Behaviour & Emotions Health & Well-being

Raising great adults: Why teens need autonomy

Teens need autonomy

I was recently having dinner with friends and a fellow mum was talking about her 20-year-old daughter who had just got a new job. I looked at my friend and exclaimed, “Wait, how are you the mother of a 20-year-old?” And then it hit me, my eldest daughter was about to turn 20. Somehow, I am now the mother of a 20-year-old!

You may have had moments in your parenting journey where well-meaning older folk have told you to cherish these days as the time goes by so fast. I am certainly now living that reality. I heard some researchers on a podcast the other day talking about the fact that most of us will only have 19 years worth of time with our children. Around 18 years until they leave home for potential study or work and then an accumulation of another year throughout their life as an adult. That thought stopped me in my tracks. As a mother of four, with my eldest turning 20 and my youngest at the beginning of her teen years, I am only too aware of how quickly our children become teenagers and then emerging adults.

As a mother of four, with my eldest turning 20 and my youngest at the beginning of her teen years, I am only too aware of how quickly our children become teenagers and then emerging adults.

I have also been reflecting on what I have learnt thus far and how my own parenting has shifted. The parenting journey is a marathon not a sprint, and over the years we collect new ideas and shift our thinking (hopefully for the better).

So, what can we do to encourage our teenagers to be ready for the transition to adulthood? As our children move from child to teenager, there is one fundamental need that emerges that parents do well to be aware of. It’s this – the need for autonomy.

I've got this

The need for autonomy emerges at two critical stages of a young person’s development. The first appearance is in the toddler years... we all remember the moment our sweet babies transition to toddlers, with new-found independence and an abundance of determination to do things on their own. "I DO IT!!!"

That same need for autonomy emerges as our kids enter their teen years. Autonomy shows up as feeling, behaving and thinking independently. Your young person starts displaying a need for self-governance and a freedom to make their own choices. This makes sense, because during adolescence, our teenagers begin to separate from us to discover who they are. They’re on a mission to find their own identity and start to think independently.

And we may need to brace ourselves, because – you probably saw this coming – sometimes this quest for autonomy can look and sound a bit like disrespect. Cue arguments, eye rolls, loud sighs and closed bedroom doors. Yes, it can all feel a bit triggering. Helpfully, I was reminded in an article by Diana Divecha, Developmental Science, that “respect is a two-way street, and it becomes especially important during adolescence.”

They’re on a mission to find their own identity and start to think independently.

We may need to take a step back, shift our focus from our own uncomfortable or hurt feelings and remind ourselves that our respect is a gift we can give our teen right now, and something they deeply need. In particular – they need to feel that we respect their autonomy. This is because self-determined motivation is most likely to develop when three basic psychological needs are met – one of those needs being autonomy, which is never more important than during the teenage years.

And as well as being key to self-determined motivation (doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, rather than just doing it because you were nagged or bossed around to do it) there are bonus benefits - when our teens feel our respect for their autonomy, they’re more like to stay engaged, cooperative and connected relationally.

Our respect is a gift we can give our teen right now, and something they deeply need.

Getting the balance right

Supporting a teenager’s emerging need for autonomy requires a delicate balance. Giving too much autonomy without support can be damaging for our teens, and giving too little autonomy may force them to push for autonomy in unhealthy ways.

So, what do our teens need from us to support a healthy transition? They need us to understand that their need for autonomy does not end our relationship. Whilst it may feel like we are no longer needed, our teens absolutely need us to walk beside them in these years.

Here are three things autonomy-supportive parents can do to guide their teenager towards their brilliant future:

1. Validate your teen’s opinions, even when you may disagree

This can be easier said than done, especially when we are poles apart and the issue in question is feeling contentious. To validate your teen's opinion, you must first listen without prejudice. Validating their opinion supports their need to think for themselves. It is important for them to see you as a safe place to share their opinions and ideas.

2. Guide your teen, rather than make decisions for them

How often do we launch into long lectures or ‘helpful’ how-to’s for our teens, instead of asking what they think may be the best way forward. When I get curious about my teen's thoughts, I am often surprised with how they have already considered the options and have come to some good decisions on their own.

3. Allow your teen to have total responsibility for the small things in their life

For example, extracurricular activities, style of hair, choice of music.. In a few short years, these decisions will sit with them anyway, so let’s help support their ability to make choices that work for them. Watch and praise as they benefit from their good decisions, and be willing to sit with them in their discomfort when their decisions result in less-than-ideal outcomes.

Strap in!

Autonomy for our teens looks like being listened to, having some freedom when it comes to choices, carrying some responsibility and managing aspects of their lives themselves. A sense of autonomy coupled with feelings of being respected helps our teens feel like their actions and choices matter, and that ultimately they matter!

The journey to adulthood is a pretty exciting ride alright. From my experience, the teen years come with some challenges. Like any good journey, there will be mountain-top moments where we see glimpses of this great human we created, and there will be low valleys where we may wonder where we went wrong. At every stage, the goal is the same – connection. If we can stay close (not smotheringly so, but so they know we’re always available) and walk alongside our teens – mountain high and valley low – we'll be doing our best work of sending them off into the world as confident, capable and secure young adults.


Sheridan Eketone

Sheridan Eketone is passionate about shaping the hearts of the next generation through parenting. Mum of four, Sheridan is grateful to her own tamariki for teaching her the importance of connection when it comes to raising confident and resilient kids.

Sheridan works as a presenter and facilitator trainer for Parenting Place. A warm, relatable and enthusiastic communicator, Sheridan draws on ideas from the Circle of Security – an attachment-based relational concept that has deeply impacted her own parenting – to empower parents to be the best they can be.

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