Teenagers: The Anxiety of Independence
Exams are done, extra murals finished and schools are closed! Let the holidays begin...as well as the negotiations! At this time of year, many parents of teenagers are constantly dealing with decisions around topics such as parties, socialising, uber-ing, drinking, sleeping out and curfews.
It’s so important that we talk about the issue of independence with adolescents as it is one of the main ‘tasks’ of this stage of development. It is a period of such rapid change –physically, emotionally and socially and can be full of challenges and anxiety for all involved. This desire for more independence brings about a lot of questions such as how much freedom to give, when to say no, how much is too much and what about keeping them safe. After a very intensive year of working with teens and their families, I have tried to answer the three most common questions I get asked that relate to teenage independence.
1. What's going for my adolescent?!
Usually I get asked this by an exasperated parent who doesn’t quite understand why now ‘everything is such a big deal’ with their teen and why they seem to want complete freedom. It’s important to remember that adolescence is a time for separating. Your child is actively trying to find their own identity and voice, and they find that by pushing against and challenging what they have been told and seeking their own ways or ideas. They are also turning towards their friends more so than ever - they are looking for their own tribe, feeling accepted is crucial, and in adolescent, that sense of belonging does not come from parents, it comes from peers. The lure of freedom and independence and fear of exclusion is so strong and enticing that it drives so many of the teen’s behaviours, even overriding what parents may see as more obvious and responsible choices. I encourage parents to understand what is going on for their teens, to help their teen make sense some of the emotions they are experiencing- this does not mean parents need to allow absolute freedom, but by getting a sense of where they are coming from, more meaningful discussions can be had.
2. What's going on for me as the parent?!
By this point, parents are often emotionally drained and feeling like there is an eye roll from their teen for everything they do. The separation process I mentioned above- it’s painful for parents! Previously they were the be all and end all of their child’s lives –they always wanted to spend time with you and thought you had the answers to it all, and now the sting of rejection hurts. Added to that loss and sadness, parents are often feeling more fearful as they see their control over their child reducing at the same time as the teen is being exposed to more risky situations. The stakes are higher and these emotions can affect the parents’ decision-making capacity as much as their teens. As a result, some parents resort to more controlling and restrictive ways of parenting , with strict rules, while other may become more permissive and ‘relaxed’ about what they allow in the hopes that their child will not turn away from them, remaining as a ‘friend’ .
3. What do I do?
With teenager independence being a complicated process for both parents and child, here are some tips for parents to navigate this path.
Discuss and set limits: Parents need to be direct with their children about what the limits are, with clear guidelines around the consequences for not adhering to these.These limits should not be dictated, but rather discussed together and adjusted accordingly as the child develops and shows increased ability to responsibly handle more freedom.
Highlight the connection of choice and consequence: Your teen needs learn that with that increased freedom and making their own choices, there will always be consequences, both positive and negative.As a parent you will not be able to protect them from this and there will be some mistakes along the way, some big, some small – this is the only way a child actually learns and how resilience is strengthened.
Teach the importance of self-care:As parents, we have a responsibility to help them learn how to make decisions for themselves that values their own well-being and safety. This is hard to learn when parents are making all the decisions for them. So when discussing topics related to freedom and independence, I encourage parents to focus their concerns on the risks associated with such behaviours, and weight up options you both feel comfortable with, but keep judgments and criticism out of the discussion. This allows them to learn valuable tools to use WHEN (not if) they get faced with difficult decisions and need to decide for themselves.
I would love to offer you a clear step-by-step instruction manual for how to make these tough decisions and tell you one size fits all. But the truth is, this process of independence is hard and messy, with parents and teens trying to do the best they can at the time while still trying to hold true to their own values.
With that, I wish you all a safe and restful holiday time and will be back in the new year with some exciting new developments planned.