Teens becoming independent

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: A survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

Becoming autonomous is an important developmental task for teens. According to University of Delaware Extension, establishing autonomy is part of becoming a capable adult.

For teens, establishing autonomy means becoming an independent, self-governing person. It also means:

  • Becoming less emotionally dependent on parents.

  • Developing the ability to make and follow through on decisions.

  • Forming a set of values.

How to view autonomy

Parents may think of autonomy for their teen as completely separating from their influence and listening only to their peers. But that’s not a good way to define autonomy for their teen, or a good way to look at how to establish autonomy.

Instead, it's more healthy to view establishing autonomy as a collaborative process. In this view, parents and their teen work together to figure out a new relationship based on the teen's growing maturity. This way, teens are not disconnected from their parents, but connected in different ways. Parents and teens also relate to each other in new ways.

It's true that peers have more influence on some issues than parents as described in the Teen talk fact sheet on social and emotional changes. But parents still have influence. Laurence Steinberg, an expert in adolescent psychology, describes it this way: "It is detachment from parents, rather than attachment to peers, that is potentially harmful."

What parents can do

Here's what you, as a parent, can do to help your teen develop autonomy in healthy ways:

  • Discuss issues and ideas with your teen. Encourage her thinking  for herself and don't criticize ideas you may question. Instead, just say, "Tell me more about how you came to that conclusion."
  • Model respect in your discussions with your teen. Modeling goes a long way toward encouraging respectful conversations and behaviors.
  • Help your teen identify his strengths and talents.
  • Ask your teen to take on more responsibilities at home, based on her strengths and talents. For example, the teen who is good at writing can help write thank you notes and holiday cards for grandparents or extended family members.
  • Consider relaxing the rules as your teen shows a greater sense of responsibility. An example might be setting a later curfew on weekends.

Related resources

The Teen Years ExplainedClea McNeely, PhD and Jayne Blanchard — This e-book can help both teens and adults to understand developmental changes and tips for how to apply this knowledge to your everyday life.

Colleen Gengler, Extension educator emerita in family relations

Reviewed by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in Family Social Science

Reviewed in 2018

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