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 will depend 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.
Boundaries are the areas where you choose to stop actively controlling your child’s life. Instead, you give your child more independence and responsibility for her actions in these areas – even if you don’t like her choices or the results.
When you’re trying to decide whether to give your child control over 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 intervene. These are opportunities for your child to learn from experience and develop.
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 …’. For more information on communication, read our article on listening
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
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.
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.
Legality: consider underage drinking. You might choose not to let your child make decisions about whether to drink alcohol until he reaches the legal drinking age.
Level of risk: teenagers don’t always think about long-term consequences, and 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 the movies 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 her make that decision if it disturbs other members of the family.
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 are unlikely to let their teenager decide to be disrespectful towards others.
Looking after yourself: parents also set boundaries to protect their own rights and needs. You might say ‘no’ if the request is unreasonable or places an unfair burden on you (like driving children around all day, or paying for lots of expensive equipment).
You probably started the process of transferring responsibility years ago without realising it – for example, you probably let your child choose which pants to wear, or whether to have a bath or a shower. Now that your child is a teenager, you can start to expand these small areas of responsibility. For example, you might let him make all his own decisions about what to wear.
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
If you don’t let your child have any responsibility, she has no chance to make decisions and learn through experience.
When responsibility comes too fast, teenagers might end up making flawed decisions and undermining their confidence by doing things they’re not mature enough for.
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. 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 her decisions will be good ones. Our guide to problem-solving with teenagers might help you work with your child to make better decisions and learn from mistakes.
Timetables for responsibility: what some research shows
When should I let my child go shopping alone? Choose what movies to watch? Go on a date?
All parents face these questions, and there’s no simple answer, unfortunately. That’s because no two families or teenagers are the same, so what’s right for one might not be right for another. Views and opinions vary across individuals, families, communities and cultures.
When you’re tackling these decisions in your family, it might help to:
- think about each issue
- consider the implications of each decision your child might make
- make your decision based on how you think your child will cope.
It might also help to know what some other parents think. When researchers at RMIT University surveyed a group of parents and their teenage children, here’s what they found.
|At what age should teens be allowed to decide …
|to go to a large shopping centre without parents?
|to leave school?
|what food to eat?
|what time to go to bed?
|to drink alcohol if they want to?
|which TV shows to watch?
|to go on a date?
|what school they will go to?
|what movies to see?
|when they should come home at night?
|to smoke if they want to?
In general, teenagers want to make their own decisions before parents want to let them. The biggest differences between parents and teenagers in this study were over everyday things like choosing TV programs or clothing. When it came to bigger issues like leaving school and drinking, teenagers and parents were more in agreement.
ASD, responsibility and independence
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.