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How Parents Can Navigate Teen Independence

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Toddlers are famous for saying, “I want to do it myself!” But the quest for independence continues long past those early years. And it reaches its peak during adolescence, when teens are forming their identity through differentiating themselves from their parents.

Identity development in adolescents is a natural and healthy part of growing up. However, some of the behaviors associated with teen independence may be disturbing to parents and caregivers and upset harmony in the home. Parents can choose their battles by giving teens more freedom in areas such as self-expression, while setting appropriate boundaries and consequences.

Independence in Teenagers and the Adolescent Brain

Teens can look like adults, but their brains are not fully developed until age 25. The prefrontal cortex is the last portion to develop. This is the part of the brain responsible for executive functions such as planning, impulse control, and the ability to prioritize. The lack of these functions is part of why parents and caregivers are still needed during adolescence. 

Parents may see many teen behaviors and decisions that reflect the lack of impulse control and other executive functions. And they may be tempted to give more guidance and restrictions in other areas. Teens need more freedom overall, yet still need the safety net of guidance from parents. Parents can help teens develop decision-making skills by encouraging them to explore different options, discussing the pros and cons, and helping them problem solve if plans don’t go as expected. Involving teens in family decision-making, particularly in decisions that directly affect them, such as school, curfews, and learning to drive, will increase their confidence and independence.

Developing Identity in Adolescence

Striving for independence is an essential part of human development. Teens are learning to take responsibility, forming their own values, and figuring out how to make decisions that are right for them. That process can take many different forms. Teens express independence through their fashion choices, the music they listen to, the friends they spend time with, how they spend their money, and the activities and hobbies they dedicate their energy to.

The battle for control of their life and environment can create conflicts between parent and child. Seeking autonomy may involve sharing opinions that are opposite of the parent or caregiver, testing to see if their views will be accepted, or creating conflict. Teens may push buttons, refuse to do normal chores or homework, and talk back to parents in an effort to find their independence. 

Consequently, parents need to find ways to navigate this challenging time. Hence, the tricky part is finding a healthy balance between setting limits and allowing your teen to forge their own path. Finding that balance begins with recognizing that some expressions of independence are healthy and typical, while others might indicate that your teen is at risk.

Teen being independent

Adolescents and Identity: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Expressions of Teen Independence

It’s important to be aware of the difference between unhealthy expressions of teen independence vs. expressions of self that may not be preferred by a parent, but are not harmful. For example, getting body piercings, dying their hair, learning to play the drums, or having band practice in the basement may not be preferable for parents, but they are all temporary and/or non-harmful expressions of self. Unfortunately, teens struggling for independence don’t always make good choices.

Here are some telltale signs that a teen is seeking independence by acting out in unhealthy ways:

  • Sudden change in peer groups
  • Isolating themselves from the family
  • No longer interested in hobbies and activities they once enjoyed
  • Distinct mood swings (more severe than moodiness)
  • Being unresponsive and/or defensive when confronted with parents’ concerns and worries
  • Signs of drug use, such as having drug paraphernalia in their room
  • A rapid decline in grades, especially in subjects they have always liked.
Teen independence and parenting styles

Helicopter vs. Hands-Off Parenting: How Much Freedom Should a Teen Have?

How involved should parents be as their teenagers become more independent? Supporting teen independence is a delicate balance. Hovering parents (the classic “helicopter moms” and dads) can hinder a teen’s struggle to form their own identity. On the other hand, too much freedom makes young people feel unprotected, and can open the door to dangerous behaviors.

What makes the difference is how a parent remains involved. Some modes of control are not beneficial for teens. For example, in one study, researchers looked at parents who used psychological manipulation to control their teens’ behavior—including invoking feelings of guilt, withdrawing love, fostering anxiety, or other manipulative tactics. As a result, their study of 184 ethnically and socioeconomically diverse teens found that this kind of psychological pressure affected their ability to be independent and close in relationships even years later, when they were young adults, according to Medical Daily.

On the other hand, teens fare better when their parents set firm boundaries—while also remaining warm, open, and supportive.

  • Better sleep and mental health: In one study, teens who had a bedtime of 10:00 pm or earlier, set by parents, got more sleep and were less likely to be depressed or consider suicide than those allowed to stay up past midnight.
  • Safer driving: In a study comparing teens drivers with uninvolved vs. authoritative parents, teens with authoritative parents reported one half the crash risk, were 71 percent less likely to drive when intoxicated, were less likely to use a cellphone while driving, used seat belts nearly twice as often, and drove too fast one half as often.
  • Fewer risk-taking behaviors: Teens who have positive parental relationships, healthy open communication, and perceived parental support, are less likely to report symptoms of depression or engage in substance use, sexual risk, and violent behaviors.

 Read “The Truth About Teens and Risky Behavior.”

