Helping your child develop independence in practical ways
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Prescriptions for Parents

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Building Independence in Childen

As parents, it is easy to recognize our role in parenting our infants.  Babies are dependent and rely on us as parents to meet all their needs – physical and emotional. We would be most dismayed, however, if our adolescents demonstrated that same dependence – yet, parents often fail to recognize that it is through teaching, mentoring, and practice that our children learn the skills that help them become independent, self-reliant individuals who can contribute positively to their families and society.

Teaching independence does not negate the importance of providing nurturing and loving support to children of all ages.

This newsletter presents some ideas on how parents can help their children and adolescents develop independence while still remaining connected to their families.


Though infants need parents to provide for their physical and emotional needs, they can still learn to help take care of themselves and do simple tasks.

One of the first things older infants and toddlers can do to demonstrate independence is feed themselves, so it is important for their development that they be allowed to do so.  

For infants at least 8 months of age, consider the following.

  • Allow your infant to try using a cup and feeding himself soft finger food – but avoid choking hazards. View Time for Fun And Food for more information on infant feedings.
  • When dressing your infant, allow extra time so she can show you she can help put her arms in the sleeves or legs in the pants.
  • Using sign language can help infants express their needs before being able to articulate words
  • Realize that older infants can begin to understand the concept of “no”. View the dicsipline section of our handout 9 Month Olds for additional information.

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Elementary Age Children

Elementary age-children are
(1) learning to accept leadership from non-parental adults
(2) utilizing problem solving skills with their friends as they learn to share and compromise, and
(3) developing increased responsibility.

To avoid raising children who depend on others for their happiness because they have no ownership of their lives and little responsibility for their own thoughts, emotions, and actions, parents must be willing to

  • allow their children to make age appropriate decisions, 
  • value their children’s choices, and 
  • offer guidance without being controlling.

Below are some options for fostering independence in your elementary-age child.

  • Allow your child to make age appropriate decisions for the family – meal planning and entertainment choices, for example. Children will view themselves as competent and helpful, and as they make good decisions, they will develop maturity and independence.

  • Make sure your children have chores that help the entire family. Washing dishes, setting and clearing the table, and sweeping the floor are all possibilities at this age.

  • Allow children to experience consequences to their actions

  • Have your child plan and help cook a meal on a regular basis.

  • Consider providing appropriate monetary allowance to help your children learn how to use and how to save money.

  • If you have pets, allow your child to take over the care of the pet (feeding, watering, walking, cleaning cages)

  • Teach your child to do his or her own laundry

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Toddlers & Preschoolers

They test limits by exploring their environments, resisting “no” messages from parents, and learn early that tantrums either result in getting their way or not, quickly learning who's in control.

It is essential that parents set limits without stifling their children’s creativity.  Saying “no” to dangerous activities or aggression is a must; but, redirecting behavior and offering choices may be easier and more productive in other situations.

Parents may feel it is their responsibility to maintain their children’s happinessbut this is a dangerous trap that should be avoided. They must be allowed to make mistakes as they try new skills, experience frustration as a parent says, “no” and learn limits to aggressive or unacceptable behaviors. View our Time Out handout for additional information.

Offering choices can help decrease the tantrums associated with frustration as well as provide your children with the opportunity to begin making decisions.

Some self-help skills toddlers can do include washing/drying hands, drinking from a cup, throwing dirty items in a trash bin, and getting dressed/undressed (you may want to choose clothes with easy fasteners/velcro to help with this)

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Parents can undermine the adolescent’s development of independence by
(1) not holding adolescents accountable for their actions or
(2) not requiring responsibility, work, and self-help.

Below are ways to avoid some of the conflict.

  • Build boundaries early (even as toddlers), be consistent but fair, and understand every individual finds his/her way to independence/maturity differently
  • Allow teens to make decisions---and experience the consequences.

  • Consider helping with larger financial purchases after the adolescent has demonstrated responsibility.  For instance, if your teen wants to drive the car, list the cost of gas, insurance, and auto maintenance;  then tell them when they have x amount, you will assist with insurance.

  • Allow adventure or risk that isn’t dangerous (go camping with friends (older teens); go to a theme park with other families or friends; volunteering with a group like church that is helping those in need or in a disaster.

  • Look for opportunities for your adolescent to ‘earn a paycheck’ which could be as ‘simple’ as a lawn mowing job or babysitting. These jobs allow your teen to demonstrate skills such as punctuality, responsibility, and task completion which help your teen feel confident and competent.

  • Allow your teen to open a bank account, utilize a checking account or in other ways manage his/her own money.   

The transition from childhood to adulthood can manifest as rebellious and disrespectful behavior, at times leading to great conflict with parents; but usually, adolescents are just attempting to navigate the pathway between dependence and independence.

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