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Reality Bites: Life lesson kids need to know before they leave the nest

From credit cards to college stress, do your teens have the life skills they should?

Published on: August 24, 2014

Whether your child is 6 or 16, you know you have to prepare them (and yourself) for the day they leave home. You’ve taught them to be good people, think for themselves and pursue their talents. But what about signing a lease or buying groceries?

We asked the experts for their list of 10 things every kid should know before leaving home. Let their wisdom guide you toward acceptance — and your teen toward autonomy.

1. Talking to adults with respect, but not fear

Young adults may not know that they can’t text a professor for an extension or that they might wind up with a pushy landlord. For practice, give them chances to interact with adults in real-life situations. “The more I am dealing with adult children, the more I see them getting run over by the ‘adults’ they have to deal with, like landlords [and] college admissions people,” says Denise Witmer, author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Raising a Successful Child.

2. Managing money

From credit cards to student loans, money is a major part of a young adult’s life. Allowances are a great way to teach kids about saving and spending. You can also help them craft a budget and talk to them about needs versus wants. Use your old bills and play money to introduce the concepts of “amount due” and “due date,” as well as how a salary might be divvied up. For more ideas, see Mint’s resource guide at

3. Food shopping and cooking

“Your adult children don’t have to be chefs, but they shouldn’t be scared of an oven,” Witmer says. Get your kids into the kitchen, where they can learn safe knife and stove skills, basic recipes and healthy meal planning. Invite them to try writing a grocery list, observe while they shop, then go over the receipts together. That first solo trip can involve some sticker shock!

4. Accessing health care

Seattle University psychologist Aimee Coonerty-Femiano, Ph.D., sees many students baffled by their health plans. She suggests showing teens their insurance card, talking through their coverage, and teaching them how to make an appointment and navigate the system.

Nadine Briggs, founder and director of the Simply Social Kids programs in Tyngsboro, Mass., recently took her daughter to the doctor and had her check in alone, then find her way to the lab and back. “Sometimes parents, me included, get used to doing certain things for our kids, and it doesn’t cross our minds to have them do it for themselves,” says Briggs, whose daughter has Down syndrome.

5. Staying safe

Wherever your child lives next, he’ll need safety skills. Teach him to listen when his inner voice warns that a situation or a person — even a friend of a friend — is dangerous, Briggs says. Talk about handling drugs and alcohol. She also suggests a buddy system when teens go out.

6. Getting around a city

Beyond basic driving skills, teach your kids how to ride public transit: Have them pay their own fare, then try reading maps and schedules. Make sure they know how to use a GPS system and how to walk safely, always staying aware of their surroundings.

7. Making big decisions

From renting an apartment to picking a college major, kids face huge choices after they leave home. “Sometimes parents think we are being helpful by doing, [instead of] offering choices to our children or teens,” says Witmer. Let them start making decisions on their own while we’re there for support, she suggests, and remind them to ask for help when needed.

8. Managing time

Well before young adults require this skill to survive a college course load or their first job, parents can ease the way by having them put chore or homework schedules on a calendar and talking about how they plan to complete assignments, Witmer says.

This can be a hard sell, so your tone makes a difference. “Try to switch from nagging and constant advice-giving to a different level of conversation,” says Joyce Fagel, an academic adviser at the University of Washington. “For example, ‘I’ve noticed that you have not yet filed the financial aid application, and I’m concerned that you may end up missing the deadline. Do you have a plan for completing this? What can I do to support you?’”

9. Setting up Internet or TV service

Life without Wi-Fi? Inconceivable! Prevent no-access freakouts by researching providers where your teen plans to head after graduation. Then walk her through the steps of setting up an account, getting service installed — and, of course, how much it will cost. You might also give her tech skills a trial run now: When something breaks or you need new service at home, delegate your teen to figure it out from start to end, stepping in only if she gets seriously stuck.

10. Handling stress

In 2013, the American College Health Association reported that 41.7 percent of students surveyed said they experienced higher-than-average stress. Talk to your kids about recognizing signs of stress, finding balance and seeking support when life gets too hard. Help them find a healthy stress-management habit that works for them, whether it’s yoga, running, therapy or another calming outlet.

According to an article published in College Student Journal in 2012, says Coonerty-Femiano, the sole significant protective factor for young adults is feeling supported by family, friends and professors. “We tell parents that they still have an important role to play and should be involved in their young adult’s life. Give them space to make choices and mistakes, but keep on supporting them,” she says. “Call them and send care packages.”

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