Setting Boundaries for an Independent Teen

One of the biggest challenges for parents is learning what boundaries are appropriate to set for teens. Many teens are still living at home and are under their parents’ care, financially and otherwise. Thus, it’s important for them to understand and abide by the boundaries and guidelines of the family home. Parents need to clarify the answers to the questions: Are there certain behaviors you do not condone in your house? What boundaries have been set for the entire family? What are the consequences when boundaries are crossed?

Three Steps to Setting Boundaries

Get clear on your values. Focus on the important areas: how you expect your teen (and everyone in the family) to treat each other and to conduct themselves outside the home. Your belief system and set of values will determine what boundaries you set for your teen, whether it’s around dating or household chores.

Make rules that support those values. For example, to support a value of kindness and compassion toward each other, you might set a guideline that there will be no name-calling, yelling, or slamming doors in the house. To support how much you value ongoing communication among family members, you might decide that the whole family needs to eat dinner together at least three times a week.

Set age-appropriate consequences that will go into effect if the rules are broken. For teens, consequences might be an early curfew, getting grounded, or losing the use of the family car. Make the consequences clear, make sure your teen understands them, and don’t make exceptions. When consequences are in place, the onus is the child: When they break a rule, they know that they’re choosing to accept the consequences.

NIDA’s SANE Guidelines

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has established what they call the SANE guidelines, to help parents establish appropriate consequences when adolescents break rules.

  • Small consequences are better
  • Avoid consequences that punish you (the parent)
  • Nonabusive responses
  • Effective consequences.

How Boundaries Impact Substance Use

Research suggests that what’s known as “authoritative parenting”—using discipline to enforce well-defined boundaries—can prevent teens from experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Furthermore, authoritative parenting not only impacts the teens in the family, it even has an effect on teen’s friends. A study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine analyzed the data from multiple years of the ongoing National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They found that teens with friends who had strict parents were 40 percent less likely to drink and 43 percent less likely to use marijuana, as compared to teens with permissive parents.

When Parents Don’t Like Their Teen’s Friends

It’s very common for teens to exercise their independence by choosing friends that they know their parents won’t approve of. What can parents do if they think their child has a friend who is a bad influence?

First and foremost, avoid criticizing your teen’s friends. Teenagers can be very defensive of their friends, and you don’t want to engage in a power struggle. Make clear statements about your expectations around your teen’s behavior and your observations of how their friends are acting. Talk openly with your child about your concerns and ask for their input. Review your priorities and let them know that you will hold them accountable for their actions, regardless of how their friends are behaving.

“The developmental work of the teenage years is actually twofold: to begin to individuate and find one’s identity, and to find a group of peers that is loyal and trustworthy.”

Kristin Wilson, Newport Chief Experience Officer
Parents navigating teens and their  independence

Should Parents Friend Their Teens on Social Media?

For parents whose teens are expressing their independence, social media can be a way to track what their teen is really doing. Particularly when teens aren’t sharing their thoughts and activities open with parents, Facebook or other social media platforms can seem like a good way to stay informed. According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of parents are friends with their teenagers on Facebook.

However, parents who follow their children on social media might not always like what they see. Even so, they need to respect that their teens have their own relationships and styles of expressing themselves.

Here are a few guidelines for connecting with your teen on social media.

  • Ask first—find out how they feel about it before sending a friend request.
  • Stay in the background: Don’t comment or like their posts unless you know they want you to.
  • Always avoid making comments or posting photos that might unintentionally embarrass or humiliate them in front of their friends.
  • Don’t address anything important via social media; talk face-to-face instead.

Letting Kids Fail

No parent wants to see their child fail or be hurt. Yet failing is a normal and inevitable part of life, particularly once teens begin to have more interaction in the world without direct parental support. In fact, failure can offer much greater life lessons than success. Furthermore, what’s most important is how your teen reacts to perceived failure. 

Do they give up or try again? Are there certain activities they avoid out of fear of failure? When they have a setback, do they blame others? Do they shame themselves? Do they only stick with activities they know they are good at? Are they able to stay curious about why something was difficult or didn’t work out as they wanted it to? Observing what your child does after a setback allows you to gauge their self-esteem and resilience, and then work with them to build those attributes as part of developing teen independence.

Communicating with your teen

The Keys Are Communication and Unconditional Love

It can be hard to know what to do when your teen shuts you out as part of their identity development in adolescence. But keep trying: At every stage of life—and particularly the teenage years—it’s vital for parents to communicate with their children. In addition, open, ongoing communication has numerous positive benefits for teens, including:

Maintaining communication with your teen is essential, and so is showing them that you love them unconditionally. Therefore, never withdraw or withhold your love based on their behavior.

Read “How to Talk to Teens.”

Staying close with your teen while allowing them to spread their wings and fly isn’t always easy. Learning how to let your teenager grow up is a process, and parents need to be patient and compassionate with themselves as well as their children.

“Unconditional love gives children the knowledge that all will be okay in the long run. Even when we dislike or disapprove of their behaviors, our children must always know we stand beside them.”

—Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, author of Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings


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 Pew Research Center