Supporting your child’s journey towards independence
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.
Striking a balance between your child’s needs and your own concerns is often a matter of maintaining a positive relationship with your child, as well as a healthy family environment. How your child develops independence, and how you guide this process, will be influenced by your family’s cultural background and beliefs.
Being aware that your child might be working hard to balance expectations of family members with expectations of friends is a good place to start the balancing act.
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. Go easy on yourselves if things aren’t perfect all the time.
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 – but you’re still your child’s main source of emotional guidance and stability during this time.
Taking your child’s opinions seriously gives an important boost to her self-esteem. But be prepared for the fact that her views might differ from yours. You can use this situation as a chance to talk about how people often have different perspectives.
Talking about your own opinions and feelings calmly can also help to keep the lines of communication open, and model positive ways of relating to others.
Establish clear and fair family rules
Stating 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.
As children get older, they can make more of a contribution to the rules and the consequences for breaking them. Involving your children in developing rules helps them to understand and take on the principles behind them.
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 his stage
Younger teenagers might think they’re ready to make their own decisions, but they often haven’t developed the decision-making skills they’ll 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, you can help develop skills by:
- 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 he 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 her input.
When it comes to big decisions that impact on your child (for example, about school, further study, staying out late and so on), try to make those decisions with your child, not for him. Our article on problem-solving can help you work through these decisions together.
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
- encourage resilience.
For example, there might be a youth group or sports club in your area that your child would like to be involved in.
Look after yourself and seek help
Studies have shown that many parents report difficulties adjusting 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 your health.
It’s OK to admit you’re having difficulties – seek help if you need it. Speak with your GP, your child’s school counsellor or call Parentline on 1300 301 300.
Young people often experience conflicting feelings about an issue or person. Your child might seem to love and disrespect you at the same time; to want freedom, but also guidance; to want to hang out with friends, but also be alone. These mixed signals occur because your child is still developing emotionally and socially.
Young people are working out their own identities, and finding where they fit in the world. They’re likely to want more control over things like socialising, behaviour and appearance. As part of this process, they might test boundaries and question people they see as authority figures – especially you.
This might look like a recipe for conflict, but it doesn’t have to be. To learn how to handle these kinds of discussions, you might like to read our article on managing conflict.
Many people think that adolescence is always a difficult time, and that
all teenagers experience bad moods and exhibit challenging behaviours.
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 special needs
If you have a child with special needs, this 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 spent many years being dependent on others, being cared for and having decisions made for them.
For children with chronic health needs, there’ll come a time when you’ll begin to share responsibilities with your child, such as managing her 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.
Preparing teenagers with ASD for independence
In this short video, parents talk about helping their teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop independence and move into adulthood. A strong support network is important, so their child can get good advice and learn practical skills. Parents discuss possible jobs their children might do when they get older. One mum says, ‘I would always encourage him to follow his aspirations’.