Individuating: How to let teens learn to be adults before they are

Individuating: How to let teens learn to be adults before they are


Individuating: How to let teens learn to be adults before they are


Last summer, my son injured himself with a power tool, which led to a night of surgery and a hospital stay, followed by physical therapy and a string of medical bills.

We had questions about some of them, but guess what? I couldn’t ask them.

My son is 20 years old, so the insurance company and bill collectors would only speak to him. We gave him the option of granting permission for his dad or me to act on his behalf, but he said, “No, I’ll take care of it.” And he did.

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To be honest, when I was 20, if my parents had offered to handle this kind of situation, I would have said, “Yes, please!” and never thought of it again. So I told my son that I really admire and appreciate him for being willing to take on that responsibility.

He just shrugged and replied, “I want to be an adult, so I guess I have to do it.”

Wow. Music to my ears.

But not much of a surprise. He was the 3-year-old who pushed my hands away, insisting, “Me do it!”

And he was the 16-year-old who told me it was time for me to be less involved in monitoring his school performance because, “I’m going to have to be able to do this on my own in two more years and I need to practice.”

He’s been individuating his whole life!

Individuating is the process by which our kids gradually break away from us to establish their independent selves. It’s glorious…and frustrating…and sometimes scary.

We need to help them with this process by providing support and structure along the way, and we really need to help them by letting them try!

Support and structure look like:

  •  Having conversations that start with, “What’s your plan?” See if they have one. And don’t start shooting holes in it even if you see that it has the potential to bomb.
  • Follow up with, “What will you do if…?” Kids need to learn how to anticipate obstacles or situations they haven’t thought of, and helping them process possibilities gives them practice with this kind of thinking, in addition to some tools to pull out of their tool belt if that possibility actually arises.
  • Set limits: “I’m okay with you trying ___, as long as _____.” As kids manage within those limits, lengthen the leash a bit to see how they manage the next level of challenge.

Letting them try looks like:

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  • Really, it looks like letting them try. It’s the best way for them to learn. They will not learn from lectures or, “I told you so.” You may be holding your breath, biting your nails, and gritting your teeth all at once, but you need to step back and see what happens.
  • Help them clean it up, if something goes wrong: This doesn’t mean doing it for them! It means helping them determine what went wrong and what they could do differently next time. It may mean helping them figure out how to earn the money to pay for damages that may have occurred.

Making and executing a plan, having it go wrong and dealing with the consequences are some of the most important life lessons we can allow our children to have—in small ways at first, and in bigger ways as they mature.

In order for them to be successful as adults, they need to be confident that if something goes wrong, they are capable of handling it and moving forward.

What keeps us from letting them try?

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When they’re younger, convenience: it’s faster and easier to do things ourselves.

As they get older, fear: that they’ll fail, that they’ll get hurt, that they’ll make a mistake that can’t be fixed or that causes them (or us) a hardship.

I know some parents who are working hard to keep their son from being kicked out of his prestigious preparatory academy for his low grades and behavior. Unfortunately, the harder they work, the less likely he is to learn a really important life lesson.

Habit:  We get so used to doing things like laundry or making their dentists’ appointments that we don’t recognize when our kids can and should take over a responsibility.

And sometimes, we just plain enjoy taking care of people! I feel belonging and significance when I feel helpful, so my natural instinct is to step in and start doing. I had to learn and still have to practice pausing and asking myself whether my “helping” will interfere with my sons’ individuation process.

When I forget, believe me, they let me know! And instead of being offended by that, I need to understand that I am the one who needs to step back across the line.

Why individuation is important

Most attempts at individuation, thankfully, end in success for our children and opportunities to celebrate this exciting process! They’re growing up, stepping into themselves, and learning to be capable and confident young adults!

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