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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rachel Kramer

June 10: Building Independence and Autonomy

As the school year comes to a close, I have been having many conversations with families in my practice about supporting social and emotional development over the summer. The more relaxed pace of summer often presents a great opportunity for children to engage in experiences that build their independence and autonomy. This might look like supporting children as they take safe risks, try something new, practice and master a new skill, or have a new experience. I’m not suggesting that parents and caregivers add supporting autonomy and independence to a to-do list. Rather, I think most families will find that summer often offers natural opportunities for children to have new experiences and try new things.


While the exact nature of what this looks like will vary tremendously depending on your child’s age, temperament, and learning style, below are some age-based examples:


Mastering a new physical skill –

  • Preschoolers – learning to put their head under water, blow bubbles, or ride a two-wheeler with training wheels or balance bike

  • School-aged children – learning to dive, ride a two-wheeler, roller blade, or catch a pop fly

  • Tweens and teens – learning to balance on a slack line, play frisbee golf, juggle, or paddle a canoe or kayak


Mastering a new practical skill –

  • Preschoolers – learning to feed a pet or make their own bowl of cereal

  • School aged children – learning to tie shoes, cook pancakes, or grow a tomato

  • Tweens and teens – learning to fix a broken chain on a bicycle, make chili, or drive


Having a new experience –

  • Preschoolers –ordering for themselves in a restaurant or trying a new food

  • School aged children – having a first sleepover (or, my personal favorite, a ‘sleep under’ or ‘half sleepover’) or setting up a lemonade stand

  • Tweens and teens – volunteering in the community or getting a job, whether working in retail, pet sitting for a neighbor, or spending an hour helping a grandparent learn how to master a new app


When children have the opportunity to try new things, take safe risks, and stretch to a place slightly outside their comfort zone, these experiences help them internalize a sense of themselves as competent and capable. Trying something new often involves dealing with some discomfort, so children learn to practice coping with challenging feelings such as worry, doubt, and uncertainty and to build distress tolerance. Helpful scripts for parents to support children as they venture outside their comfort zone:

  • “It looks like you’re proud of yourself.”

  • “I noticed that you worked really hard to achieve that goal.”

  • “At first you weren’t sure about trying ____, but you stuck with it even though you were feeling nervous.”

  • “I’m remembering that it felt uncomfortable at first, but you kept going and now you know how to do something new.”


Last June I sent a long newsletter about engaging children in household jobs and responsibilities. I see today’s topic as related and also somewhat separate, but I’m providing a link to that newsletter for those who are curious.

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