Advice: Guiding Children Toward Independence

Tips for the different stages of development


Published:

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. 

 

EARLY 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.

 

ELEMENTARY YEARS

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. 

 

TEEN YEARS

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.

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The Raleigh Boychoir will reach new heights as our choristers and community present Dr. Tim Sharp’s “High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass.” Welcoming area boys to perform in...

Cost: Free

Where:
First Baptist Church
99 N Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Raleigh Boychoir
Telephone: 919-881-9259
Contact Name: Erin O'Hara
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Ziggy is a shy boy who would rather stay at home and watch television than explore the island of Jamaica. Over the course of his onstage journey, with some help from his friend Nansi, he...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Participants develop their naturalist skills and understanding of local nature. Ages 5-8 with parent. Register online. Choose course #121675.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Celtic Woman celebrates Ireland's rich musical and cultural heritage, while continuing its remarkable legacy of introducing some of Ireland's most talented singers and musicians onto the...

Cost: $43 and up

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist...

Cost: $25 and up

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Shop for gently used kids' clothing, toys, furniture, baby equipment and more. See the website for shopping hours.

Cost: Free

Where:
Hayes Barton Baptist Church
1800 Glenwood Ave.
Raleigh, NC
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Annual Guides

Education Guide

The 2018-19 Education Guide offers 678 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools, academic resources and an Exceptional Child special section.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. Plus, find out who our 2018 Readers' Favorites are.