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Parents: Help Your Teen Be More Independent

Independence is exciting for teens, and most of them are itching to do whatever they want. As adults, we have learned that independence is more like a double-edged sword of freedom and responsibility. Here’s how you can guide your high schooler to being successfully independent.


Why Should Your Teen Be Independent


Many students (including high-achieving students) love the freedom they experience in college and they respond by letting it completely overtake them. Some students sober up when the first round of exam scores come out and their grades aren’t what they’re used to, but for others it takes poor performance in their first semester before they realize they need to figure out a better solution. If your child learns how to be independent in high school, they’ll be better equipped to  balance both exhilarating freedom and mundane responsibility.


However, so many freshmen students enter college without having been responsible for themselves. They are used to their parents taking care of their problems, setting their schedules, hounding them to study, and they flounder without the external support. Independence helps your student develop an internal reserve to take on life’s challenges.


We hope you want your child to be able to take care of themselves to the best of their ability. If your teen currently relies on you to do everything for them (or to tell them what to do) then they might be too dependent on you. If they are, we have a few ideas for how they can gradually develop more independence later on in this post.


Your Teen’s Independence and College


Independence extends to all realms of life, and helping your teenager learn some level of independence will help them in areas beyond just college. After all, college is a relatively small part of a person’s life, and it would be wrong to say that independence only matters in college.


That said, helping your higher schooler develop independence early in life will give them a huge advantage over other students when it comes to college applications and being in college. When your teen is independent, they will take the initiative in shaping their life, such as finding and pursuing extracurricular opportunities that they are genuinely excited about, researching and developing a strong school list, and keeping track of application requirements.


For a very concrete example of why your high schooler should have some basic level of independence, let me tell you about FERPA, or the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA protects student privacy, and a significant change occurs the instant your child applies to college: you will not have access to their college record.


I explain FERPA to parents almost as often as I explain admissions requirements. Your child’s college application is protected by FERPA; parents are considered “third parties,” which means that information about the application—such as making sure that it’s complete, or that the admissions office received updated materials—can only be given to the applicant.


Once your student enrolls in any college, all of their records are protected by FERPA. If your student is struggling or if there are any issues with their degree requirements or financial aid, all communication will go to your student. This means that your teen should be responsible enough to check their email(s) and phone and be proactive enough to schedule appointments and follow-up on any issues they may have.


Independence will also help your teen adjust to life in a new place, make new friends, and seek out opportunities while in college. If you don’t feel that your child is ready for this level of independence, then the best thing you can do is gradually give them greater independence while in high school. It’s better to let them make small mistakes while you can still guide them and correct their approach.

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Ways to Help Your Teen be More Independent


Rather than expecting your child to suddenly take care of everything on their own, it’s better to do it gradually. Here are a few strategies you can try.


Let them decide


Whether it’s how to spend their time or their money, giving your child control over a portion of their life will help both of you in the long run. As long as their decisions aren’t harmful, honor their decisions and let them go with it.


If you aren’t ready to let them make a lot of decisions, try this exercise: instead of telling them they need to do something right now, ask them to complete a task (it can be a chore like cleaning their room) and they have the weekend to do it. They might procrastinate until Sunday night to clean their room, but they might surprise you by “getting it over with” so they can enjoy their weekend! Either way, letting them decide when to do something is a good first step.


Show them the ropes


Many schools have some sort of peer-mentoring program to help freshmen acclimate to college. I did this as a senior and told a group of freshmen that they could ask me anything. After the meeting was over, one of the freshmen asked me, in private, if I could explain how to do laundry.


If your student doesn’t know how to do cook or clean, you can start by showing your student how to do these tasks, and once they’ve got the hang of it you can set expectations about when they’ll do it. Knowing how to navigate a laundromat, boil water for rice or pasta, find things in a grocery store—this can be foreign territory for students. Pick a few to teach your student, and supervise them until they’ve got the hang of it before picking other skills to share with them.


Practice failure


It would be nice if we could go through life being perfect shining successes, but we have all made mistakes and likely will continue to. Your child is no different, and being able to bounce back after disappointment will do more for them than trying to take responsibility to “fix” their problems for them.


To practice failure “safely,” encourage your child to pursue something new or something they care about. (For bonus points, let them decide what they want to pursue.) They may find they don’t like an activity, and you can teach them that it’s good to try new things and if they don’t end up liking it, they can always stop. If there is something they’re already involved in, see if you can research (together!) opportunities like advanced classes, community seminars, or competitions.


The point isn’t to achieve a particular result, but to show your student that they should pursue their interests and that experiencing setbacks is normal. This will benefit them in college when they’re likely to apply for more opportunities and join clubs.


Challenges of Increasing Independence


If you got to this point and have been thinking, “This makes sense but it sounds terrifying,” then you’re not alone. Giving your child greater independence as they mature is one of the biggest challenges that you face as a parent. There is no one solution that will fit every parent-child relationship, but we hope we’ve given you some ideas for how you can start.


Many parents want their children to be safe and happy. In order to accomplish the first, some parents want to stay in control of their children’s lives, planning their days, taking care of any problems, even deciding where their child should go to college and what they should study. When taken to the extreme, you may end up sacrificing your child’s happiness.


As intimidating as it may be, if you want your child to experience greater life satisfaction, then it’s important that you let them have control over their lives. While they are in high school, you don’t have to give up all control, but if you guide your child to independence, they will thank you when they adjust to college more gracefully than their peers.


Does your teen want access to expert college guidance — for free? When they create their free CollegeVine account, they will find out their real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve their profile, and get their questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Encourage them to sign up for their CollegeVine account today to get a boost on their college journey.


For more advice about guiding your student through high school, check out these posts:


The Top 10 Resources for Parents of High School Students

A Step by Step Guide to Applying to College

A High School Parent’s College Visit Checklist

Short Bio
Gianna Cifredo is a graduate of the University of Central Florida, where she majored in Philosophy. She has six years of higher education and test prep experience, and now works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She currently lives in Orlando, Florida and is a proud cat mom.