Encouraging Independence and Responsibility: Guiding Teens Through Life’s Milestones

Mom and daughter sit on couch and laugh together

We’ve all experienced “firsts”—milestones or significant events that mark a beginning or an introduction to something new. These experiences hold tremendous importance as they shape our understanding, skills, and perceptions, even laying the foundation for future growth and development.

Some firsts we remember with fondness, some with embarrassed laughter, and some we’d like to forget. Young people happily hear Grandpa talk about the first time he spoke to Grandma or their first date. Student-athletes greedily devour the coach’s triumphant story of her first medal in high school track. Teenagers laugh at the comical mishaps surrounding the first day on the job. 

However, there are also the firsts shrouded in silence—public and demoralizing failures. These first failures tempt students to make that experience a ‘last.’ Teenagers look at the world before them and see an ocean of firsts. Some see that ocean as serene and full of opportunities, while some may view it as potentially stormy and perilous. For many teens, those waters may be calm one moment and stormy the next. It can be challenging for adults to remember what it was like to face the unknowns before them when they were young. The list is intense, including first job, first career, first time away from home, first love, first dance, first day on her own, first performance, and first attempt at their first budget. So many firsts in such a short amount of time! This post will explore ways to help teenagers see the firsts more like explorers seeking new and exciting discoveries rather than seafarers sailing off the edge of the map.

Embracing Uncertainty and Encouraging Exploration

Teenagers sometimes view things as either correct or incorrect. Yet, adults know that some decisions don’t present themselves with a clear correct or incorrect option. Guardians can help their teens conquer the fear of being wrong and the need to get things right the first time. Simple directions and clear redirections are helpful for them to learn to navigate the world, but a teenager is learning to explore difficulties independently. Driving a car or a forklift is not the same as cleaning the dishes. Getting on the stage for multiple hours-long performances is unlike playing charades in the elementary school gym. Earning and spending the hourly wages of a job with an adult boss is different than dealing with an allowance. A caregiver can create a colorful chart for a young child’s tasks, but many teenage firsts require the development of guiding principles, and a teenager has to participate in that growth and development, as they begin discovering their way forward. 

Ancient maps from the Middle Ages have this warning written on the corners: “Here be monsters.” The explorers sailed into those corners anyway. As adults, we teach teenagers to venture into the new and unknown with reasonable caution and courage. As adults, we all have experienced the difficulty of tackling a first. Sometimes, the initial fear gave way, and the task was accomplished smoothly. Other times, we needed to experience the slow grind of failure and persistence. The slow grind has some significant components. It involves learning the task through trial and error, moving forward even when we may fail for all to see. It involves getting over the need to know the how and know it now. As teachers and caregivers, we’re constantly challenged to get our teenagers to confront challenges and see them as opportunities. 

Strategies to Encourage Teenagers

How can caring adults encourage risk-taking in the face of all the firsts? Here are some ideas:

Involve teens in the decision-making process, including family vacations, traditions, chores, and even some of the rules. Teens feel empowered when given some decision-making ability, and more capable when they are treated as competent. They’ll also get to see, under the guidance of an adult, the link between decisions and consequences.

Encourage goal-setting. For the vast majority of their lives, teenagers have had to ask for permission to do most of the things they’ve wanted to do, so it’s not unusual for them to struggle with decision-making. A great way to instill a sense of agency and build their confidence is to teach them to use SMART Goals in developing a plan for things they’d like to accomplish. Doing so, asks teenagers to envision what their life would be like when they’ve attained their goal, to identify possible challenges and next steps, and to track their progress. This process can help them gain momentum as they begin to stack micro-wins and narrow the gap between their starting point and the finish line.

Teach teens how to manage their money. One of the most important life skills teens can learn is how to manage their money. Financial literacy is crucial for their independence and future success. A great way to start is by teaching them the basics of budgeting—helping them understand the difference between needs and wants and showing them how to track their expenses. It’s also a great time to introduce them to the concept of setting financial goals and saving a portion of their earnings for future use.

Discuss the importance of building credit and the responsible use of credit cards. Real-life practice is essential, so consider giving them a small amount of money to manage independently, allowing them to make decisions and learn from their mistakes. The goal is to equip them with the knowledge and confidence to handle their finances wisely.

Share your stories. When you share your own stories of success and failure, your teen will begin to understand that you also had to navigate many of the same firsts and made plenty of mistakes along the way. You’ve been there, done that, and sometimes didn’t do it very well. By relaying your own experiences, fears, trials, and triumphs—you’ll offer some much needed encouragement and highlight that growth is a lifelong pursuit.

Helping teenagers navigate the way into adulthood can be a challenging but rewarding endeavor. By encouraging and supporting their growth in areas like decision-making, goal-setting, and financial literacy, you’ll help them develop their independence, maturity, and confidence to take on the many challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

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