Finding the right balance of independence and boundaries has to change when kids become teenagers. In this week's 'Teen Talk," a young adult shares her insight into how parents can allow teens to find their own way.

By Cassidy Littleton
November 13, 2020
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Credit: Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner

Parents, I'm sure you get an anxious feeling just reading that title. It's hard coming to terms with the reality that your baby isn't a baby anymore and although not yet graduated, they're growing up on you. They are past the elementary years, going through puberty, discovering their hobbies, and becoming independent. No longer a little kid in need of constant guidance or support, your child is a teenager now. And just as they continue to change, so should the way you parent them. If that scares you a tiny bit, just remember that this is a beautiful opportunity to empower your teens in reaching their fullest potential.

To be honest, I was a tough teen to deal with growing up. I was fiercely independent and fiery most of the time, and although I respected authority and got good grades (for the most part), I could get mean and rebellious at home. I grew up in foster homes and with divorced parents, and looking back on those experiences, I learned a lot about how each parenting style affected my self-efficacy, confidence and motivation, and my relationships.

So much of childhood is spent in discovery mode. Your child has been exposed to sports, music, and art, contrasting social groups, and they've started developing their individual curiosities and personalities. Because we're all so different, there's not a one-size-fits-all approach to teenagers (that's a good thing—it means you've got breathing room!), but here's the deal: you've spent the last decade and then-some preparing your child to be a successful individual, and it's time to update the rules and guidelines as they transition into teen years.

Boundaries are important as you start—things like curfews, expectations at home and school, and having shared relationship values should be addressed moving forward. If you try to maintain the same level of close supervision and guidance as you did when they were younger, your teen could miss out on major social milestones or feel restricted and pent-up, which can lead to anger, frustration, and resentment later on. Giving them more freedom and self-authority allows them to deepen their discovery of themselves and the world, and oftentimes, they'll be more open and honest about their personal lives for it because they'll know you've given them room to learn (from their mistakes) as they go.

Increasingly empower your teens and listen to the experiences they share with you. Practically, this looks like letting your teen make more decisions for themselves, whether it's their outfit for school that day or the friends they hang out with on weekends. Let them come to you for help and advice rather than automatically giving it. Listen and ask first, instruct second. Urge them to try new hobbies and explore their curiosities. Emphasize safety, transparency, and trust in your relationships, and take every opportunity to create a community of support for them in their family, friends, mentors, teachers, and coaches. Lastly: remember to have grace with your teens, because you were young and dumb once too. Don't be scared. Be excited, buckle up, and enjoy the ride!

From an expert: "We know from studies of "autonomy-supportive" parenting, which includes allowing adolescents more freedom and independence as they mature, that these teens gain competence and confidence that serves them well in adulthood," says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and Parents' Ask Your Mom columnist. "As hard as it may be to watch from the sidelines, it's especially important to expect your teen to make big mistakes as part of gaining independence. Instead of judging them, share your own teenage missteps, and support them through the process of learning from these painful life lessons."

Cassidy Littleton is a 21-year-old college student whose major passion is mentoring teens and fighting for child welfare legislative reform. A junior at Boise State University, she studies public relations with a minor in political science and is an active voice in the Idaho community.

Read more Teen Talk columns here

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