A teenager's autonomy


Young and excited, teenagers want to experience the world and all it has to offer for the first time; not through a parent’s eyes. Teenagers may beg to try a dangerous activity or attend a party with no adult supervision. These rebels without a cause may spend a portion of the summer arguing with parents about not being allowed to have fun.

The real dilemma then: is how to help a teenager invest their time and effort into something productive, while also keeping in their realm of interest. Teenagers are surrounded by opportunities for illicit substance experimentation or dangerous activities. The focus is not to take control of a teenager’s free time, rather to give them positive options and ideas. Help the teenager to avoid making harmful and stupid decisions out of boredom.

A natural part of growing up

Teenagers who face frustrated parents judging every action they take may end up, “Turning away from parents and turning more to peers for a sense of connection,” according to Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. The transitional period of a teenager should include the chance to create lasting bonds with others his or her age. In this sense, the teenager may choose to spend time with friends, and this new crowd may engage in abusing substances or attempting dangerous or illegal stunts.

Teenagers gain more freedom with age and attempt to test the waters. Firestone describes how the brain changes through adolescence. She analyzes and explains the psyche of the underdeveloped mind — from ages 12 to 24 as, “involve pruning, or the reduction in the number of neurons and neural connections.” This change in the brain, “allows for a faster and more synchronization of information flow.” Firestone summarizes pruning as purging the brain of useless connections and “strengthens the remaining connections, turning them into super highways.” The teenager’s mind is going through a complex change, leading to their desire for more independence.

Firestone adds, “True, teenagers need to develop their autonomy, but they also need guidance and involvement that is sensitive and attuned.” Teenagers need guidance, just not in constant supervision. Rebellion will be a natural part of growing up for the teenager.

What can be done?

Without guidance, teenagers can walk down dark paths. With too much parental control over a teenager’s life, there can be lasting psychological effects on the teen. Teenagers can choose to make decisions for themselves, but remain under the rules of a household or rebel.

A study  in 2014, led by Barbara Oudekerk and published in the journal “Child Development” found, “Parental psychological control at age 13 undermined the development of autonomy and relatedness.” A higher level of parental psychological control is estimated to continue affecting the teenagers into romantic relationships in early adulthood, around the age of 18. A teenager needs to be able to explore their autonomy in their own way and not be controlled by the parent.

Teenagers need more than simple guidance, they need respectful involvement. Teenagers do not need parents to complete or lecture every action; they need parents to respect their independence. The stronger the grip a parent has over the teenager, the more likely the teenager will rebel and break rules. Rebellion can be the teenager’s response when he or she feels strong lack of autonomy or freedom in their life. This does not mean to allow the teenager complete emancipation, but to be present in the activities and interests of the teenager.

A bit of involvement goes a long way

A way to give the teenager positive control can be to help them build something of significance to their interests from scratch. An example could be a teenager who loves to ride a skateboard. Advise the teenager on ways to raise money for the supplies to build a ramp and use that on the streets. The important factor is to give the teenager the steering wheel and provide guidance if needed.

Another example could be to help a teen interested in starting a band raise money to buy a guitar. Perhaps help an aspiring drummer create a soundproof room to play in. The teenager can follow their interests and avoid harmful, dangerous or illegal activities. Firestone concludes with, “Parents can broaden their ability to relate to their children by understanding their personal attachment style and learning new ways of relating that will help their kids to gracefully enter adulthood.” The parents can begin to build a bond with the teenager and be present to give advice when the teenager needs it.

In other situations, a teenager may be struggling with substance abuse or behavioral issues which can literally be fueling rebellion. White River Academy is a residential boarding school for boys from ages 12 to 17, struggling with issues at school and interpersonal problems. WRA provides treatment and care for the boys through disciplined guidance, a strong education program and character values which manifest through service projects promoting initiative and innovation. For more information or to register, feel free to call 866-520-0905.

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