Independence Anxiety

By Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

Will I be okay without my parents?

The twin pillars of independence from parents are:

  1. The capacity to live apart from parents yet still feel connected by love to parents. The ability to become well connected to oneself and others. (This capacity was partly dealt with in the first installment of this series.)
  2. The capacity to practically do for oneself without relying on parental care and becoming practiced and confident in one’s power of self-sufficiency. Since children begin life in a state of dependency on parents (or significant others), independence must be taught and learned.

Acquiring independence in childhood:

Because only children are so closely bonded to parents, they often grow used to having mother and father as favorite friends, and can be disinclined to give up that primary companionship, even for a little while. 

  • “Don’t take private time and make me play by myself. 
  • “When you go out, you should take me along!” 
  • “Don’t go out and leave someone else to sit with me!” 
  • “I don’t want to spend the night with friends. I’d rather stay home with you!”

Only children are usually well cared for so they often come to expect parental services and support as a birthright and are reluctant to give it up. “You’ve always done it for me before, so why should I have to learn to do it now?” “Just because it’s my mistake is no reason for you not to help me out!” “When I don’t know how, I want you to do it for me!” “When you refuse to take care of me, it feels like you don’t love me anymore.”

The journey from dependence to independence can be scary for the only child because the social separation and the assumption of more self-sufficiency can create anxiety: “Can I be socially effective and function on my own?” In response, parents should be sympathetic with the fear of, and resistance to, more independence, but also be steadfast in encouraging the child to learn those skills he or she may be naturally reluctant to acquire. Why reluctant? The answer to this question is another: who wants to give up the comforts and security of dependence? In many cases, not the only child whose life has been made so comfortable.

Parents need to help their child appreciate the benefits that more independence brings. Getting used to being socially apart from parents, the child can gain the rewards of self-content and social companionship: “I enjoy being by myself and I like my time with friends.” Gaining the competencies that go with more selfreliance, the child experiences more self-esteem: “I can take care of myself and I feel proud of what I have learned.”

To teach the capacity to be socially apart, parents must learn to leave their child alone, to leave their child behind, and to send their child off, each time with the loving assurance (if needed) that they will be back together soon. To teach the capacity to do for oneself, parents must learn to ask themselves the self-sufficiency question: “What are we doing for our child that he or she is now capable of learning to do for himself or herself? Then, parents should give the instructional support for the child to accomplish what they used to provide.

Acquiring independence at the end of adolescence

Parents who cannot stand being apart from their child and who cannot bear giving up doing things for their child, may end up enabling dependency that can seriously inhibit later growth into adulthood.

Final independence from parents requires the young person to stand on his or her own in at least four terms.

  1. On emotional terms: “I no longer expect my parents to fix my unhappy feelings or to support me through hard times. I can manage the difficult times and upsets, hurts and disappointments in my life without their help.”
  2. On control terms: “I no longer expect my parents to rescue me from trouble I have caused. I can cope with the consequences of my own bad decisions.”
  3. On social terms: ”I no longer expect my parents to be my primary social companions. I can form significant, satisfying relationships apart from them.”
  4. On economic terms: “I no longer expect my parents to take care of me financially. I can support myself.”

In all four cases the agent for achieving independence is transferring responsibility, and for parents this is the hardest task of all: letting go. Each release of their responsibility means giving up traditional control and exposing the child to the danger of mishap or mistake, creating anxiety for parents on both counts. As for the child, gathering the reins of responsibility means giving up the security of dependency for the risks of social separation (loneliness) and the risks of self-reliance (failure). This is why, out of respect for the young person’s natural anxiety at this juncture, parents need to communicate full faith in their child’s capacity to learn independence. This is also why they don’t share their worries about the child’s lingering lack of readiness for independence, because these constitute a vote of no confidence at a time when he or she has more than enough worries about this issue.

Parents who can’t let go, encourage the adult only child to keep holding on, enabling dependency long after the age for independence has arrived. This is a natural consequence when parents can’t stand seeing their older child in pain from normal adversity and rush in to assuage emotional hurt. When parents can’t stand seeing their child in trouble and provide emergency rescue from bad decisions, they inhibit their child’s growth. When parents can’t stand seeing their child alone and substitute their social companionship instead, they keep their child from expanding his/her effectiveness. When parents can’t stand seeing their child in relative want, and pay for what he or she cannot afford; then they allow their own anxiety to undermine their child’s honorable struggle to achieve independence. At these moments of temptation, parents may want to keep in mind that sometimes the hardest help to give is no help at all. Then in testimony of love for their only child, they can communicate appropriate support. “We believe you have what it takes to work through this challenge and come out the other side better able to fully function on your own.”