DEALING WITH INDEPENDENCE

Early adolescence can be a scary time for both children and parents.

Children may be confronted by dilemmas over issues such as sex and drugs before they feel ready for such things. And the physical changes brought on by puberty often coincide with an increasing level of conflict between children and parents as the need for independence grows ever stronger.

Children may wish to have more privacy, spend time with friends instead of family, listen to music perhaps not quite to an older generation’s taste, and begin to express their opinions in a more forceful manner. Suddenly, their appearance is important to them and arguments over hairstyles and clothing can become bitter battlegrounds.

The truth of the matter is of course, that the desire for independence is a very normal and necessary part of growing up. We can’t, as parents, stop it happening, and if we think back to our own youth will remember just how vital and useful such changes are to us in our adult lives.

So why do some parents experience major traumas with teenagers?

Often it is because they have not prepared themselves or their children adequately for the task of taking on increased responsibility.

The challenge for parents is to gradually encourage children to become responsibly independent — able to express their opinions appropriately, make informed decisions, see things from a perspective wider than themselves, and participate in adult conversation.

And the time to start is during the later primary school years.

This is because there is no magic age at which children can suddenly be expected to be given new freedoms. Children of the same age can differ quite considerably in their maturity and capabilities. Too much reign too soon can be just as damaging as not allowing a child any choice at all.

Gradually allowing your child freedom to make decisions in certain areas over a number of years provides time for practice and experience in learning trust as well as the skills to make responsible choices.

There are of course many decisions that parents will quite rightly wish to influence and others they will need to keep a firm control on. Children still need rules to be enforced consistently and until children reach adolescence, matters such as when they should be indoors, where they go after school, who they are with, what time they go to bed and what television and video shows they watch are very much within a parent’s domain.

The best way to know when your child is ready for increased responsibility is to look for signs that they are interested. For example, they might ask to help you with a particular task you are doing or ask about how it is done.

An important aspect of helping children learn independence involves them appropriately expressing their own ideas and opinions about matters that interest them. As adults, we know that effective interpersonal communication in either a social or work situation relies on the ability to express our opinions in a constructive manner.

It is important as parents that we ask our children their opinions about school or current events, listen to them, and take those opinions into account when deciding important family matters. We don’t have to agree with everything our child says, but our encouragement will help our children develop better ways to express their views, clearly, logically and concisely.

PARENTING TIP

When encouraging your child to make responsible decisions on their own, stick to simple choices first. Issues such as how to spend their pocket money, who to invite to a birthday party, choosing a birthday gift, what home chores to complete in a particular order, or which homework tasks to tackle first, provide ample opportunities for learning.

 
Dr. Matthew Sanders is a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.