Teen Autonomy

Children first begin to develop autonomy in their toddler years between 18 months to 3 years.  We can all remember a time when our child was young and likely asserted their independence by screaming “I DO IT!” My very own daughter’s first fully formed sentence was, “No, I do it myself!”

That same need for independence of thought or action, or autonomy, emerges as our kids enter their teen years.  This time it is usually different, showing up as a feeling, behaving and thinking independently, sometimes still accompanied with yelling.  This makes sense, because during adolescence our teenagers are beginning to develop their own identity, displaying a need for self-governance and choice, and separating from us as parents.  

Autonomy is an essential and critical skill for our teenagers to develop to become functioning adults.  So how can we help this blossom, while still saving our sanity and keeping our children safe?

Communication is key to this stage. Establish a foundation of trust and open communication with your teen.  Encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings.  One mistake parents will make as teens begin to assert their own ideas is that they feel rejection when their teen expresses ideas that don’t align with your own.  Remember it’s normal development for your teen to test out alternate ideas, and it’s not an attack on you.  

If communication becomes fraught, take a moment to collect your thoughts and come back to discuss with your teen.  Not only will you be modeling good communication, but you’ll likely avoid an argument.  Teens want to be heard more than they want to be right, says Dina Divecha, a PhD who writes about developmental science. “It turns out, teens are super sensitive to how adults react to their growing autonomy.  When teens feel over controlled or coerced it can trigger “autonomy threat” which shuts down a teens’ willingness to collaborate or engage,” Divecha writes.

While promoting autonomy, it’s crucial to set clear and reasonable boundaries.  Discuss expectations regarding screen usage, online behavior, curfew, school work and other responsibilities.  Sometimes the quest for autonomy can look and sound like disrespect when your teen might push or disregard your boundaries.   Teens like to know what is expected of them and what the limits are. Consistency is key.  

Encourage decision making by including your teen in the process that affects them such as family plans, activities or the household’s expectations.  Discuss potential consequences of their decisions and encourage them to take responsibility for their choices.  This is also a perfect opportunity for your teen to practice self-advocacy.  Disagreements are normal.  Teach them to express their needs, opinions, and boundaries assertively and respectfully.  Refrain from put downs, dismissals out of hand or guilting your child into a decision.  

While encouraging autonomy, remain available as a source of guidance, support, and encouragement for your teen. Let them know that you’re there to help them navigate challenges and celebrate their successes. Recognize and celebrate your teen’s efforts and achievements in exercising autonomy responsibly. Acknowledge their growing independence and express confidence in their ability to make sound choices.  Remember: It’s not personal, it’s development.