How to Raise an Independent Child with Less Fear
In parenting, anxious feelings may start with running to the baby’s crib in the middle of the night to make sure they’re still breathing. Maybe pangs of fear appear when thinking about the perils of sharp corners when they learn to walk. Those worried thoughts can crop up the first time a teen wants to go to the mall with their friends or drive a car. And may continue as they date, move out, or embark on a career.
As kids progress through the typical stages of childhood, adolescence, and then adulthood, parents often feel a sense of pride that they’re progressing. But sometimes those milestones also come with hand-wringing and sleepless nights. The challenge is to find a balance that helps prepare children for an independent life despite our own feelings of anxiety.
A mental health professional can help you find strategies to help you manage your anxiety—getting help is especially important if it’s affecting your day-to-day functioning. For most parents, balance can be achieved.
Here, mental health professionals offer tips on how to raise an independent child, giving them space to grow—even if letting go makes you nervous.
1. Remind Yourself of Your Parenting Goal
Sandra Wartski, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist in Raleigh, North Carolina, says it’s important for parents to keep the end goal of parenting—the child becoming a capable adult—at the forefront of all their decisions.
“Keep the mindset that the point of your job as a parent is to work yourself out of a job,” Wartski says. “If we overprotect our children, we’re not really doing them favors in the long run.”
Remind yourself that embarking on independent activities is healthy for your child by repeating a mantra such as:
- “This is good for my child.”
- “This develops my child’s self-confidence.”
- “This develops my child’s brain function, or problem-solving and executive functioning skills.”
2. Know When the Time Is Right
Parents are often told to follow their intuition. But sometimes it’s important to allow a child to do something even if it makes us nervous.
Establishing the difference is one of the hardest decisions parents have to make—and it pertains to every developmental stage children go through, whether it’s letting a toddler teach themselves to self-soothe or encouraging a high school graduate to attend college far away, says Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who splits time between Connecticut and Los Angeles and is the author of the book Anything But My Phone, Mom!: Raising Emotionally Resilient Daughters in the Digital Age.
Each situation is unique, and each family needs to determine what’s right for them. Making decisions around how much independence to give a child should involve assessing their needs and readiness. To do this, you need to answer some questions:
- Is my child ready for this next step?
- Are they asking for it?
- Do they have the skills to manage this activity?
- Is this typical among their peers?
- What would be the impact on the family?
- What would be the worst thing to happen if they were given this form of independence prematurely?
“Certainly, there are times when our fears are founded,” says Carrie Sensenich, a licensed clinical social worker at Willow Holistic Center in Devon, Pennsylvania.“The world can be a scary place. There are also times that we create fear based on what could happen, and live out of this place. If we try to avoid the bad things that could happen, we prevent the possibility of living fully.”
3. Find Ways to Cope with Your Feelings
Still, it’s okay to worry about your child. Sensenich says parents should acknowledge their emotions and take time to process them.
“Just as it is important to validate the feelings of our children, we need to model this by acknowledging with compassion what we are feeling in the moment,” Sensenich says. “So often, we are harsh critics of ourselves, with negative judgments of our emotions, which can create an experience of getting stuck in them or being controlled by them.”
Create healthy coping methods to help you manage any anxious feelings you have about letting go, suggests Lindsay Popilskis, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at Pathways of Rockland, in New City, New York.
“It's important to remember, as parents, that we must put our oxygen mask on first, so to speak,” Popilskis says. “In other words, we must model to our children how we as adults utilize healthy habits and routines, make time for leisure activities, try to achieve a healthy night's rest, and [maintain] an overall healthy lifestyle. Children learn what they see above all, and fear and anxiety are contagious.”
4. Focus on Self-Care
Cohen-Sandler says it often helps when parents have balanced lives and aren’t solely focused on their kids.
“That's actually important for many reasons—also because kids feel too burdened by that,” she says. “So, having meaningful adult relationships, work and/or hobbies, and other activities and goals in one’s life can be helpful so that parents don’t feel they need their kids to be dependent on them.”
5. Seek Support
Speaking with supportive people, including other parents, can help you feel less alone in what you’re feeling, such as grieving earlier stages of childhood, says Cohen-Sandler. They may be able to lend a listening ear and help you understand whether your anxious feelings are warranted.
Joining an online or in-person parenting group can help people see whether their feelings are common based on what others say they’re experiencing, Cohen-Sandler notes. This may help shed light on overprotectiveness, guardedness, notions of what it means to be a parent, or other things people may want to work on.
6. Allow Your Child to Make Mistakes
But what if they fail, or get hurt, or make poor choices? Try to remember that children are resilient and capable, and making mistakes along the way can be important for their development because they learn from them.
“While it's completely natural to want to protect and shield our children from the negative consequences or repercussions they may face from their actions, [those experiences] help shape and teach our children,” Popilskis says. “Allow your children to make plenty of mistakes. Mistakes are proof that we are trying and learning—the more mistakes we make along our journey, the more independent we become!”
7. Enjoy the Positives
Focus on your child’s reactions to reaching their milestones instead of your fear.
“Take in their natural joy at doing things for themselves, the way their eyes light up when they accomplish things for the first time and stand up just a little bit taller,” Cohen-Sandler says. “Savor the pride they feel in themselves, which you’ve made possible through your ability to be attuned to—and supportive of—the next step they need in their development.”
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