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The Push and Pull of Fostering Teen Independence

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By Melinda Sacks

Negotiating with the Emerging Young Adult

Once you understand the challenges your teen faces to becoming more independent, it can be helpful to make a list of concerns. Rules about safety are non-negotiable, such as drinking and driving, drug use, and responsible dealings with the opposite sex. But issues such as when to do homework, chores, or how to carry out money management, while important, do not involve safety and can be open to negotiation.

The adage "pick your battles" is an apt one when dealing with kids, and one we have extensive experience applying at our house. When Alex insists on watching late-night TV even though he has to get up at 7:30 a.m., I find myself fighting the urge to nag and threaten. But a few mornings of going to his job as a camp counselor with just five hours of sleep is the best lesson he can have in why it's a bad idea to stay up so late - and is more powerful than any amount of my nagging.

I have been less successful letting go of the idea that Alex must eat breakfast before he heads out in the morning. No amount lecturing on nutrition can convince him that he must eat. When I can't help myself I'll still toast some whole wheat bread and stick it under his nose, but I've given up saying anything if he leaves it alone. A day without breakfast won't kill him, I tell myself. But wearing his bike helmet remains non-negotiable.

Providing a Safety Net

None of us wants our child to fall too hard. In fact, sometimes it's difficult to let them falter at all. But such is the path to independence, claim those who work with teens. The normal push-pull toward self-sufficiency requires a gradual lessening of the "safety net." It occurs more slowing for teens facing LD and AD/HD issues, but it must occur, nevertheless.

"In terms of providing a safety net, I'd say stop and flip the equation," says NCLD's Horowitz. "Parents should not be the ones providing the net. Rather they should be providing opportunities for their children to recognize their own strengths and challenges."

Expect the unexpected, he suggests, and you will be better equipped to deal with whatever curves the road to independence throws you and your child. "Providing guidance and encouragement while these young people create their own personal webs of support may not be easy," says Horowitz, "but it is the only way to ensure that they will find a path to independence as responsible and self-sufficient adults."

Spreading their Wings

As a mom, I know there is nothing more gratifying than watching my child succeed at being independent, whether it is getting up on his own and making it to work on time every day for a week straight, or saving up enough money to take the family out to dinner. Alex has done both this summer, although it has been a rocky road. He still sits blurry-eyed in front of the TV long after his dad and I go to bed, even though I remind him five times that he has to get up at 7:30 a.m. for work. His new bank account was overdrawn for two days before the bank called him at home one night and he realized it wasn't a bottomless well. Now he double checks his balance each time before he uses his ATM card.

Small accomplishments such as these may not have taken place as early as they did for his peers, but perhaps that is what makes them so satisfying when they do occur, one baby step at a time, in spite of the fact that he now wears size 11 shoes.