One parent once described adolescence as the terrible twos all over again, but this time in a bigger body. We personally don’t see either time period as “terrible,” but each one can be a time full of difficulty if you don’t recognize the important stage of independence, separateness and autonomy that a child is going through. In the “twos,” toddlers are moving away from the early dependency of infancy. In the teens, children are moving away from their lifelong dependency of learning on parents for a lot of functioning. They are looking to
- Think for themselves and have their own opinions
- Question, evaluate and choose values
- Follow their own desires and goals
- Build skills and abilities
- Develop their own spirituality
- Find their own ways of making money
- Have parents available to them while they are working all of this out
These are all good things. Participate in your adolescent’s emerging autonomy by being proactive. Many parents just back off, wait for the testing of limits to begin, broaden the boundaries. In short, they put all the planning on the adolescent and then try to prevent the developmental path from working!
Being a partner in your teenagers’ independence is a good way to look at this issue. They will establish independence one way or another because they’re wired to do so. So it is better if you become a partner instead of an adversary. If you become a partner, they will need you and look to you. If you become an adversary, you will lose them, and they will lose the ability to grow into independence in a way connected to love and authority.
Partnering in independence and autonomy means to think always about your children guarding and managing themselves at the appropriate level. Give them enough space to fail and then manage the failure with empowerment, support discipline and correction. Or, when they succeed, give them more. Here are some areas where your teenagers are likely to demand more freedom and control over their lives:
- More freedom to go places and stay out later
- More freedom to do what they please without your being there all the time
- More freedom in choosing things they like instead of what you like
- Freedom to question things you have taught them and make up their own minds
- Freedom to pursue their own interests
- More control over their likes and dislikes
- More control over their spiritual life
When these desires emerge, remember that your goal is to use them to manage the process of independence in a way that leads to teenagers being able to manage themselves. Give them the freedom within limits, and require them to use it responsibly. Do not see every drive to be independent as a testing of limits, although testing will come. See each incident as an opportunity to find out what kind of freedom they can manage and what kind they cannot. Do not give them more than can manage, for your role as a guardian and manager kicks in when they are in danger. But at the same time, do not restrict their freedom when they are able to manage it. To the extent that you are guarding and managing them in areas where they are showing responsibility, you are redundant and unnecessary.
Look for individual expression in music, clothes, hobbies, political views, overall appearance and the like. If their choices do not get them into danger, let it go. In most cases, their peers will enforce the limits of what is okay and what is not. If they go too far, they will run into trouble in their own social circles. But remember, their norms are different from yours.
In short, you want your adolescents to develop independence. If they don’t you will still be bailing them out when they are forty. This is the time to help them develop independence in the right way. Give them areas in which they can be different from you that do not involve values. If you allow them to do this, they won’t have to sacrifice more important areas of life to show you that they are their own person.