By Raising Children Network
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  • In general, teenagers want to make their own decisions before parents want to let them.
  • The biggest differences between parents and teenagers are over everyday things like choosing TV programs or clothing.
  • Teenagers and parents agree more about bigger issues like leaving school and drinking.

As they learn and develop, children want and need responsibility. It’s an important part of their growth and development. But it can be hard for you to let go – here are some ideas for finding a balance.

Responsibility and teenagers: what you need to know

During the teenage years, children’s need for responsibility and autonomy gets stronger – it’s an important part of their path to young adulthood. To become capable adults, teenagers need to learn to make good decisions on their own.

The process of helping children take responsibility and make decisions is a key task for parents. You have an important role to play in training and supporting your child to be ready for more responsibility. This means you need to plan when and in what areas to let your child start making decisions.

How quickly you hand over responsibility to your teenager is up to you. It depends on many factors, including your own comfort level, your family and cultural traditions, and your child’s maturity.

Ideally, you and your child should both feel comfortable with the shift of responsibility and the pace of change. Too much or too soon might leave you both feeling overwhelmed. Too little or too slow might end up with your child feeling impatient or rebellious.

Read more about autonomy and independence in teenagers, including practical tips on encouraging independence.

The path to responsibility: increasing independence

Independence starts developing when you choose to stop actively controlling your child’s life. Instead, you give your child more autonomy and responsibility for her actions in some areas. You might not like all her choices or the results, but learning to be independent and responsible helps your child develop skills for life.

When you’re trying to decide whether to give your child more responsibility for a decision, you have three options – yes, no and maybe.

The ‘yes’ option
This is for issues you feel:

  • confident your child is ready to take on
  • are personal choices that should be up to your child.

When you put something in the ‘yes’ basket, you’re committing to accept your child’s decision, even if it’s not what you would prefer.

If your child makes a decision you like, you can show your approval. If you don’t like the decision, stand back and try not to step in. These are opportunities for your child to learn from experience. 

The ‘no’ option
You might say ‘no’ to decisions that relate to potentially dangerous activities.

For example, these might involve things teenagers aren’t yet legally allowed to decide for themselves, such as drinking alcohol. Or they might be things that could have a negative impact on other members of the family, such as if your child’s decision would cost a lot of money.

Making the ‘no’ option work is about good communication and setting clear limits on behaviour. For example, the way you say ‘no’ matters. Giving the impression you absolutely forbid something might not be as helpful as saying, ‘I am not going to agree to this at this stage because …’.

The ‘maybe’ option
This is the grey area. You and your child might be able to negotiate a way to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes,’ depending on the circumstances.

Negotiating is where the growth happens. When you turn a ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ into a ‘yes’, your child gets the chance to show you that he’s ready for more responsibility.

Deciding when you and your child are ready to shift responsibility

Everyone is different. You might need to experiment to work out when and in what areas your child is ready for more responsibility.

A good way to start is to use family meetings to give your child a real voice in important decisions. This helps your child feel valued. It’s also a good way for you to learn more about her level of maturity and how she deals with choices.

Here are some other things to consider.

Level of maturity
Some teenagers are more mature than others, and their ability to act responsibly varies from situation to situation. Think about your child’s skills when deciding on his readiness for responsibility. For example, a teenager who asks to go to the city with friends might be allowed to go if he has been responsible when going out with friends at other times.

Learning from experience
Teenagers need the opportunity to work some things out for themselves. If there is no immediate danger, life can be an effective teacher too. This approach also has the benefit of giving you more time to manage and enjoy your own life. It gives your child the chance to show you how responsible she can be too.

With drinking, smoking and education or employment, for example, there are legal issues to think about, as well as your child’s health and wellbeing: 

  • The legal drinking age in all Australia states and territories is 18 years. Australian guidelines say that young people under the age of 15 should have no alcohol at all, and health experts recommend waiting until 18 years. 
  • Until they’re 17, young people must be in full-time work, at school, in training or a combination of work and training.
  • It’s illegal to buy cigarettes under the age of 18 years.

These things need to stay in the ‘no’ category, regardless of what other teenagers do and other parents allow.

Level of risk
Teenagers don’t always think about long-term consequences, and they sometimes want to do things that put their safety and wellbeing at risk. You might decide that going to an all-night party involves more risk than benefit, but going to a late movie screening might be fine. 

Impact on others
If your child’s choices are unfair or hurtful to others, you might choose to keep some control.

For example, if your child chooses to play loud music late at night, you might not let him make that decision if it disturbs other members of the family. Ground rules like ‘Music gets turned down after 9 pm’ also help when your child wants to make choices that affect others.

Your family values
Are you willing to let your child make decisions or behave in ways that clash with your values? For example, parents who believe kindness and tolerance are important probably won’t let their child behave disrespectfully towards others.

Looking after yourself
Parents also set boundaries to protect their own rights and needs. You might say ‘no’ if your child’s request is unreasonable or places an unfair burden on you – for example, driving children around all day, or paying for lots of expensive equipment.

Your ultimate aim is to give your child autonomy in more important areas, such as going out unsupervised or making decisions about future study or employment.

Potential problems with shifting responsibility

Too little
If you don’t let your child have any responsibility, she has no chance to make decisions and learn through experience.

Too much
When responsibility comes too fast, teenagers might end up making bad decisions and undermining their confidence by doing things they’re not quite ready for. If you and your teenager aren’t sure about a new responsibility, you could use problem-solving to work out whether your child is ready for it. 

When rules are broken
Staying connected to your child is the best way to ensure that rules you’ve agreed on are respected. But most teenagers will challenge the rules at some point. It’s one of the things that teenagers do as part of testing boundaries. You might want to decide and agree on consequences for when rules are broken.

When decisions go bad
Decision-making is a learning experience for your child. Not all of his decisions will be good ones. Problem-solving can help you work with your child to make better decisions and learn from mistakes.

Video ASD, responsibility and independence

Download video   43.6mb

The parents in this short video talk about getting their teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) ready for adulthood. Many of them worry about whether their children will be able to be independent and responsible.

But they say that good support networks help their teenagers get the practical skills, experience and advice they need to move into adulthood.

  • Last updated or reviewed 15-05-2015
  • Acknowledgements

    This content was developed in collaboration with the ABCD: Parenting young adolescents program developed by Parenting Research Centre.