Your Teen’s Fight for Independence

The transition from child to adult is a hard one for parents to navigate. While we all want our children to grow up to become happy, healthy, successful adults, the actual process of changing our parenting techniques as our children mature is quite difficult. One of the most difficult transitions is when our teenagers start to pull away from us.

Psychologists call the process through which a person achieves a sense of individuality separate from the identities of others “individuation” and it’s a normal and healthy part of adolescence. Teens must separate from their parents so that they can develop their own opinions and establish independence in preparation for adulthood. People who fail to individuate from their parents end up with emotional and social problems and struggle to lead independent, responsible lives.

Unfortunately, when teens individuate, it can feel awkward, uncomfortable, and even hurtful to parents. Our teens might establish an identity or opinion that goes against our values. They might bring home friends that we don’t approve of. Our teens may no longer want to share their lives with us the way they did in the past. They might suddenly think they know more than us. Try to remember that this process is normal and healthy. Don’t take it personally, or consider it rejection or abandonment. You can acknowledge that the process is both frustrating and awkward but that your teen is taking the necessary steps to becoming an independent adult. This stage will not last forever, and you will discover a healthy, successful adult on the other side of this transition.

As your teen goes through this transition, keep these tips in mind:

Don’t Reject

It can feel very hurtful when your teen rebels against or withdraws from you. It can also feel scary when your teen professes opinions that are not in alignment with your values. No matter the situation, don’t reject your teen. You can be honest about your own opinion, but role model how you want your teen to behave by staying calm and respectful. Remember that many times, teens are actually “trying on” opinions and identities as they discuss them with you. If you listen, are honest, and then let it go, most of their overbearing behavior and/or unusual opinions will just fade away. Remember that, even as your teen pulls away or professes ideas to shock you, they still need to know that you love and accept them.

Resist Arguments

Teens are not adults and they are not as mature as you, so they often do not know how to pick their battles or stop a fight. If you argue or act angry, you will make your teen feel powerful and it will reinforce the behavior. Often, we feel like we have to get the last word in to be in control, but in reality engaging in arguments only serves to further your child’s urge to fight with you. It is better to avoid power struggles as much as possible. If you feel like you’re being pulled into an argument then try to withdraw with a neutral statement, such as, “That’s interesting. I have to go make dinner now.” You can learn more in our previous blog, How to Avoid Power Struggles.

Avoid Overprotection

It’s hard to find the balance between keeping our teens safe and becoming overprotective. Teens must make their own decisions and experience consequences from mistakes they make in order to succeed in adulthood.  Despite parents’ best intentions, overinvolved parenting impedes the important developmental steps a teen must take to become a young adult who can think for himself, be responsible for his success, and navigate through life’s difficulties. Research demonstrates that teens with overprotective parents:

  • are more anxious,
  • have poor problem-solving and critical thinking skills,
  • are less socially skilled,
  • are more irresponsible,
  • are less likely to transition well to college or employment,
  • have poor coping skills and resiliency,
  • suffer from a lack of confidence and low self-esteem, and
  • have higher rates of depression.

As much as parents want to protect their children from the mean world, they can’t. Eventually the child becomes an adult who must face the world we live in. Those that have relied on their parents throughout their young life are unable to cope when they discover the world doesn’t cater to them as their parents did. In contrast, teens whose parents allowed them to experience mistakes and gradually exposed them to the challenges of the world have developed the skills they need to succeed.

Focus on the Positive

As we watch our teens individuate, we want them to be successful, which means that sometimes we tend to notice all our teen’s flaws or shortcomings in order to help correct them. However, for most teens, our desire to correct them often comes across as criticism or rejection. Instead try to focus on the things your teen does well. Help them feel good about their efforts. Notice the times they act independent. Compliment their uniqueness. This kind of positivity helps youth feel valued and accepted. Ironically, by avoiding criticism, teens tend to become more willing to listen to and follow your advice.

Give more Freedom

Your teen needs the freedom to try new things, solve problems, succeed, and fail on their own. They need to feel the responsibility of their actions. Teenagers should be in charge of several things in their life, including determining their own schedule, talking to teachers and/or coaches when they have concerns, deciding who they are going to hang out with, completing their homework or school projects by themselves, determining what types of activities they want to do such as part time employment or youth sports, getting ready for school, and solving their own problems. If instead we are doing these things for our teen, we are subconsciously communicating that we don’t believe they are capable of handling things on their own.

This doesn’t mean that you must not be involved at all. If you notice that your teen is making mistakes in certain areas of their life, ask open-ended questions to help them consider how they can make changes to improve their situation. If they are facing a challenge, instead of giving your teen a plan, ask them, “what’s your plan?” This makes it clear they are still in control of their own behavior. If they ask for your help, brainstorm ideas with them, help them evaluate pros and cons of each idea, and then encourage them to implement the idea that seems the best to them.

Final Thoughts…

Parents often believe they should “help” their teen through their daily lives because, in the short-term, they receive a good payoff. When a parent does the work for their child, everything goes smoothly, so they are achieving good outcomes. The problem lies in the long-term cost: they have robbed their teen of the lessons they need to become an independent adult. These parents aren’t seeing the big picture. The entire point of parenting is to raise a child who is capable of becoming a successful member of the community. Parents must develop a parenting style that strategizes for the long-term by empowering teens to make choices for themselves and experience the consequences of those decisions.

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