Teens: Signs of Healthy Independence

This summer my teenager, Aidan (almost sixteen years old), has spent a lot of time away from home at two different camps. He struggled with self-doubt before these excursions, wondering if he could handle being away from home. Now, let me tell you, the part of me that wants to tuck my babies away in my pocket and keep them safe and close for the rest of their lives would have been quite happy to have him skip these trips! But they were opportunities for growth, fun, and, most importantly, they were his idea.

One of the camps was the “encampment” week for Civil Air Patrol, an organization Aidan enjoys immensely.   (CAP is an auxiliary of the Air Force.  Aidan think he may want to become a military pilot.)  The encampment is like boot camp. 5:30 wake ups, precision drills, obstacles courses, and yelling. Lots of yelling. Not my cup of tea, quite frankly, but it’s not meant to be enjoyable really; it’s meant to force the cadets to stretch their limits, to challenge themselves on every level. While encampment sounded scary to Aidan, it’s just one of these things he knew he needed to get through to move forward in Civil Air Patrol.

Aidan at encampment graduation

Aidan at encampment graduation

The other camp was an aviation academy for young aviation enthusiasts, which is held annually in Oshkosh, Wisconsin to coincide with a famous air show there. Aidan applied for and won a scholarship to attend the camp. He worked very hard for the scholarship; it was a chance of a lifetime. Of course he should attend. But he was nervous, downright scared, because he would have to travel alone and he would be far from home if he should become ill or something went awry.

Thankfully, our Aidan has faced his fears, attended these camps, and ended up enjoying himself immensely. He made new friends, learned tons, and gained confidence. Upon returning from encampment (which turned out not to be as merciless and severe as older cadets made it sound), Aidan was promoted to a staff position and the rank of sergeant at Civil Air Patrol.

I’m glad Aidan didn’t let his anxiety get the best of him, but these conversations with my maturing boy over the past few months forced me to contemplate seriously the issue of adolescent independence. How can we be sure our teenagers are becoming appropriately independent – not too dependent on us for everything, but also not too detached and peer-obsessed? How can we tell the difference between these extremes?

I addressed these questions last week with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life.  In case you missed it, here’s the whole show!  The topic of the show was “What’s the Matter with Kids Today?”.  My bit comes in about 20 minutes into the show.

Here’s a quick run-down of what we talked about: 1) some signs of unhealthy dependence in our teens, 2) sign of healthy, unfolding independence, and 3) and how to increase the chances our kids fall into camp two.

Signs of Unhealthy Dependence

1.  Your teen depends on you or his peers for how he feels about himself.

Children can be too dependent on either their parents or their friends for his sense of okay-ness in the world. For example, when Dad puffs out his chest when he brings home an A or scores the winning point in a game, he feels awesome, but if Dad is disappointed in him, it ruins him. This child works very hard to gain the approval of his parent or friends in order to feel at rest.

2.  Your teen can’t form his own opinions or make decisions without checking with you or his friends.

These kids depend on their parents or peers for everything they think, feel, and do. They lack a sense of ownership of their lives and their future. They can’t distance their own opinions from those of others, because they don’t have any. They want to become what you want them to become, or they want to wear only what their friends think is cool.

3.  Your teen acts like he hates your guts.

This one may surprise you.

Some parents think that teenagers naturally become obnoxious, rude, and insulting when they are trying to spread their wings and separate from mom and dad, but this isn’t true. If your child is completely rejecting of your values or opinions, if she acts as if the air around you stinks because you’re so awful, she is not developing a healthy kind of independence. These children may be harboring anger and resentment toward the parent which needs to be addressed, because their hostility shows that they are in a weird way still bound up with the parent – they do not enjoy a healthy emotional distance from the parent. This child may also be primarily attached to her peers for her sense of meaning and identity, which is dangerous.

Signs Your Teenager Is Becoming Appropriately Independent

1.  Your teen has interests and passions that he has found himself rather than ones his friends or parents choose for him.

Parents sign up their little kids for soccer or Latin lessons because they think it’ll be good for them or that they’ll enjoy it. As teenagers explore and expand their minds and perspective, they will naturally find interests and true passions on their own if we give them the freedom and opportunity. Parents shouldn’t be constructing their teenager’s entire life for him.

2.  Your teen can say no to friends when they invite her to do something that doesn’t really interest her or that conflicts with her values.

While dependent teens do whatever we or their friends want them to do out of a desperate need for acceptance, the independent teen has her own mind and can say NO on occasion. As your teen become more confident and independent, she will pass on invitations from friends when those friends want to see a movie that doesn’t interest her, and she will walk away from situations in which she feels her friends are behaving inappropriately or making choices that conflict with her values. She may or may not actually confront the friends about their actions or explain to them why she doesn’t want to see the movie, but she chooses to follow her own path on occasion even if it means she’s outside her peer group for a while.

3.  Your teen comes to you for guidance, but he has an increasing sense that he can make wise choices and take care of himself.

Many teenagers are fiercely confident — often over-confident — in their capabilities. They often take on unwise (even plain stupid) risks. Other teenagers, like my son Aidan, struggle with confidence when faced with the unfamiliar, when confronting perfectly reasonable risks. He has always been more circumspect and cautious than other kids his age, but I can see that as he is maturing he is gaining confidence in his ability to tackle obstacles himself. As I type, he is preparing to travel back from his aviation camp. He’ll have to change planes twice and he’s traveling as a regular passenger, not as an unaccompanied minor. He knows that if there are unexpected hiccoughs, he can call us and we’ll give him guidance and support. He’s nervous, yes, but also thrilled to be flying on THREE different planes in one day!

Increasing the Chance that Your Teen Will Fall Into Camp 2

1.  Love your child unconditionally.

Make sure your teen knows he has intrinsic value and that you adore him no matter he does or doesn’t do. Children have a right to our unconditional love, even when they fail, falter, or fall.

2.  Don’t force independence.

Don’t push your child into independence too fast and early when he’s small. In early life, children need a sense of security in our care, balanced by little nudges toward adventure and risk as they grow and mature.  Dr. Popcak says that independence isn’t given, it’s taken. We cannot force a child to become independent no matter how much we try. It is something that unfolds naturally when a child feels secure in our love, when he has opportunities for growth, when we support him when he steps away, when we hug him when if he needs to return.

3.  Give your child opportunities to solve his own problems, both big and small.

As your child grows, when he has a conflict, problem, or struggle, try not to jump right in to save him. This can be excruciating, because we love our children so much, but by allowing him to experience his struggle and guiding him in possible solutions without fixing it for him, he will increasingly find ways to solve his own dilemmas. This gives our child healthy autonomy and self-direction.

Do I think Philip and I have achieved a gold stamp in raising an independent teenager?  Certainly not.  We muddle through and learn about ourselves and him along the way like everyone else.  But I can see the signs of God working below the surface in our relationship with Aidan and in his life; I can see an emerging independence, even if it’s messier than I expected!

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