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Teen Autonomy and Empowerment


November 1, 2021 Parent-Child Relationship


Par Sylvie Labrecque

Social Worker

Adolescence is a period of important physical, psychological, intellectual and emotional transformations. Adolescence is also a time when adults have increasing expectations of young people.

They are expected to become more and more autonomous and responsible, to develop their opinions, their sense of judgment, to be able to find solutions to their problems, to make choices, and to accept the consequences. It's lot to do!

How can we help teenagers develop these skills so that they become responsible, independent, and committed adults in a just a few years?

Seeking independence and new experiences

Teenagers quickly want to gain independence. They distance themselves from their parents and question what they think, say, and do. They identify with new role models (new friends, artists, athletes, influencers, etc.). Finally, they experiment with new things, often without telling their parents.

This perfectly normal process of change often causes concern for the parent. Who is my child hanging out with, are they putting themselves in danger, are they using alcohol or drugs?

Why are these experiences important?

Experiencing things outside of the family allows teens to build their identity and is essential to developing their independence. They need to make decisions, take initiative, and make their own plans. It is through these experiences that they come to know themselves, to assert themselves, and to trust themselves. Some experiences will be positive, others negative.

The parent should not try to eliminate all obstacles or difficulties that the young person may encounter. This would not be helpful. Parents must also accept that the young person will make mistakes. The parent's role is not to prevent the young person from experimenting, but rather to ensure that it is safe and age-appropriate. With a growing child, the parent must accept that they no longer know and control everything.

Unfortunately, worry comes with being the parent of a teenager...

Parents guide their teenagers by taking an interest in them, encouraging them, giving them responsibilities, and letting them make decisions and take initiative, while being there for them when needed.

Ground rules and guidance

Of course, teenagers still need rules and supervision (see other article here). But they also need:

  1. To be loved and appreciated
  2. To feel an interest from us in what they do and what they think
  3. To be trusted 
  4. To be given power  
  5. To be given responsibilities 
  6. Encouragement and praise

When implementing the rules, it is best to avoid power struggles. Remember that your goal is to educate, not control. Set clear and reasonable limits, inside of which your child can make choices. Pick your battles! Accept letting go of certain things (mess in the bedroom...) and remain firm on what you consider to be the fundamentals, such as school grades, going out, drug use, etc.

Expect your child to tell lies. For them, it's a way to preserve their freedom and autonomy. Ask yourself: have you ever lied to your parents and if so, why?

Actions and consequences

Letting your child make choices means letting them take responsibility for their actions. Don't take all the responsibility for them!

  • Is your child late getting up every morning and frequently misses the bus? Don't drive him to school, let him manage, he will arrive late and will face the consequences imposed by the school.
  • He wants to enroll in an extracurricular activity, but past experience makes you concerned that he will drop out? Ask him to pay a portion of the fees.
  • He breaks something at home while hosting a party with friends? Ask him to help you fix it.
  • On the other hand, support him if he is experiencing significant difficulties (harassment, break-up with a partner, difficulties at school, etc.). Your teen is not yet equipped to deal with certain problematic, stressful, or sad situations.

Essential elements in the development of autonomy and responsibility

To become increasingly autonomous and responsible, the young person must:

  1. Have healthy self-esteem (see other article here)
  2. Believe in their abilities 
  3. Make certain personal decisions on their own
  4. Learn to take care of some of his basic needs 
  5. Make choices for him and not to please others

Parents guide their children by taking an interest in them, encouraging them, giving them responsibilities, and letting them make decisions and take initiatives, while being there for them  when needed. Autonomy and a sense of responsibility are not innate behaviors. They must be learned. This learning is an ongoing and progressive process throughout adolescence. Be patient! In a few years, you will be able to congratulate yourself for having helped your teenager become a young adult ready to take flight. 

References (in French)

Atelier Parent d’ado : Une traversée, conçu par l’organisme Entraide Parents