Nurturing Independence in Your Children and Teens

 ADHD Weekly, June 20, 2019

Growing pains aren’t only for teens. Parents can experience the sometimes painful challenge of letting their teens grow up and become more independent, while watching them stumble as they make their first real decisions and life choices. When should you offer guidance and when should you step back?

For parents, the growing pains often lie in the challenges of being supportive while avoiding the temptation to overparent and solve their teens’ problem.

When your child struggles with executive function challenges—remembering homework or gym shoes and making good decisions about the present and future—it can be difficult to straddle the line between fixing the problem for him or holding tight and allowing him to experience the consequences. This is especially true with ADHD symptoms since they can cause more problems with behavior, grades, and decision-making than his peers experience.

In an attempt to make life smoother for your teen, you can take the risk of doing too much for him—of helicoptering over him. Young people who have ADHD often experience a delay in their maturity. It is hard sometimes to know when to let go or when you are needed to direct your child or work with someone else on your child’s behalf.

“Helicoptering in to save the day can actually cause embarrassment and result in your teen and young adult pushing you away just at the moment you most hope they will want to confide in you,” warns Mindy Carlson, MSOD.

Supportive parenting or overparenting?

Researchers at the University of Arizona and California State University at Chico examined the concept of overparenting versus supportive parenting. Their results are helpful in understanding how helicopter parenting and supportive parenting affect teens and young adults.

The researchers surveyed college students and found overparenting was linked with psychological distress and performance anxiety in the young adults. In addition, they found the students had a sense of entitlement, along with increased self-importance, due to their parent’s overpraise and involvement. By overparenting, the researchers concluded, a parent unconsciously interferes with the age-appropriate development of competence, independence, and a sense of connection to others.

Parents helicopter out of a desire to improve their children’s success at school and in future life, the researchers noted. It also happens when parents are highly critical of their children and fail to maintain a boundary between their lives and those of their children. The result is teens and young adults who become overly dependent on their parents and lack the ability to be self-starters or develop problem-solving skills when faced with challenges. The young adults told the researchers that although they resented the overinvolvement from their parents, they hadn’t had the chance to learn how to overcome difficulties on their own and continued to need parental direction.

“I think these are all well-intentioned parents who are invested in their children’s lives,” says study researcher Michelle Givertz, PhD. “But it is stunting the growth of these young people and creating other problems for them, in terms of depression, anxiety, and negative coping behaviors.”

Learning to be a supportive parent

“It’s challenging to send your child out into a hostile world, knowing he or she may fail, face ridicule, and struggle,” says Joel L. Young, MD, who teaches psychiatry at Wayne State University in Michigan. “Rest assured, children must struggle to grow and learn. Saving your child from consequences and challenges now only ensures he or she will face more challenges down the road.”

Parents who allow their children and teens age-appropriate independence encourage creativity, exploration, and learning to make responsible choices.

So, how can you encourage independence and problem-solving for your child with ADHD? Some ways to be a supportive parent without overparenting include:

  • Listen to your teen and respect his thoughts and opinions. He can disagree with you but still follow your rules and directions. Help him learn to clarify his thoughts and opinions by asking why he holds them.
  • If your child makes a mistake, let him know you will be there to support his efforts to correct it. Talk with him about ways to fix the problem, but step back and let him decide which solution to use. Let your child experience the consequences.
  • Encourage your child to have downtime, especially during the summer months. Not every day has to have an activity scheduled. Young people need time to explore their interests without structure.
  • Allow your child and teen age-appropriate independence. Establish basic family rules and expectations for behaviors.
  • Have your teen take an active role in his ADHD treatment plan. Listen to his thoughts on treatment. Encourage him to talk directly with the doctor and resist the urge to answer on his behalf when the doctor asks him how things are going.
  • Teach your teen how to prepare his own meals, do laundry, create a budget, and spend money. Allow him to practice these skills without your assistance.

Looking for more on being a supportive parent?

Join the discussion: How have you helped your children become more independent?