Teenagers and Autonomy

Natural Parents Network: Teenagers and Autonomy

Allowing teens autonomy can be difficult for parents.

With each stage of childhood development comes a satisfaction that our children are becoming increasingly independent. This can be a blessing, but it can also be frightening as the risks of this independence increase with the age of the child.

Now that my two oldest sons are in their teens, I can relax in many ways. They can pretty much take care of themselves at this point, so long as their dad and I supply the basic physical necessities as well as moral and behavioral guidance. Even though I no longer have to fear that they will run into a busy street without looking, that doesn’t mean they won’t put themselves in dangerous situations or make mistakes. But I no longer get to hold their hands to see that they don’t.

I understand the fear of letting teens make their own decisions and giving them more freedom. With teenagers comes the possibility of so many things. We no longer have the ability to constantly supervise them or see that the places and people they visit are free from harm. As a mother who is openly communicative with my teens, I hear a lot of information about what goes on in their world that would keep me up at night if I didn’t trust my kids to make smart decisions. Even though I trust them, however, I know they’re going to mess up sometimes.

The truth is, children need to make some mistakes, and they’re going to. It’s part of growing up, and making mistakes is one of the ways they learn. Knowing that they can recover from a mistake will alleviate their fears when making choices in life. It also teaches them to trust their own judgment. So how do you trust your child and allow them autonomy when you know the consequences to the mistakes they could make are so big?

Educating teenagers about risky behavior is imperative. But it’s also important to keep communication mutual and conversational. Too often, parents tighten control but fail to educate their children except in the form of lectures, preaching and admonitions. Often teens will tune out or rebut their parents’ educating because the method of giving information was off-putting.

Parenting out of fear rather than logic can increase your child’s risky behavior. Teenagers are not fooled by our motives. They can sense when our decisions are rooted in fear, and when we panic, dishing out more rules and regulations, they are less likely to respect or trust our judgment when it matters most.

Seeking to control teenagers using authoritarian methods rarely works and does not allow them the experience or knowledge needed for them to truly carry our lessons into adulthood, which is our ultimate goal.

So if your child makes a really big mistake, what then? Perhaps you have discovered your teenager has started smoking; taken drugs; gotten drunk at a party; engaged in (unprotected) sex or sexual acts; photographed or video taped a sex act; visited dangerous pornographic websites; ridden in a car with an unlicensed or unsafe driver, or with a complete stranger; cut school; or otherwise behaved in a way that could be disastrous and life damaging.

As parents, we often want to blow up at them because the potential consequences to their behavior are so terrifying. But while exploding on them and dishing out harsh punishments may sometimes feel the like the best way to handle it, doing so can actually cause them to want to rebel even more. There are ways you can communicate through it, however, that will more effectively reach them.

  • When you are calm, let your child explain to you what they did and why. If your child trusts you, they will be honest. Listen with empathy and try to connect to your child’s emotions. They may be frightened or even surprised at the choice they made, and terrified by (nonparental) consequences. They may feel ashamed and guilty. They may be embarrassed and disappointed in themselves.
  • You should let your child know exactly how you feel, using I statements. Of course you’re angry, but the feelings behind the anger are what your child needs to hear more than yelling and threats. Without issuing blame and owning responsibility for your feelings, tell them how you feel and why. Let them know you feel disappointed; afraid; embarrassed; frustrated.
  • Discuss the many possible consequences that could have come from your child’s mistake. This should be done in the spirit of educating, not preaching. You are only seeking to give them information, not condemn.
  • Go over the sequence of events that took place and offer alternative choices. Sometimes teenagers make a bad decision because they could not see what other choice to make. Offering realistic solutions for future instances can help them avoid repeating the behavior.
  • Ask your child to reflect back to you what they heard you say.
  • Use affirming touch to reconnect with your child. Let them know that you still love them and will continue to support them while they seek to make better choices.
  • If you feel your child needs stronger boundaries, issue them with compassion, and let your child know that the restrictions are for their safety — not as a punishment.
  • Support your child while they deal with any external consequences.
  • Remind your child that as they are learning, they will make mistakes. Let your child know you have faith that they will get back on track and make better choices in the future.

I have often said that one of the most painful things to experience in life is to grow up. Ask anyone who has ever done it! It’s a rare individual who claims they would want to go through it all again. We can make it easier for our children when we support them, as hard as it may be, while they make their inevitable mistakes and learn from them.


Photo Credit: Chill Mimi


Destany Fenton, Author of They Are All of Me
Destany is an artist who works from home while raising her four kids, who range in age from teens to littles. A self proclaimed cheapskate and “maker-queen,” her do-it-yourself attitude compels her to promote self-education, frugality, and taking responsibility for our global community. She is attentive to her children and works to foster and maintain a deep connection with each one, while finding harmony within herself and remembering to take time for her husband. When she is not painting, cooking, gardening, knitting or playing with her kids – even the big ones, she is blogging about her life at They Are All of Me, where she shares crafts, recipes, and crazy mama mishaps that are bound to crop up when living with pets, teenagers and little ones.

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