Independence in the College Years

dr lisa stephen vermont

Dr Lisa Stephen

February 25, 2024
Independence in the college yearsThe pressure to make our kids independent starts early. It is promoted by teachers, pediatricians, psychologists, colleges, and lots of other authorities. The last big step in this process is supposed to be completed during the college years. Just do a quick search about college and independence and this source pops right up:

“College students are at the stage of their lives where they break away from the protection of their family, learn how to be adults and rely on themselves…. Even with the best intentions of parents, being too careful about their child’s independence could hinder the ability for children to make it on their own.” That is scary! Who wants to hinder their child’s ability to make it on their own?! 

When I picked my youngest up from kindergarten one day, she asked, “Mommy, I am really tired. Can you carry my backpack to the van?” I said yes, but I’m sure I reminded her to say please. A first-grade teacher (not her kindergarten teacher) came running after us shouting, “How is she ever going to learn to carry her backpack if you do it for her?!” Trust me, the child knew how to carry her own backpack. What she did not do well was identify her feelings and ask for help. I was thrilled that she did both. And… to tell the whole story here – a few days later she walked out of school, tossed her backpack at me, hit me in the legs, and marched right into our van. I left the backpack on the ground and got in the van too. After having a fit, she eventually walked back to get her backpack. 

Independence in the college yearsFast forward. One of my now-adult kids was struggling with her first major medical issue. She does not live in the US, so this happened while she was navigating a new medical system. She asked for my help. A friend then told me I had “failed to launch” my child. That was confusing because I had launched her into an entirely different country.

Many experts tell us that, during college, our kids need to start to sever ties and become completely independent. But what do moms think? What makes sense for our big kids? 

What is independence?

Take a moment to consider the definition of independence. 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary independence is defined as “the state of wanting or being able to do things for yourself and make your own decisions, without help or influence from other people” Yet while we think about our kids getting older, making their own decisions, and living their own lives, there are also lots of to consider. Do you really want to foster independence as it is defined here? If we are working toward this how will our kids gain the skills to:

  • Develop intimate relationships?
  • Communicate well with others?
  • Accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses?
  • Be a good colleague at work?
  • Ask for help?

How can we help our kids be ready for adulthood? 

It is possible to have a balanced approach as we help our college kids develop the skills they need to navigate life as adults. Rather than push them to be independent, you can foster their autonomy while building a deep connection with them. For example, you can:

  • Be intentional about when you offer input and help. You can say a bit less than you did when they were younger as they spread their wings and do more. 
  • Ask thoughtful questions to help them self-reflect and identify what is best for them. It’s important to remember that this might conflict with what you might do in their situation and/or what you want them to do.Independence in the college years
  • Think with your big kid by brainstorming together instead of telling them what to do.
  • When asked, or when you feel strongly about something, you can give some options for them to think about while focusing on the fact that there is rarely one right answer to complex issues. You can talk with them about the pros and cons for them given their personality, values, preferences, and circumstances
  • Remind them that mistakes are a normal part of learning, and assure them you will be there to help when they misstep, even if you don’t agree with what they choose to do.
  • Share tips, pointers, and resources while thinking with them about how these things might help them to decide what fits for them. 
  • And, yes, we can let our big kids know that if they really need us, we will come to the rescue every single time. 

Our big kids can blaze their own trails while asking for our help and considering our input along the way. They can be deeply connected with us and strongly autonomous at the same time.


dr lisa stephen vermont

Meet Lisa

Dr. Lisa Stephen holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from Michigan State University and a master’s in counseling psychology from Boston College. She has worked in private practice, residential treatment centers, outpatient clinics, and hospitals. For over thirty years, she provided psychotherapy, career counseling, consultation, and supervision. She is a member of the American Psychological Association.

Within the college and university setting, Dr. Stephen has previously held positions as an academic faculty member, a counselor, a consultant supervisor of a counseling center, a self-defense instructor, and a residential life administrator. 

Throughout her career, Dr. Stephen has specialized in working with women and mothers. Currently, she is a personal, career, and performance coach credentialed through the International Coaching Federation, a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach, and a member of both organizations. She provides group and 1:1 coaching as well as webinars and workshops. She also specializes in helping mothers prepare themselves and their college-bound students for the risks and challenges of college life.