The Key to Raising Self-Reliant Kids

When a parent faces the day their baby becomes a teenager, they might think: Have I raised them to be self-sufficient? And will they come home in one piece?

It’s common to worry. To want to protect them. And, says psychiatrist Robin Berman, it’s increasingly common for parents to turn to technology to help their kids when and where they can’t.

In some instances, she says, this is just another way parents helicopter over their kids, which is more likely to hurt than help. Instead of recognizing their own ability and autonomy, parents are sending a signal to teens that someone else will always be there to help them or, even worse, do it for them.

Berman, who wrote the parenting bible Permission to Parent, says that raising confident, self-reliant teenagers requires that parents first have confidence in their children. And that they let them make mistakes—and solve them on their own.

How Technology
and Hyper-Parenting
Interfere with Normal Developmental Milestones

I am surprised by how often I hear parents say that their sixteen-year-old kids don’t want to get their driver’s licenses. Back in the day, turning fifteen started the countdown for your permit. If you lived in suburbia (where cars were essential) and you wanted to go anywhere, you needed your parents to chauffer you.

A driver’s license meant freedom—a giant step toward being an independent adult.

A teenager with a new driver’s license is like a baby taking her first steps. Both are embarking on a journey toward independence. Part of being a toddler is learning to toddle away from your parents and wobble back. Part of being a teenager is literally and metaphorically driving away from your parents and returning home safely.

From a developmental standpoint, learning to drive a car is an important milestone. It is packed with adulting lessons and shouldn’t be skipped. When teens start driving, hopefully they learn to be responsible on the road and behind the wheel of a potentially lethal weapon. They practice having courage and discipline while feeling uncomfortable and nervous. And they get a lesson in holding two feelings at once. It’s scary and exciting. As every new driver knows, there are no shortcuts to driving. It requires practice, bumpy stops, swerving into someone’s lane, and then pulling yourself and the car to the center again. This type of trial-and-error learning is in short supply today.

Of course, not every teen decides to learn to drive a car. Kids who live in major cities like New York may never feel the need to get behind the wheel. But urban kids have always had lots of opportunities to flex their independence muscle. Most city kids depended on public transportation. They didn’t drive while taking the subway, train, or bus, but they did the heavy lifting. They figured out the schedule, made a decision, and then rode to school or to a job or to a friend’s and home again on their own.

But this new generation of urban and suburban kids routinely rely on rideshares, thumbing in their location and destination, climbing into the back seat, and letting the driver and the GPS do the work. These kids are comfortable being the passenger instead of the pilot. They get from place to place but do it all without honing skills that build self-reliance.

Self-reliance appears to be a casualty of our technologically savvy, helicopter-parenting society. Independence has been replaced by an electronic leash that binds kids and parents tightly. Many adults monitor their kids’ every movement, checking the progress of their rideshares and scanning their social media. Teens call their parents with the slightest issue: Should I stay after school for the club or come home and study because I have a test? Pre-smartphone-era kids had to struggle with making difficult decisions on their own—suffering through, sitting with uncertainty, weighing the pluses and minuses of a decision without parental input. Learning to sit with distress is one of the gateways of brain health. This kind of struggle is the very stuff that helps a child mature into an adult.

Pre-smartphone parents did not have the opportunity to constantly intervene. Today, parents track their kids and the kids track back, expecting Mom or Dad to text immediately with the answers to their questions. This new dynamic is efficient, but it reinforces the idea that parents can solve all problems. It robs a child of an opportunity to problem-solve on their own and to grow an internal locus of control. Looking to their parents to make even small decisions deprives teens of the opportunity to do it for themselves.

Children must learn to problem-solve and sit with their discomfort or they won’t develop the critical-thinking skills or the neurocircuitry that help grow the teenage brain. Adolescence is the second biggest period of brain growth after the first three years of life, yet well-intentioned parents and teens, tethered to the electronic leash, interfere with that development.

Kids learn to manage big feelings when they are allowed to work through tough emotions. If they are deprived of this opportunity, their emotional growth can be stunted. Parents who routinely follow their child on Instagram, know whom they are with at all times, and know what everyone is doing 24/7 unwittingly cheat their children of having their own life experiences and prevent them from developing social independence.

Whether toddling away and toddling back or driving off, social independence is a significant developmental milestone—one you don’t want to impede. I see the fallout every day. Parents call me concerned about “failure to launch.” They call about their twenty- and even thirtysomething kids who are sleeping in the basement and have no jobs. These young adults, who are depressed, call for help because they hate their lack of independence but cannot figure out how to get unstuck. The more dependent our children are on us, the angrier they tend to get. Dependency breeds resentment.

Growing up is like navigating a climbing wall. Kids need to find their way alone, hole by hole, or they will never feel the power and joy of victory when they reach the top. Parents who delay their child’s independence do them no favors. Even young children must be encouraged to make their own choices and allowed to learn from their mistakes. Trial-and-error learning isn’t always fun—it can be quite messy—but it works. When my fifteen-year-old drove me home recently, I must confess I stepped on imaginary brakes and took many yoga breaths, but we made it home and his pride was palpable.

Empowering teenagers demands special acts of courage. It’s not easy to decide that you will trust your child to make good choices and to commit to supporting and guiding him when he doesn’t. It helps to remember in those moments that we’ve all done things as teenagers that our parents still don’t know about and hopefully never will.

It can be scary and even sad to let a teen drive away from us. But if we don’t encourage physical, psychological, and social independence, we will miss the joy of welcoming them home again as thriving adults.

Tools for
Parenting Teens

Don’t rely on tracking technology. Today, with tracking devices, you have the power to know where your kids are 24/7—but that does not mean you should. Imagine how intrusive that would feel to a teenager who is trying to explore independence.

Don’t text back immediately. Wait; push pause. Kids will often solve their own problems in that time. Teens need physical and psychological distance from us to exercise their independence muscle in order to build self-reliance.

When in doubt, stay out. A dear friend of mine said that she wanted to tattoo “shhh” on her wrist when parenting her two teenagers. She wanted to remind herself to listen more and intervene less. Most of the time teens just want to be heard and have their feelings validated. They are not looking for you to solve the problem. Try this mental mantra: “I don’t have to make it all better, and in fact I can’t.”

Resist the urge to lecture. Your teens have internalized your voice for the last sixteen years—they know exactly what you are going to say. They just need to be heard so that they can find their own voice.

The kindest and best help is often not to help. A parent’s most loving intentions can undermine a teen’s independence. Instead, try saying, “Hm, that sounds tough. How are you going to solve that problem? I know you will figure it out.” Resist the urge to micromanage and solve problems; that sends the message “You can’t do it yourself; you need me; I can do it better” and fosters dependency.

The need to control is often about your need and not that of your kids. Ask yourself: “Am I being in service to my child, or to my own anxiety?” Saying “Text me when you get to your friend’s house” is about your anxiety, not theirs.

Try parenting by trust and faith, not by fear and anxiety. Faith in your child is a powerful energy vortex—trust radiates at a higher frequency.

Psychiatrist and parenting expert Robin Berman, MD, is an associate professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the author of Permission to Parent: How to Raise Your Child with Love and Limits. She is a founding board member of the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA and an advisory board member of Matthew McConaughey’s Just Keep Livin Foundation.