Fostering Independence in Teenagers and Young Adults


Licensed counselors who treat teenagers and young adults see a variety of conditions in their patients. One common issue that arises relates to fostering an independent attitude and nature in a young person.

When a therapist has a young patient who has difficulty establishing independence, the issue may spring from several sources. Helping the patient get to the root cause can assist in motivating them to change. This act involves both conversations with the therapist and with the family of the patient.

Does the Child Deal With Helicopter Parents?

The term “helicopter parenting” became popular over the past decade. This term describes parents who act in overprotective ways with their children. They often step in to make decisions or take actions that their adolescent or young adult child should be able to handle on their own.

The parent may fear their child will not know how to deal with situations. Their intent may be to “save” their child, but instead, they may end up fostering a lifelong sense of dependence on their parents.

If you believe your patient may have a helicopter parent, open up a discussion about it with the child. Ask questions such as:

  • When your parent constantly steps in to make or override your decisions, how does it make you feel?
  • Do you feel confident in taking action, no matter how minuscule, without first consulting with a parent?
  • Does a lack of feeling independent contribute to increased amounts of anxiety or depression?
  • Do you sense that helicopter parenting reflects a parental belief that your instincts are not to be trusted?
  • What decisions do you wish you had more power making by yourself?

When possible, invite the patient’s parents to attend a counseling session. Go over how the child feels when the helicopter buzzes near them. Parents often need help understanding they are hindering their child’s chances of dealing well with adult situations if they do not have practice making them.

Create a List of Ways to Be Independent

Many young patients demonstrate a lack of experience in experimenting with independence. Talk to them about what they feel holds them back. If fear of failure presents as the root cause, assure them that everyone learns by making mistakes.

Help your patient create a list of ways they think people in their age group should establish their independence. Then go over the list to get their input on where they stand with each task. The list can include things like:

  • The ability to do schoolwork and prepare for tests
  • Being responsible for getting themselves up in the morning on time
  • Postponing something pleasurable to do now to enjoy a bigger payoff later
  • Shop for and prepare their own meals and snacks
  • Project into the future and make realistic plans for how to achieve what they want
  • Set goals and meet them within reasonable amounts of time
  • Spend time socializing away from the family
  • Participate in sports, hobbies, and community activities independent of ones their family enjoys

Young patients often benefit from having a clear idea of their capabilities concerning how independently they act. The child can share their list with a parent to increase communication between the two. A therapist may need to remind the parent to strike a healthy balance between checking in to make sure their child continues to work on the list and giving them the breathing room to do so.

When Drug and Alcohol Addiction Is Part of the Equation

Independence can be a tricky thing for a patient who has a history of drug and alcohol addiction. Parents may have well-founded reasons to doubt their children sometimes when it comes to accountability.

Talk to your patient about whether their prior substance use disorder may factor into difficulty establishing independence. The patient may feel their parents do not allow them a range of free time or the ability to make their own decisions. These restrictions may come from fearing their child will associate with toxic people or make other decisions that tempt them to drink or use drugs again.

If the child has made progress in their recovery, ask them to initiate a conversation with their parents. The patient can cite examples of time spent in recovery and smart decisions they have made. This open dialogue may lead a parent to offer greater freedom to their child.

Remind everyone involved that no progress can be made if the child isn’t allowed room to strike out on their own. Even if they make a poor decision, this decision will enable them to take responsibility for it and learn from it.

Children who develop a substance use disorder during adolescence will inevitably age into adulthood. If they have been allowed room to grow and shown that they can exercise independence, they are less likely to relapse in their recovery.

Licensed counselors who treat adolescents and young adults often find the topic of independence comes up. Many young clients struggle with insecurity about being independent, while others have helicopter parents who tend to run their child’s life for them. Opening up several dialogues about what independence means to a patient and specific ways to achieve it can help them make immense progress. Sustain Recovery has experience treating adolescents and young adults who need help striking a balance between developing their independence and keeping their sobriety in mind. We treat young people with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. We offer long-term residential programs that foster real independence in our clients, allowing them to learn to become responsible adults who put their recovery at the forefront. Call Sustain Recovery today at (949) 407-9052 to discuss how we can help your young client.