Helping your Teen Develop Autonomy
Adolescence is a stage of development where children begin to separate from their parents, find their own identity, and think independently. This is a natural and important process so that teens can mature into responsible adults. Teens must learn to solve problems, establish their own set of values, and take on more responsibility. While this process is normal, it tends to be filled with tension as parents worry about their teens’ safety, and teens feel a strange mixture of wanting more independence and also being overwhelmed by it.
To raise an autonomous teenager, you must allow your teen the opportunity to make their own decisions, try new things, and experience the consequences of their choices. Teens learn best through practice, so we must find ways to allow them to manage their own lives. In doing that, however, they must also have guidance and support from their families—even if they don’t think that they need it. You can navigate this delicate balance to raise an autonomous teenager in the following ways:
Provide Safe Opportunities
Teens need the chance to exercise their independence and learn from their experiences in safe environments. Make sure that you allow your teen to have these types of opportunities. Encourage your teen to get involved in a youth group, community program, sport, school club, or take on a part-time job. (But let them be the one to decide which activity to join!) These types of activities can help your teen learn new skills, take positive risks, develop a sense of belonging, test new abilities, solve problems, and build resilience.
Teens need clear and consistent expectations to feel safe, but those rules also need to be appropriate for their age. Sit down with your teen to discuss rules. Explain why you are setting rules – which are generally established to keep your teen safe – and then ask for their input. For example, you can explain why you feel a curfew is important, but you can discuss what time that curfew should be. It’s important to be firm and fair with the rules, and to follow through with consequences when they break them, but it’s also key that you work on being a warm and loving parent that can truly listen to and value your teen’s opinion. Negotiating rules teaches them the value of compromise, how to resolve conflicts, and increases the likelihood that they will follow your rules.
Guide – Don’t Make – Your Teen’s Decisions
When your child hits adolescence, it’s time for you to stop making decisions for them and start making decisions with them. In fact, it can be helpful to include your teen in family decision-making. This will help your teen learn how you make decisions, while also demonstrating that you value their input, which will boost their self-esteem.
Whenever your teen needs to make a decision, a problem-solving approach can help them develop independent decision-making skills. This involves:
- finding out about different options
- talking about the pros and cons of different actions
- weighing the pros and cons to make the best choice
- brainstorming what to do if things don’t go according to plan
- giving your teen feedback on how they handle the process.
When you teach your teen this skill and then allow them to make the decision, you are instilling confidence and teaching a valuable life skill at the same time.
Don’t Criticize Peers
Adolescents begin to develop emotional autonomy through the support of their peers, so their friends’ thoughts and actions are initially important and crucial to the way they learn to self-govern. Therefore, it’s not a good idea to express disapproval of their friends. If you criticize their friends, they will feel that you are criticizing them personally. Instead, ask a lot of open-ended questions that encourage your teen to think: What do you think your friends would do in that situation? Why? Do you think your friend is making the right choice? Getting them to think through their friend’s perspective, as well as the possible consequences, can help them move faster to the next stage of emotional autonomy – self-reliance.
Look for Discussion Opportunities
Research shows that even though teens may turn to their peers for opinions about social matters, they actually place more worth in parental advice on values, ethics, morals, religion, politics, and planning for the future. Your teen is not likely to start up a conversation about the latest news article in the paper, but they will likely welcome a discussion if you start one. The more you chat about your views of the world, the more your teen will use those discussions to frame their own identity.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Let your teen have total responsibility for the small things in their life, such as how to style their hair, the decor of their bedroom, buying and picking out outfits, choosing elective classes, and picking extracurricular activities. Not only will this philosophy reduce the number of conflicts within your family, it will also actually be instilling responsibility… even if you don’t like the choices they make.
Growing up can be a messy process. Young people often experience conflicting feelings about issues or people. Your teen might seem to love and disrespect you at the same time. He might want freedom, but also guidance. He might want to hang out with friends, but also be alone. These mixed signals are normal and happen because your child is still developing emotionally and socially. Be patient with your teen and also make sure that you look after yourself. This can be a challenging period in parenting, so seek help if you need it and make sure that you use stress-reduction techniques to keep yourself feeling your best.