. If she misses it, though, it goes back a half-hour.
  • Look for experiential ways to teach skills that are especially difficult for your teen. "Kids with LD and AD/HD tend to be experiential learners," social worker Casselman says. "You can't always explain it to them, they have to experience it. With independence let them learn as much as they can from experience as long as you know the consequences won't be too devastating." If it is driving, consider a defensive driving course or extended driver training class offered by some private driving schools. If it is money management, look for credit counseling classes that teach budgeting.