Last summer, Alex Silverman’s 16-year-old son, Julian, traveled through Europe with a few camp friends – without his parents.
“Julian could be the best-prepared 16-year-old I know,” said Alex, a native of New York.
I have to agree with Alex. Julian sounds incredibly independent to a young person, especially in these days of helicopter parenting. (No judgments here. We’re all more or less helicopters.) I wondered how Alex coped with the worries and fears many parents feel when children leave the nest.
“We’re always worried and nervous,” he said. “Even so, it’s not healthy to stop him from doing things just because we’re nervous.”
Alex is absolutely right. But sometimes that’s easier said than done.
Helicopter versus empowerment
Mothers and fathers make the house childproof and put video monitors in children’s rooms. The warning “Be careful” goes on forever. Parents use apps on cell phones to track the whereabouts of their teenagers. However, as children grow, parents need to change the way they think. If children are constantly safe and careful, they will not learn how to be successful independent adults.
Many parents also preventively improve missteps. Homework and forgotten instruments are handed in at school. Teachers and trainers are called upon to eliminate problems that arise. The more parents intervene, the less children learn from the discomfort of their mistakes.
All of this additional parenting is for love. Unfortunately, research shows that this can affect our children.
Intense parenting hurts our children
In development, tweens and teens crave independence and autonomy. That’s why they spend a lot of time in their rooms, with their friends and away from their parents. However, many young adults also fail to branch out to gain skills and freedoms that were common decades ago. That’s a problem.
Studies are gradually showing the link between an increase in helicopter parenthood and mental health problems in teenagers and students. A 2018 study by the American College Health Association found that 63% of students had overwhelming anxiety and 40% said they were so depressed that they had difficulty functioning.
Waiting for college is too late to address the resulting emotional and technical deficits. Parents can help their children a lot more by raising issues and being proactive when the child is young.
Supportive adult education
Children need to learn their life skills by giving them the opportunity to practice them many times before having to step outside their safety net. To do this, the parents have to resign.
Teens need to solve problems, make decisions, seek help, act independently, and learn from their mistakes. There are also several areas of competence that parents should be teaching. Think of this as a checklist ready for independence. Some key items on this list include using directions, washing up, emailing a teacher, making a doctor’s appointment, cooking meals, opening a bank account, budgeting, and putting a check.
It is best to assess where the child is developing and then decide on tasks that result only from the child’s current abilities. For example, if your child has never cooked a meal before, teach something simple like oatmeal or pasta first. If that goes well, try an omelette or french toast. If it doesn’t, allow more instruction and supervised practice.
Some skills should be accompanied by additional training and steps. Alex allowed Julian to go to school with a friend first. When he showed that he followed the rules and didn’t get lost, he was allowed to explore more on his own. Eventually he worked on driving the subway on his own.
Some families may need to give their children more freedom. For example, “Erin”, who requested that her name be changed to protect her son, says, despite his anxiety problems, that her son ran independently in church from an early age.
“I work full time,” said Erin. “In some ways, it’s easier to promote independence when I’m not home from work, and I can say, ‘If you want to go to that guitar lesson, you have to go there.'”
In addition to walking, young people should learn how to use public transport and how to drive. Parents need to teach their child what steps are required for a license. To teach is not to do. The child should be responsible for contacting the driving schools or the motor vehicle department to find out about the requirements, set all appointments and secure documents.
Learning a new skill isn’t always nice. Take into account some bad decisions and mistakes. Avoid penalties unless there are rule violations or lies. Less motivated children can be encouraged with completeness rewards to help increase their intrinsic motivation.
For some teenagers, new experiences can create fear. Avoiding a task just because it is difficult or worrisome is not a good idea. Try to address any fears by acknowledging fears, dividing tasks into manageable goals, and playing role-plays for practice. Also, offer more time and support to children with developmental or learning disabilities, ADHD, and mental disorders.
Julian’s parents prepared him for his great journey by taking small steps to increase freedom. Julian showed that he was ready by being responsible. Of course Julian is not perfect and makes small mistakes. Alex admits that sometimes kids have to break some rules, but given Julian’s proven responsibility, Alex isn’t worried.
Dr. Catherine Pearlman is a licensed clinical social worker, founder of The Family Coach, and associate professor at Brandman University. She is also the author of “Ignore It !: How Selective Viewing Can Reduce Behavioral Problems and Increase Parental Satisfaction.” Follow her at @thefamilycoach.