How do you teach complex kids to become more independent?
Are you enabling them or setting them up for success in college and life?
How do you know when to let them risk failure or give them a helping hand?
In a recent Signet webinar, Elaine Taylor-Klaus and Diane Dempster, co-founders of ImpactParents.com, discussed how to foster more independence in kids, teens, and young adults. Here are some of their best insights:
The Change You Want for Your Kids Starts with You
Supporting complex kids—kids with ADHD, anxiety, and learning disabilities—is more complicated than most parents could have ever imagined.
Parents tend to spend significant time telling their kids how to take care of themselves and what to do. But it’s essential to shift that dynamic toward guiding kids to take ownership of themselves. Ultimately, this process is more about parents: the change you want for your kids begins with you.
Helping teens and young adults with self-ownership is an incremental process, and the results don’t happen overnight. Often, kids stand in their own way—avoiding responsibilities, engaging in risky behaviors, and cultivating feelings of disconnection and mistrust.
As a parent, it’s easy to see the role your teen is playing in your dynamic—what’s much harder is acknowledging your own contributions. Adult reactions have a significant impact on kids’ behavior. Showing up with shame, frustration, fear, and other negative emotions can influence how your teen thinks and acts. But there’s hope: When you change your perspective, you change behavior, and that changes outcomes.
4 Phases of Teen Empowerment
There’s nothing you can do to alter the perspectives, behaviors, and outcomes from the past. But you can change the way you move forward. Start by learning and understanding the four phases of empowerment—how to transition from you being in charge of your kid to them being in charge of themselves:
Phase 1: Direct
The focus of this phase is to direct action and motivate engagement. The parents’ agenda rules the day, and many interactions may start with, “You need to. . .”
In this phase, you might say: “Tonight, you need to do your math and history homework. Why don’t you have a snack and do homework before dinner so that we can play a game later?”
Phase 2: Collaborate
The focus of this phase is to begin to share an agenda, motivate ownership, and model organization. It often involves asking questions and walking through the process of problem-solving.
In this phase, you might say: “Here are the times you have to do your homework. Are you clear about what needs to be done, or shall we go over it together? When and where do you want to do it? Can I help you plan out anything? How will you reward yourself when you’re done?”
Phase 3: Support
The focus of this phase is to support a young adult’s ownership and encourage asking for help. If you’re feeling pushback, you may need to go back to Phase 2.
In this phase, you might say: “Seems like you’re on top of things—can we talk about it for a minute? What’s your plan? What help do you think you might need? Who might be helpful with that? Is there anything I can do to support you?”
Phase 4: Champion
The focus of this phase is to empower, celebrate, and troubleshoot. It’s the point most parents dream of reaching, but the truth is that 90% of the work happens in Phases 2 and 3.
In this phase, you might say: “How’s it going? I hope you’re proud of how you’re handling things. What’s been working for you? What are you celebrating lately? Are you struggling with anything? Will you let me know if you need help in any way?”
Quick Tips for Fostering Independence in Kids
The journey from Phase 1 to Phase 4 isn’t easy, but these quick tips can be helpful:
- Stay calm. If you’re not calm, you’re not going to be a very effective problem-solver. This truth applies to parents and kids. Accept that certain conversations might take longer than you wish—you don’t want to push through until everyone is in the right headspace.
- Be open, transparent, and curious. Share your own experiences—your struggles, your wins, your curiosities. Vulnerability humanizes parents in their kids’ eyes, giving them unspoken permission to feel and communicate their own thoughts and feelings.
- Fail forward. When a complex teen doesn’t appear to be trying or doing what they’re supposed to do, perfectionism and a fear of failure are often the underlying factors. Create a safe environment where kids feel comfortable recalibrating and trying again when something doesn’t go their way.
- Design expectations together. Engage in conscious conversations that value everyone’s perspective. Before asking for something, offer something first (e.g., acknowledgment, recognition, an apology).
- Acknowledge + compassion. . . + explore options. This framework is helpful when engaging in tough conversations. Take a moment to see your kid’s side of an issue and demonstrate compassion for what they’re feeling. Wait for them to de-escalate and return to a state of calmness, then explore options together.
- Ask permission. Parents tend to barge into their kids’ conversations without being invited or checking in first, but teens have their own agendas and lives. Build respect into the communication process by asking if it’s a good time to share an idea.
- Shed the “shoulds.” A “should” is always someone else’s expectation, and that can feel crummy to kids. Let go of your “shoulds” and stay in problem-solving mode.
- Drop breadcrumbs. Conversations don’t always need to happen all at once. Sometimes kids are better off when parents drop a little seed and then give them space to process their next move.
If you could use extra support fostering independence in your teen, Signet’s academic coaching service might be just what you need. Academic coaching sits at the crossroads of tutoring and psychotherapy, focusing on the executive functions that most contribute to academic success.