Advice: Guiding Children Toward Independence

Tips for the different stages of development
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From birth onward, children are busy building a vast array of skills to help them toward a healthy, independent adulthood. According to child psychiatrist Dr. Vinay Saranga, founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry, parents and caregivers play a key role in supporting budding independence, but there is such a thing as too much support.

“As parents, you want to help your kids as much as you can without micromanaging them. One of the best ways to help build independence is to help when you have to, but mostly let them figure things out for themselves,” say Saranga.

Easier said than done, right? Here’s help learning when to step in and when to let go, from babyhood through the teen years. 



Symbol Savvy

In the first years of life, children use their senses to learn about the world. Very young children can’t yet view themselves as separate from others, and assume others share their thoughts. Helping children develop their ability to think symbolically — that is, understand that an object, word or symbol can represent something else — helps build children’s growing sense of self and lays the groundwork for more complex thought. 

“Symbolic thought is critical in accessing one’s world and imbuing it with meaning. One thing to be on the lookout for is what’s called the ‘Naming Explosion,’ which starts around the 18-month mark and involves naming everything in sight. This process accelerates language accumulation,” says Kevin Metz,  licensed therapist of Lepage Associates Psychological and Psychiatric Services in Chapel Hill. Caregivers can support this stage by asking children to label what they see, offering encouragement when needed, he says.



School Rules

Grade school provides plenty of chances to build independence, but children often still need parents to support and assistance with homework and school projects. For parents, the challenge becomes striking a balance between helping and hovering. Don’t jump in and take over kids’ academic responsibilities, recommends licensed therapist Caryl Barga, also of Lepage Associates in Chapel Hill.

“Think of yourself as a coach, listen to them, observe their social interactions, their behavior and emotional responses. Children develop autonomy as parents learn when to step in to intervene and when to let go,” she says. 

When it comes to homework, this means setting up structure and providing kids with the resources they need to complete their work, like a dedicated homework spot and a daily routine with adequate time for studying. When kids get stuck on a difficult problem or chapter, don’t swoop in to figure it out yourself. Instead, ask kids where they might search for the answer or find information needed to solve the problem. Helping point them to resources, builds skills they can use to tackle more complex schoolwork in high school. 



Safe Space

As teens move through adolescence, they spend less time under a parent or caregiver’s watchful gaze and more time with peers. This crucial step toward independence is normal and healthy, but it can bring up some safety concerns about smart choices.

“Safety issues should always be a consideration, but I think teens should be allowed freedom to demonstrate responsibility,” Barga says. “I suggest that parents monitor their teens from a distance. If situations get complicated, parents can decide whether to allow children to learn from natural consequences or intervene on their behalf.” 

Agreeing on family rules, including curfews, rules for driving, and rules for alcohol, smoking and using other substances, and checking in about those rules regularly, helps communicate your values and expectations. Apps that track a child’s location or a child’s media use offer safeguards that allow teenagers to spread their wings while providing parents some peace of mind. 

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and family journalist.