How to help pre-teens and teenagers develop independence
Independence for pre-teens and teenagers is about trying new things, taking on more responsibility, making decisions by themselves, and working out who they are and what they want to be.
Achieving independence is an essential part of your child’s journey towards adulthood.
There are many things that you can do to help your child develop independence:
- Show your child love and support.
- Respect your child’s feelings and opinions.
- Set clear and fair family rules.
- Help your child develop skills for decision-making.
- Give your child opportunities to practise being independent and responsible.
- Work through conflicts constructively.
Show pre-teens and teenagers love and support
Supportive, strong relationships help teenagers feel safe and secure. When teenagers feel safe and secure, they have more confidence to try new things, and discover who they are and what they want to do with their lives. It also makes it easier for them to bounce back from mistakes or challenges.
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 pre-teen and teenage emotions and opinions
As pre-teens and teenagers go through the physical, social and emotional changes of adolescence, they often experience intense and sometimes overwhelming emotions. If you tune in to your child’s emotions, you can help your child learn to understand and manage these emotions by themselves. This is an important part of becoming independent.
Exploring opinions and ideas is one of the ways your child works out where they fit in the world. Your child’s opinions might be different from yours, but taking them seriously sends the message that you value your child. And different opinions can be a good chance for you to talk about how it’s OK for people to have different perspectives.
Talking about your own opinions and feelings calmly can help to keep the lines of communication open between you and your child and strengthen your relationship. It also models positive ways of relating to others.
Set clear and fair family rules
Clear family rules about behaviour, communication and socialising will help your child understand where the limits are and what you expect. Rules help to keep your child safe as they try new things. Likewise, rules can help you be consistent in the way you treat your child if they push the boundaries of their independence.
It’s a good idea to monitor how well your child is going with independence and adjust the rules accordingly. You might need to negotiate rules and boundaries as your child gets older.
Help pre-teens and teenagers develop independent decision-making skills
Independent decision-making is an important life skill. You can help your child develop and practise this skill by working through some basic steps together when they have decisions to make:
- Find out about different options. For example, your child might need to decide on their electives for Year 8 – Italian, art, music, coding and so on.
- Talk about the pros and cons of different options. For example, your child finds music and art relaxing but is interested in studying IT at university.
- Weigh up the pros and cons to make the best decision. For example, is it better to relax by studying music or build skills for further study in coding?
- Brainstorm what to do if things don’t go according to plan. For example, your child might be able to make a late change to their electives.
- Give your child feedback on how they handle the process.
It’s particularly good to use these steps for big decisions that affect your child, like decisions about school, further study, staying out late and so on. If you can make those decisions with your child, rather than for your child, your child is more likely to stick with whatever you’ve decided together.
You can also include your child in family decision-making – for example, decisions about what to do in the next school holidays, or whether to buy a family pet. This sends the message that you value your child’s input, which can be good for your child’s self-esteem.
Your child’s brain continues to mature into their 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.
Give pre-teens and teenagers opportunities to practise being independent and responsible
Safe, supported activities that give your child freedom and time away from you can help your child practise being independent. For example, activities like youth groups, sporting teams or clubs, school musicals, volunteer activities, casual work and so on can help or encourage your child to:
- learn new skills and test new abilities
- move around the community independently
- take positive risks
- foster a sense of belonging
- build resilience.
These kinds of activities can also give your child the chance to take more responsibility too – for example, responsibility for being somewhere on time, doing a particular role in a team, leading a group and so on.
Note that younger teenagers might think they’re ready to make their own decisions, but they often haven’t developed the skills 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 also important to remember that your child needs to make some mistakes, to explore and have new experiences. This will help your child learn from experience and continue to shape their brain’s development.
Manage conflicts constructively with independent pre-teens and teenagers
Young people are working out their own identities, and finding where they fit in the world. Your child is likely to want more control over things like socialising, behaviour and appearance. As part of this process, your child might test boundaries and question people they see as authority figures – especially you.
A positive approach to managing conflict with teenagers can strengthen your relationship as well as help your child develop important skills for independence.
Independence in pre-teens and teenagers with additional needs
For pre-teens and teenagers with additional needs, reaching full independence might take a bit longer than for other children.
Achieving independence can be harder if children have spent many years being dependent on others, being cared for and having decisions made for them. But encouraging your child to gradually become more independent is good for both of you. For example, you might gradually start to share the responsibility for managing medicines with children with chronic health needs.
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.
Raising independent teenagers is an important job, and looking after yourself helps you do the job well. That’s because looking after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally helps you give your children what they need to grow and thrive.