Independence in teenagers: how to support it

Independence in teenagers: how to support it

Independence: what does it mean for teenagers?

To become a capable adult, your child must learn to:

  • depend on you less and take on more responsibility
  • make decisions and solve problems
  • work out life values
  • form her own identity.

But it's common for parents and teenagers to disagree about independence - how much a young person should have and when. It's natural to worry that if you give your child too much independence too early, your child might get involved in risky behaviour. And it's normal to want to keep your child safe.

But your child needs to make some mistakes, to explore and have new experiences. This will help him learn life's lessons and continue to shape his brain's development.

So how do you strike a balance between your child's needs and your own concerns? A positive relationship with your child is a great start. It also helps to have open and positive communication in your family.

Teenagers are still working themselves out. They don't always know who they are. You and your child are both learning how to balance growing independence with parental guidance. It's OK if things aren't perfect all the time.

Raising independent teenagers: ideas

Show your child lots of love and support
Your love and support are essential for your child's self-esteem. Young people who feel good about themselves often have more confidence to discover who they are and what they want to do with their lives.

Your child might not always want physical affection from you. But you can show your love and support by:

  • taking a genuine interest in your child's interests, hobbies and friends
  • making time to listen when your child needs to talk
  • giving your child space and privacy
  • regularly saying, 'I love you'.

Respect your child's feelings and opinions
Try to tune into your child's feelings. It might help to remember that your child could be confused and upset by the physical, social and emotional changes of adolescence. Your child needs your emotional guidance and stability during this time.

Taking your child's opinions and ideas seriously gives an important boost to her self-esteem. Your child's opinions might be different from yours, and more like those of her peers. This might be hard to handle, but exploring opinions and ideas is one of the ways your child works out where she fits in the world. And if you have a difference of opinion, it's a good chance for you to talk about how people often have different perspectives and that's OK.

Talking about your own opinions and feelings calmly can help to keep the lines of communication open, and model positive ways of relating to others.

Establish clear and fair family rules
Clear family rules about behaviour, communication and socialising will help your child understand where the limits are and what you expect. Rules will also help you be consistent in how you treat your child. Once the rules are in place, apply them consistently.

Your family rules are likely to change as your child develops. As children get more mature, they can make a bigger contribution to the rules and the consequences for breaking them. Involving your child in developing rules helps him to understand the principles behind them. Every family has different rules. You can talk with your child about this and explain that his friends might have different rules, or a different number of rules.

If you set the limits too strictly, your child might not have enough room to grow and try new experiences. This period is a learning curve for both of you. Be prepared for some trial and error.

Treat your child in a way that's appropriate for her stage
Younger teenagers might think they're ready to make their own decisions, but they often haven't developed the decision-making skills they need to handle significant responsibility without your help. It can be a good idea to explain to your younger child why younger and older children are given different amounts and types of responsibilities.

It's likely that the independence your child wants - and the amount of independence you want to give - will change as your child goes through the teenage years. Be prepared to adjust and keep negotiating as you move together along the learning curve.

Help your child develop decision-making skills
When your child needs to make a decision, a problem-solving approach can help her develop independent decision-making skills. This involves:

  • finding out about different options
  • talking about the pros and cons of different actions
  • weighing up the pros and cons to make the best decision
  • brainstorming what to do if things don't go according to plan
  • giving your child feedback on how she handles the process.

You can also include your child in family decision-making. This is another chance to boost your child's self-esteem, and show that you value his input.

When it comes to big decisions that affect your child, try to make those decisions with your child, not for her. These might be decisions about school, further study, staying out late and so on.

Your teenager's brain continues to mature into the early 20s. In particular, the decision-making part of the brain is still developing, and your child is still learning to control impulses. Teenagers, especially younger teenagers, might be less capable of understanding the consequences of their behaviour.

Provide safe opportunities for your child to exercise independence
Activities that are safe and supported, but that give your child freedom and time away from you, can help your child:

  • learn new skills and test new abilities
  • take positive risks
  • foster a sense of belonging
  • build resilience.

For example, there might be a youth group or sports club in your area that your child would like to be involved in. When your child is old enough, a part-time job is a great way for him to develop independence.

Managing conflicts as your child gains independence

Young people are working out their own identities, and finding where they fit in the world. Your child is likely to want more control over things like socialising, behaviour and appearance. As part of this process, your child might test boundaries and question people she sees as authority figures - especially you.

This might look like a recipe for conflict, but it doesn't have to be. A positive approach to managing conflict with teenagers can strengthen your relationship as well as help your child develop important skills for independence.

Many people think that adolescence is always a difficult time, and that all teenagers have bad moods and behave in challenging ways. In fact, some studies show that only 5-15% of teenagers go through extreme emotional turmoil, become rebellious, or have major conflicts with their parents. Good family relationships help teenagers develop the skills they need for adulthood.

Independence in children with additional needs

If you have a child with additional needs, your child's growing independence might seem like an extra challenge.

For these teenagers, reaching full independence might take a bit longer than for other children. Achieving independence can be harder if children have spent many years being dependent on others, being cared for and having decisions made for them. But encouraging your child to become gradually more independent is good for both of you.

For children with chronic health needs, there'll come a time when you'll begin to share responsibilities with your child, like responsibility for managing medications. Knowing when and how to do this can be challenging. If you're trying to work out whether your child is ready to take on some of these responsibilities, consider whether your child can:

  • solve problems
  • make planned decisions, rather than impulsive ones
  • understand the possible consequences of actions
  • recognise when advice or guidance is needed - and accept it
  • care about and plan for the future.

For younger children, it's important to explain these issues clearly. This is better than saying, 'You're too young to look after things by yourself'.

You, your child and the health professionals managing your child's care will all be involved in deciding when and how your child will begin to independently manage health decisions. Speak to a health professional about any concerns you might have.

Looking after yourself

Many parents say it's hard to adjust to their child's growing independence. Some parents find their mental health is affected. You can read more about looking after yourself in our article on parenting teenagers.

It's OK to admit you're having difficulties and to seek help if you need it. Speak with your GP, or call Parentline on 1300 301 300.

Young people often experience conflicting feelings about issues or people. Your child 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 happen because your child is still developing emotionally and socially.