Help! My child wants to become more ‘independent’

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I love Being Independent. Schoolboy writing on a chalkboard.

It’s that conflict between wanting our children to be more independent and being terrified at the first sign of it’s assertion…how to strike a balance between giving our children the opportunity to assert themselves and grow as and into, independent beings while maintaining parental control at the same time!

An essential part of growing up is to test and push parental boundaries and to (gradually) gain more and more independence so that we can become independent and self sufficient adults. This is increasingly becoming an era of parents micro-managing their children’s lives and parents (and children) have now become accustomed to meeting all of their children’s needs for them. This is really about finding a balance between allowing children to do things for themselves and providing the necessary support and guidance to ensure they make good and safe choices.

As your child begins to demand more independence and to pull away from you a little, this is the perfect time to teach them responsibility…independence and responsibility go hand in hand and the more responsible your children can show you they have become the easier it is for you to relax and support their independence. Children begin to demand independence from a very young age, there is no one more willful in this regard than a 2 year old child asserting “I do myself” and this is wonderful, it is your child’s job to pull against you and demand this freedom and your job as a parent to drip feed them the independence in a staged, age and developmentally appropriate way ensuring you are preparing them adequately along the way.

Encouraging your child to do the things they can do for themselves is one step i.e. smaller children need a lot of assistance from adults to reach things and get things for them, so when it is something your child can get for themselves encourage them to do so, be it getting a cup from the counter, the cheese from the fridge or a book from a low shelf. Praise their efforts when they do so. Similarly, it is always advisable to encourage your children to problem solve from a very young age as this facilitates confidence and independent thinking. When your child is struggling with something and asks you to do it or fix it or answer it for them, stop and encourage them to think of a way that they can work this out themselves, depending on age suggest they write a pros & cons list or draw a picture of the choices they have and see which one they think is best for them. Children should be encouraged to make decisions from a young age from which outfit or shoes to wear, to chicken or fish for dinner, to choosing which story book they want before bed.

The balance here is between choices and consequences…anticipate the inevitable “you’re not the boss of me” stand off by preparing your response in a calm manner, you might reply “You are correct, you are the boss of you and you get to choose how you behave but I am the boss of what happens when you choose to behave well or to misbehave. So you can choose what to do and I will choose the consequence”. This is double edged in that you are allowing and encouraging independence while holding the parental boundary that all choices have consequences.

If you can make choices, decision making and a gradual independence a part of your child’s upbringing they will be better prepared to manage and keep themselves safe when they are independent. This is a normal part of your child’s journey to adulthood, children must get to try out new things and take risks…with your guidance and support. You are the expert on your child and nobody knows your child better than you do so trust your instinct and if you believe that your child is ready to walk to the shop or to a friends house on their own then you can allow this, give them a time to be back by or an instruction to call when they have arrived safely to reassure yourself if this helps.

Teenagers and the now named Tweenage group of 11/12 years onwards will push you to give them more and more freedom and again this is normal. If you are not happy to give as much independence as they are seeking try a compromise as opposed to a “no”. If your 12 year old wants to go into the city centre shopping with her friends alone and you don’t believe this is appropriate suggest you drive her and her friends to a shopping centre where they can have an hour to walk around the shops before meeting you at a cafe for lunch. This tells your child that you trust them to shop alone but are holding the boundary on how much time and where this happens. Children must be allowed to make mistakes, it helps them to learn and make more informed decisions as well as continuing to shape the brains development. Trust in the job you have done in raising your children, if you have had clear and consistent family rules at home while your child was growing up they will know what is expected of them and behave accordingly. If they mess up, there should be a consequence and then let it go so that they can do better next time.

Sometimes it’s best to be honest with your child “I know you think I’m overprotective and mean for not allowing you to do this but it is my job to keep you safe and I take this very seriously because I love you. I want to compromise with you so instead of you going to the cinema alone why don’t you invite your friends over here for DVD’s and take-out on Friday night”…and perhaps if appropriate “We/I will be out for an hour so you will have some time for yourselves before we get back”. This is all about striking a balance and reassuring your child that you do trust and love them, in fact this is why it is difficult for you to let go! This is a learning curve for both you and your child, it is trial and error so expect some teething problems and mistakes…learn from them and move on, don’t hang onto the mistakes your child makes and keep waving them at them in the future, “remember you did this three months ago well that’s why you can’t go now!” is not helpful and will limit your child’s development.

Essentially, independence is a process that starts in young childhood and continues into young adulthood and beyond. Create as many safe and controlled opportunities for your child to develop their sense of independence as you can from a young age and gradually increase these as they get older and more responsible. It can be hard as a parent to accept that your child is growing up and pulling away from you, reflect on how much of your reluctance to give more independence is down to your child and how much is down to your own anxiety.

Remember your child should want to be independent, you should find this a challenge at times, you should both be open to taking (controlled) risks at this time…it may be a cause for concern if your child refuses to separate or become independent from you.