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Allowing Children More Autonomy

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Puberty is a time of adjustment for parents as well as for children. Parents must also learn to cope with new realities as their children enter puberty. Primary among these difficult-to-adjust-to changes are pubescent children's growing desire for independence and individuality.

teen annoyed with parentsDuring puberty, most children will begin to assert their independence through numerous actions and efforts designed to demonstrate - to themselves and the world - that they are now grown up and no longer need or want parents and other authorities to make choices and decisions for them. As part of this process of individuation, children will also explore new ways to express their individual identity. These experiments may involve altering how they look or act. For instance, children may suddenly prefer new (and perhaps unusual!) clothing or hairstyles, discard old favorite activities for new ones, take up with new friends, and generally question and challenge the ideas and beliefs they have been raised with.

Some parents will mistake pubescent children's greater need for independence as a signal that children no longer need parents to watch out for them. This is a serious mistake, as pubescent children very much do continue to need parents to guide them, express concern, and provide consequences when they move in dangerous directions. What these children require is not an absence of limits, but rather limits that change in an age-appropriate manner as children develop and become more capable and more needing of independent decision making. Youth are going to find ways to assert their individuality no matter what parents may do or say. However, parents do continue to have the ability and the responsibility to influence, if not control, their children's choices. With appropriate support and guidance (and a little luck), youth can learn how to satisfy their desire to be independent and unique in healthy rather than unhealthy ways.

Pubescent children are not as easy to control as younger children. Consequently, parents are advised to "choose their battles wisely". It is not practical or useful for parents to second guess all children's choices. It is important, however, that children's experimentation minimally meet the following criteria:

  • Activities and choices must not be truly dangerous
  • They should not interfere with schooling or otherwise affect future well-being
  • It should not contradict the family's most basic values.

These criteria afford children a great deal of freedom while also leaving room for parents and caregivers to "put their foot down" when children stray into non-negotiable areas where safety, future well-being, or values issues are at stake.

For example, even though Mom may think Chelsea's outfit of brown hiking boots with green leggings, a pink skirt, and two mismatched shirts doesn't look attractive, she may still wisely choose to not say anything as Chelsea wears the outfit to school. By keeping silent on this fairly minor issue, Mom allows Chelsea the freedom she needs to experiment with how she wants to present herself. If, however, Chelsea later wants to wear the hiking boots with a mini skirt and tube top that bares her belly and shows too much leg, Mom is within her rights to insist Chelsea change her clothing on the grounds that the outfit violates the school's dress code and offends the family's sense of decency.

Similarly, Louis may decide one day that he no longer wants to play soccer but instead wants to concentrate on playing rock guitar. Even though his parents may have reservations about him giving up a sport he's loved for several years, there is nothing particularly dangerous about Louis' musical choice and this may be an important time for him to try something new. If, on the other hand, Chelsea and Louis' parents find out that they've been experimenting with smoking cigarettes, their parents should make clear that this is not an acceptable choice for them to make, on the grounds that smoking is a serious health hazard. In this case, the parents may want to enforce a negative consequence if the children are caught smoking again.

As children grow older and more capable, formerly dangerous areas become safer for them to experiment with, and caregivers can and should give them new responsibilities and increased privileges.

Many pubescent youth will ask to spend the majority of their free time with friends and peers, and appear to want very little to do with their family. While taking care to allow children the time they need to socialize, parents should also insist upon scheduled and impromptu family time reserved for family members to spend time together. Taking care that the family reserve time to eat dinner together each night is one good way to accomplish this goal. Scheduling a family game night a few times a month can be another.

Though they may not appreciate it now, family time is important to youth in several ways. It communicates to youth that their families are still key people in their lives for mutual fun and support. Second, it gives parents a natural and comfortable opportunity to talk to their kids about their friends, activities, daily experiences, and concerns. Third, it reminds youth that while their parents are parents and not friends, they can still have fun experiences together. By consistently providing opportunities for family fun time, parents help children see their parents as approachable and available to provide them with support and guidance should difficult situations arise.