Helping Your Adolescent Child Develop Autonomy

Encouraging independence while still maintaining boundaries

Boy climbing up rocks
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Children express a desire for autonomy at two stages—toddlerhood and adolescence. This sense of self-governance—feeling, behaving, and thinking independently—becomes particularly profound in the latter set of years, as adolescents have more of an understanding of the world around them and confidence in their own abilities. While every parent wants their child to grow in this way, and doing so is important to living a happy and productive life as an adult, this transition often comes with some difficulties—both for sons and daughters as well as mothers and fathers.

Types of Independence

Adolescents can become healthy, autonomous adults that are not controlled by other people or external forces through practicing autonomy in the following three ways:

Emotional

This concept relates to the feelings and emotions involved in how we relate to others. When faced with a problem, emotionally autonomous teens are able to seek their own solutions rather than relying on parents or peers to provide emotional support.

In the early adolescence stage (the tween years), there is a shift in thinking. For the first time, parents are seen as real people with faults and strengths. Instead of turning to their parents, adolescents look to their peers for emotional support as they become more involved in friendships and develop intimate relationships. 

It is not until the late teenage years when adolescents are more self-reliant and don't rely as much on parents or peers to make emotionally charged decisions.

Behavioral

Behavioral autonomy is the ability to make decisions and follow through with actions—without simply following along or copying the decision-making styles of parents or peers.

As teens grow and develop, they realize that different situations require different solutions. They can think abstractly, compare choices, and think about how their decisions may change an outcome. Developmentally, it is somewhere between ages 15 and 18 when they will begin to feel more confident in their own decision-making skills and move toward achieving true behavioral autonomy.

Values-Based

Value autonomy refers to making decisions based on a personal value system comprised of independent attitudes and beliefs in spiritual, political, and moral choices. This type of autonomy allows your child to come to independent conclusions about their own values, rather than simply accepting the values that they were brought up to follow or following along with those of their friends.

Challenges

Developing autonomy helps teens make emotional, behavioral, and values-based decisions in preparation for adulthood, but this can often cause tension between parents and adolescents. Instead of communication and closeness (which is what many parents want most and perhaps are even used to enjoying), quarrels and rebellious behavior can strain the parent-child relationship.

While parents of toddlers may struggle to watch their babies become full-fledged children, parents of tweens and teens must reckon with the fact that adolescence marks the final stage of childhood.

When adolescents fight for their independence, it is because they are working through a developmental milestone to self-govern and become self-sufficient adults, with lives independent of their parents.

Tweens and teens may demonstrate their autonomy by questioning, or even violating, the rules that parents set for them. They'll also start to express strong preferences in clothing, music, and maybe even social or political beliefs.

As teenagers grow, they may start to look forward to do "adult" things like being able to vote or legally drink. In contemporary American culture, individuals may not become fully autonomous until sometime during emerging adulthood (between 18 and 25 years of age). The age of full autonomy may vary as autonomy develops at different times for different individuals.

How Parents Can Help

Teens learn best through practice, and they want and need to learn 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 help them in this stage in a number of ways.

Set Rules

Set clear and consistent expectations with regards to curfew, dating, after-school employment or volunteer work, driving privileges and safety, and when it comes to saving or spending money. It is also important to remember to adjust some rules to meet your teen's changing needs as they grow.

Work on Better Communication

Start with communicating openly about the rules you've set and why you have made such rules or restrictions. Then, allow your child to weigh in with their thoughts. Encourage them to imagine the results of their actions and tell you why something may not make sense to them.

It's important to be firm and fair with the rules, and to let kids know that breaking them leads to certain consequences, but it's also key that you work on being a warm and loving parent that explains the reasoning behind it all. Really listen to your child's opinions and encourage them to explain their thinking.

Don't Discount Peers

Don’t outwardly express disapproval if your child lists the advice of friends as the reasoning behind some of their actions or choices. 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.

Instead, ask what they think their friends would do if faced with a similar situation and why.

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. Though your child may not start a conversation about these matters on their own, that doesn't mean they wouldn't welcome one. Take opportunities to bring up such discussions, the takeaways from which they will use to advise their autonomous thinking.

Let Them Contribute

Be sure to provide opportunities for your child to practice being autonomous and to contribute to your family. Let them make their own decisions on things such as how to style their hair, the decor of their bedroom, buying and picking out outfits, or picking after-school activities.

Invite your adolescent to help with the decision-making process in your home, too. You can start with asking them to gather information and help you make major decisions such as purchasing a family car, planning a family vacation, organizing a graduation celebration, planning family holidays, or meal planning.

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