5 Tips for Parenting Adolescents: Part 5


By: Matt Sandford

In part four of the series, we discussed ways to balance between short and long term goals in our parenting. In this last section we will examine the issue of our children’s development towards autonomy and ways we can effectively nurture this process.

5.       Foster autonomy

·         In the teen years it becomes more readily apparent that your kids are not going to be under your roof forever. Some of you are excited about this, and some are broken up about it. But either way, it has been what you have been actually working towards all along: to see your kids grow up.

·         Autonomy is a big part of maturity. Autonomy means to be self governing, self directed. Not in the childish sense of – I want my way! But the maturity to make decisions about what is best based on sound principles. Autonomy goes best when paired with responsibility and wisdom.

·         But, here’s the rub for most parents. I want my child to mature and become autonomous, but at the same time I am scared – scared they will make poor choices, scared they will get hurt, scared they will mess up their future, scared they will embarrass me or scared they will not be able. But, how will your children develop the skills to do this well if they don’t get the chance? Or, if the chances they get don’t involve any real possibility of loss, how much learning results? Think about your own experience. Most people I believe would say that some of the most impactful learning experiences they had were not successes.

·         When you allow your fears to direct you in this area, you weaken your child’s development and sabotage your own long-term goals (besides increase conflict, jeopardize your trust bond with your child and likely not alleviate your overall level of fear, anyway). I am not saying that there is no reason to fear; some of the things you fear could actually happen. But the question is whether your assessment of the consequences is accurate? You’ll never know if you prevent your child from taking some responsibility or a risk. Maybe there would be positive consequences that you had no way of predicting? Romans 8

·         Keep in mind, when you encourage your child to try, to figure it out, to join a club, to solve a problem, to ask a girl out, to confront a bully, to find a way to remind themselves to do their chores or to get themselves up for school, to be home on time, the message you are sending is that I believe in you. Even better if you verbalize that along with it! And remember, believing in them does not only mean believing they will succeed, but includes believing that they can handle mistakes and even failure.

·         Give choices. Giving choices is a great middle ground for the parent who is apprehensive or scared to let their child take risks. It gives you some degree of control, but at the same time grants a degree of autonomy to the adolescent. You set the parameters, but grant room for them to stretch their decision making abilities. “You can either be home on time, call me to check in or lose the privilege of playing ball at the park.” “When do you want to complete your homework, before or after dinner?” “You can either take the trash out as you agreed or you can choose one of the three penalties we discussed.” “So, how should we handle your disobedience? Any ideas on what would make things right in this situation?” You could even try this in communication difficulties. “Well, if you don’t want to talk about it now, you can choose one of the other methods we had discussed – writing me a note or scheduling a meeting or coming up with a creative way to express yourself”.

·         Giving choices can be part of a larger developmental purpose, as you see teachable moments in the everyday decisions of life. Refer back to my point on listening and asking probing questions. Use these times to invite your son or daughter to process their decision, weigh the options and consequences and invite them to develop long-term focused, principle-driven objectives – without just telling them what is ‘right’.

·         And then – when they try – be there to affirm them – whether the attempt went well or not. And be mindful to avoid criticism, put downs, “I told you so’s”, or any subtle way that you might communicate that you knew better or any discouragement from trying again. If they want help, be cautious about jumping to their rescue too quickly. Assess their emotional state and what they really need. How you respond when they try to fly will mean a lot.

Helping your adolescent to develop autonomy is about helping them in many ways to mature and to have confidence. That confidence is equally established by their achievements and by your belief in them.

There you have it. Five simple tips. Well, you didn’t really think they would be easy, did you? Because parenting adolescents sure isn’t. But, it is meaningful. And let me assure you, it is worth the effort. You often need to wait 25 years to see it, but it is.

Matt W.  Sandford, LMHC

Licensed Mental Health Counselor


 

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