The Secret Ingredient To Growing Independence In Children

Teen psychology expert and Managing Director of Motus LearningChristopher Shum reveals the best way to grow independence in your child.

What is good parenting? When you become a parent, there’s no handbook. We can’t evaluate something if we can’t measure it, so how do we know? The general approach is that you do the best you can and hope your child grows up correctly. Along the way, you get advice from other parents, your own parents, or a parental expert in a baby book but nobody sits down with you and says you’re doing a good or bad job, so you just keep going.

The only guarantee is a surge in stress levels because the challenge is difficult and the consequences are grave. You try to protect your child but the world today is filled with alcohol, drugs, pandemics, depression, knife crimes, sex, anxiety, car accidents, kidnappings, rape, murder, the list is endless.

After that, you try to help them make enough money to survive when you're not around but they're then faced with suspensions, lack of academic ability, no motivation, unhelpful teachers and student loans. And finally, you just want to make sure they're happy. But then they're bullied, they're ejected and they fail.

Parenting is difficult. There's no denying it. But this post is going to explain a simple tip to make parenting a little bit easier.

What is Good Parenting?

Before we can give parenting recommendations, we need to know what good parenting is. Of course, the primary goal of the first dozen years is the care and protection of your child. Then, as they transition into secondary school, their world becomes a complicated mess of hormones, social status, pressure and sexuality. They have their ups, but probably more downs, and when you try to care and protect, you get the door slammed in your face. You need a new plan. And like anything, our parenting goals should change over time.

As children hit adolescence, you can no longer provide full protection so the new primary goal of parenting is teaching independence.

You trust that they are able to take care of themselves and confidently make decisions without your help. Failure to do so results in you needing to take care of your child for the rest of your life.

So we have a measure! Can you leave your child alone in a supermarket with money to buy food? Can you ask your child to come home at 6pm and they will come home on time? If your child was put under pressure to take drugs and they didn’t want to, would they be confident enough to say no? If the answer to any of these is no or you're unsure, don’t worry. This post is here to help out.

The Snowflake Generation

The first thing to address is the endless list of things that could negatively affect your child mentioned above. Do you know crime rates among adolescents has reduced in Ireland and the UK over the past 6 years? But then what about all of the knife crimes in the UK? Or the murders that happen every day? This is something in psychology known as the recency effect.

The news publicises shocking or disturbing news to catch your attention and because you’ve seen it recently, you think it’s common. In reality, and statistically, the likelihood of these events happening is actually quite low. So remember, negative news is more attention-grabbing than positive news, but it does not make it more common.

The Secret Ingredient To Growing Independence In Children
Clarify to your child that when they ask for something, they will be allowed to do so but only under your conditions. This conversation should be had when they are not asking for something.

This is important because this effect has caused a new type of parenting, known as overprotective parenting. If I protect my child from the outside world, then they can never be put in danger. While this comes from a place of love, it can actually be detrimental as it destroys independence in the process.

A child can't learn about how to deal with adversity if they're never exposed to it. We cannot completely control what our children are exposed to so they will have to face adversity at some stage. It's better that you're there to help them through it rather than standing alongside the adversity with further judgement and condemnation. The result from trying to protect your child from everything? The Snowflake Generation. Children crumble at the sight of any adversity because they've been protected from it for the entirety of their life. 

The Secret Ingredient to Independence Development

So does that mean we should just let our children go out and do whatever they want? Of course not! But you can’t handcuff them to the house either. They need to get out and experience adverse events, people and situations. So how do we find the balance? We find it through trust.

Trust is your currency for dealing with your teenager and if used correctly, it can make both you and your teenager’s lives far easier. Let me explain further. Trust isn’t something that goes one way. It is mutual. It has to come from both sides, and it is essentially the fairest way to handle a power dynamic.

Trust is earned on both sides but the parent still makes the rules.

However, it should be noted that this has to be implemented as early as possible in the teenage years because as children grow older, they become better at manipulating situations. If you implement this early, you build an early foundation. There are three steps to this:

1) Clarify to your child that when they ask for something, they will be allowed to do so but only under your conditions. This conversation should be had when they are not asking for something.

2) When they do ask for something, remind them of your agreement. Then allow them to do what they want but set conditions. For example, if they want to go to a party, tell them that they can go but they must be home at 9. If they want to go to the park, tell them they can go but you must tell you who is going. If they want to buy something online, tell them they can but they must show you the payment confirmation before you give your credit card.

3) If they follow the conditions, they achieve more trust and therefore, more independence. This also results in fewer conditions next time they want something. For example, next time around, they can stay at the party until 10, or they can type in the credit card details themselves. If they disagree or argue with the conditions, remind them that you are still allowing them to do what they want to do. That is important. It’s not an all or nothing situation. There’s an in-between option. A negotiation.

And finally, if they choose to break the conditions, they lose trust and this gives them more conditions next time around or else they won’t be allowed to do what they want next time. For example, "you can go to the party but you have to be back at 8", or "you can’t go to this party until you build up your trust again".

It is essential that when you do this, you need to be consistent. Stick with it or it does not work. This use of trust is not only good parenting because it balances independence and setting rules but it also teaches your children about relationships. Every relationship is built on trust.

Furthermore, there's only one alternative when hormones are flying around. You want one thing, your child wants the other, you shout at each other, fall out and nothing improves. Stress, no lesson, no relationship building. And it also applies the other way around. You need to trust your child to be able to deal with certain situations.

When we speak about bullying, we emphasise that it is essential that your parent instinct doesn’t kick in straight away if you hear your child is being bullied.

If you, as a parent, step in straight away and deal with the bully, then your child won’t know how to deal with the workplace bully 20 years later. Instead, give them advice on what to do, trust that they can deal with the situation and if that doesn’t work, then you can step in. But at least they tried and they are learning.

They are developing wisdom and growing independence. You’re teaching them how to fish rather than feeding them one fish. And that is good parenting.

Christopher Shum is Managing Director of Motus Learning -  progressive psychologists who believe that every child has a right to be educated on how to take care of their mental health. For more information, visit

Christopher Shum

Psychology Researcher and Managing Director of Motus Learning, with a psychology undergrad, neuropsychology masters, and experience working in the NHS.

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