How to Give a Strong-Willed Teenager More Independence and Keep Your Cool

Got a teen pushing for independence? Good! That's what teens are supposed to do. Now, here's how to handle it.

mother talking to teenager
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Striving for independence by pushing limits is synonymous with the teen years. You no doubt remember the urge to nudge past your parents' rules yourself. That push and pull between teens and their moms and dads, while perfectly normal, can be stressful for everyone. "Teens experience a natural desire to create a personal identity outside of their family," explains Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D. of Family Matters Counseling Group in Raleigh, NC. "It can be hard letting our teens take the reins; however, it is necessary if they are to build resilience and confidence."

While us parents of teens understand this information on a logical level, our hearts tell us a different story. When my teens were (and are) pushing limits, it feels a lot like rejection...of me, personally, to be exact. And that stings, coming from the person you love most in the universe. But if we're to get our kids where they need to be, we have to just lick our wounds and push on.

Common Teen Behavior Challenges

As your child morphs from little kid to an almost-adult, the two of you are bound to clash. Where, exactly, varies from kid to kid and parent to parent. The options are many: driving, dating, curfews, friend choices, amount of time spent on schoolwork, dropping or picking up sports or other activities, getting a job, how they spend their money—and that's just for starters. As a mom of three high school and college students, it seems to me the boundaries (and buttons) kids push are as different as their personalities, and even vary with their daily moods. And what kept me awake at night often seemed to not even register with my husband (who the next week would be in a tailspin over something I saw as inconsequential.)

That said, one of the most common bumps in the road is the moment you realize you are no longer number one in their lives. "This can be a difficult pill to swallow, feelings of being shut out of your teen's life," says Dr. Bates-Duford. When children are younger, they look to parents for advice and approval in almost everything, but now that happens less and less. "Teens commonly seek out friends and romantic partners for advice and sharing, leading parents to wonder if they still know their own child," says Dr. Bates-Duford. As teens begin to develop more autonomy, they tend to engage less with the family, which may not only break your heart a little (OK, a lot), but make you worry. That's because at the same time they're distancing themselves from you, "They usually become more secretive, especially about their friends and where they're going," adds Dr. Bates-Duford.

Steps to Setting Boundaries for Teens

Establishing appropriate boundaries that work to keep your child healthy and happy while respecting his or her understandable desire for independence isn't the easiest thing in the world, but it's absolutely doable. Here are four guidelines worth keeping in mind.

  1. Get specific. “Establish clear, concise rules,” urges Dr. Bates-Duford. For example, instead of “Stay on top of your homework” pinpoint what your expectations look like. “You need to show me a time-management plan that keeps you on top of your long-time projects for the semester and start your daily homework within an hour of getting home.” Being completely clear about what is expected reduces the likelihood of confusion and increases the odds that your expectations will be met.
  2. Set boundaries before they’re needed. This is especially true around critical topics, like texting while driving. “Parents should begin the conversation about safe driving before a teen gets behind the wheel,” says Dr. Bates-Duford, adding that driving is an arena where teens are particularly heavily influenced by peers. Avoid setting boundaries when you’re upset or when emotions are running high, adds Glenn Scott, LCSW, director of the Youth Partial Hospital Program at Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center in Loma Linda, CA. If you do, it’s more likely you’ll come up with something unrealistic to maintain.
  3. Tweak your communication style. “Talking to a younger child is not the same as taking to a teen,” observes Dr. Bates-Duford. “Parents have to adjust their communication style to their teen’s growing maturity. Start with communicating openly about why you have the rules you have. Then, allow your teen to weigh in with their thoughts.” That encourages teens to imagine the results of their actions—always better than you telling them what they would be.
  4. Keep the consequences logical. “If a boundary is crossed, stick to natural consequences,” emphasizes Scott. Say your teen takes the car out but comes home later than agreed upon. The consequence should have to do with car privileges. If she fails an exam because she was on her phone instead of studying the night before, look to restricting her phone use as a consequence. In either case, refusing to allow her to go to an upcoming concert with friends will seem random and undermine what you’re trying to accomplish. “When inconsistency occurs when rules are broken, teens will see parents as being selective, having ‘something against them,’ or deliberately being mean,” Dr. Bates-Duford adds.

Guide Teens Forward

Of course, having effective boundaries in place doesn't mean your job is done. Conversation and guidance continue as you help your burgeoning grown-up on the road to independence. Here are points to consider.

Tap the power of peers. Resist the knee-jerk assumption that anything your kid's friends have to say can't really help your cause. "Teens begin to develop emotional autonomy through the support of their peers, so their friends' thoughts and actions are crucial to the way they learn to self-govern," says Dr. Bates-Duford. When broaching a sticky scenario with your teen, ask what they think one of their good friends would do and why.

Recognize when it might be you. Sometimes, the battles that commence around a teen's quest for independence are feeding off of your emotions. "The first piece of advice I give to the parent is to acknowledge the pain they feel watching their 'baby' grow up. So many times, parents have unresolved guilt and shame for the mistakes they have made as a parent, and they have a hard time letting go," says Scott. That resonates with me completely. It's scary to see the window on your kid's childhood shutting and realizing whatever mistakes you made are going to be "permanent." I want more time to fix all the stuff I messed up. Of course, the window of opportunity to "make things right" is never really shut. But it's easy to forget that when your baby is 6' 1".

Scott emphasizes, though, that your kid is always going to need you, just in different ways. "How they needed you at 5 is different than at 10 and different again at 15. So as your child grows and changes, so must you." Dr. Bates-Duford reports that trusting your teen, gradually, with more and more responsibility, makes "letting go" easier. Resisting letting your child learn to run his own life is only making the process more painful for both of you.

Share your challenges. The advent of the smartphone has changed much about being a teenager. Still, "when I was your age" can still be a valid approach if "parents acknowledge the new challenges teens are facing, such as social media, cyberbullying, and sexting," says Dr. Bates-Duford. Many of the key struggles of growing up—insecurity about your appearance, feeling left out, succumbing to negative peer pressure—are still there, even when they're being played out on Snapchat instead of the schoolyard.

Show vulnerability. "A lot of times, a parent's reaction to situations comes from a place of fear," notes Scott. When you must say no to your teen, who, for instance, wants to go into the city with a group of friends you've never met after junior prom, "tell them what you are afraid of, what's making you say no," advises Scott. That makes you vulnerable, which, yes, is typically seen as a weakness. But it's actually a strength, insists Scott. "When you are vulnerable with your teen, it opens up the avenues of communication and allows your daughter or son to share reasons why or why not that fear is justified."

Spend time with your teen. This may seem obvious, but it's a timeless tool that parents need to tap into, says Scott. "It's a myth that teens don't want to spend time with their parents. The activities just need to be updated." Even just 20 minutes a week, every week, spent on interactive pursuits like baking, a photo safari, taking the dogs to the park, or even going to the gym can lead to a better connection between a parent and teen.

Your teen's push to lead his own life is perfectly on schedule. It shows he is gaining an understanding of the world, his place in it, and becoming more confident in his abilities. Your job now is to stand beside him, offering support, catching him when he falls, and cheering him forward. The only way he can really master what he needs to learn is by practicing, so give him the opportunity to manage his own life whenever you can. Still can't shake the feeling you no longer have a place in your kid's life? From where I'm standing, I can say for sure that we do. It's starting to dawn on me (gulp) that our jobs never really end, no matter how old our kids get. But I don't think we'd want it any other way.

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