How much freedom should I give my teenager? How do I balance between my teenager’s need for independence with ensuring their safety and well-being? How much is too much when it comes to giving teens responsibility? What is the right age to let my teenager …insert what ever activity it is that stresses you…?
These are questions all parents of teenagers ask in some form at some point in their child’s development. As with so many questions in life there is no one right answer that can be simply rolled out for mass consumption. Each kid is unique and every family situation is different, so one simple answer that suits everyone isn’t possible.
There is no risk free way of making these decisions. No 100% failure proof method.
Parents will always feel an element of fear in the process of letting go of their kids. But to use an unattributed quote, at some point we all need to “Feel the fear and do it anyway!”
However, despite the lack of guarantees, there are some pretty solid principles that can definitely help making decisions about freedom, boundaries, and responsibility a lot easier (and less scary).
This post outlines a few simple foundational concepts for parenting teenagers, that when implemented will set your kids up well for their adult years and reduce parental angst and worry significantly in the process.
The Launch Sequence
The goal of parenting teenagers is to LAUNCH your teen into adulthood.
Let me explain what that means.
The overall goal of parenting is to produce responsible, independent adults who have the ability to contribute to society. In the early years this goal is expressed as keeping your baby alive by feeding, protecting, and personally providing for every aspect of their existence.
As your child moves from being an infant to a child and develops some basic skills, the parenting goal transitions to being more of a personal manager. While children are able to feed, dress, and walk around by themselves, parents still need to micro manage most aspect of at child’s life to ensure they are healthy and safe.
As your child moves from child to teenager the goal of parenting needs to change yet again. During the teenage years, kids are effectively on the countdown to being independent adults. They aren’t there yet, but should be well on the way. By the time your child arrives at the key transition periods to adulthood (leaving home, working full time, committed relationships) you want them to arrive ready.
Readiness for adulthood can’t be crammed in the night before. There are a lot of complex skills and processes to be mastered. The teenage years are when this mastery needs to occur. So parents effectively have a 6 year program to get through to ensure your teens arrive ready and equipped for adulthood. This period can thought of as a launch sequence, working through the big checklist of adult readiness so when the time comes your teenager can take on the world as a capable adult.
The goal of a parent in the teenage years therefore needs to focus less on micro-managing and directing all aspects of you kids life and instead focus on creating momentum towards adulthood. This means gradually stepping back and coaching from the sideline rather than managing and directing their every move.
What interrupts the launch sequence is when parents don’t step back and give teenagers opportunity to acquire the skills and attributes they need – this will result in your teenager stalling. The other momentum killer is when parents step back too far too quickly and teens are overwhelmed and unable to integrate what is required – this will result in teens self-destructing on the launch pad.
The Balancing Act
So there is a fine balance to be struck between letting go and not letting go to quickly.
And unlike launching a rocket, launching a teen is more art than science. So there is usually a fair bit of trial and error involved. Everyone will make mistakes at various points along the way. Fortunately kids don’t need perfect parents in order to become adults, but they generally fair better when parents are at least attempting to be intentional and focused on the end result.
So how do you allow your teen to gain momentum towards adulthood and maintain a viable launch sequence without stalling their development or risking serious damage?
The simple answer is a little bit at a time.
The more complex answer is by constantly monitoring and adjusting expectations and boundaries so that over time your teen is expected, empowered, and equipped to take on more and more adult like characteristics.
There is the potential for all parents to get stuck in a vicious circle of low expectations with teenagers. It goes like this:
- Parents have low expectations of their teenager re their capacity to act more responsibly or independently
- Parents don’t give teenager opportunity to take on more responsibility or independence
- Teenager doesn’t act more responsibly, but does seek more independence in ways that appear negative or rebellious to parents
- Parents low expectations are reinforced and maintained
And so the cycle continues.
Low expectations are so often self-fulfilling. Keep treating them like children and they will keep behaving like children.
There are lots of reasons parents are reluctant to increase their expectations of their teenager. Some are in denial their baby is growing up. Others have their own identity too bound up in parenting a child. Some are overly cautious and don’t want to set their teen up to fail or themselves for disappointment. Many just lose track of time and forget to adjust.
Whatever the reason, the result is always the same, teenagers treated like children who end up either rebelling or displaying learned helplessness. Neither outcome prepares a teenager well for adulthood.
Constantly adjusting expectations is a vital part of the teenage launch sequence. As you map out and monitor your child’s path to adulthood keep choosing to look for ways of appropriately and fairly extending your expectations of them.
Appropriate and Fair are key concepts to consider when doing this.
Appropriate refers to the age and capability of your teenager. You wouldn’t expect a 13 year old to be able to handle the same responsibilities as an 18 year old. The opposite also applies; treating a 17 year old like a 13 year old doesn’t fall into the appropriate category. Not all kids mature at the same rate, have the same temperament, or levels of confidence. So there is no blanket set of expectations for 15 year olds for example. Appropriate expectations are shaped by the age, situation and characteristics of the individual teen in question. Inappropriate expectations in whatever form, are crushing for teenagers and risk doing serious damage to a young person’s self-image and health.
Fair refers to matching expectations with reasonable guidance, equipping, and opportunity. It is not fair to expect your teen to do all their own laundry if you don’t explain clearly what the expectation is and why it has changed. Nor is it fair unless you are willing to teach them how to go about using a washing machine. And it most definitely is not fair if the standard is not applied consistently among other children at a similar age or stage. If your expectations are unfair then your teenager will become either angry and resentful, or defiant and rebellious.
When you find yourself frustrated at your teen not meeting expectations, or catch yourself not expecting much from your teen, consider if you are being appropriate and fair in forming and communicating your expectations.
The most common form of low expectations occurs with household chores and homework. Parents often bemoan their teens not taking responsibility around the house or not doing their homework without being hounded. Many times however parents create this reality by not clearly outlining the expectations and consequences up front. The situation is then compounded when parents nag and intervene before the teen has a chance to act independently.
Parents do well to ask themselves “How are my expectations of my teenager slowing down the launch sequence to adulthood?” “Am I expressing clearly what my increased expectations are and supporting my teen to meet them?”
Teens benefit when parents keep the launch sequence progressing through constant reviewing and incremental increases to expectations.
As a parent you need to be prepared for disappointment in this journey. Your teen will not live up to your every expectation every time. That’s okay. You probably won’t set them up to succeed every time either.
If you increase your expectations gradually, then failures will be relatively small and not too disastrous. Make the most of learning from failures, adjust accordingly, and move forward. Don’t let your own fear of failure be the reason you sell your teenager short.
But also be prepared for the pleasant surprises when your teenager not only meets but exceeds your expectations. For many young people the only thing holding them back is the lack of expectation from others. When parents express confidence, trust, and respect towards their teenage kids through high expectations the impacts are often amazing.
Boundaries are a really good way of expressing expectations. A boundary clearly defines what is expected and what the consequences of not meeting those expectations are.
As you increase your expectations it is logical you will need to expand the boundaries of your teenagers freedom and independence. Increased boundaries are vital for teenager developing the capacity to be self managing adults.
For many parents the when and how to extend a teenager’s freedom is a fraught exercise. Teenagers always want more sooner, while parents usually err on the side of caution and risk aversion. The answer often lies in the middle.
While not having any boundaries for teenagers is a dangerous and unhelpful practice, overly restrictive or limiting boundaries can impede teens developing the skills and maturity required to take on the responsibilities of adulthood.
As you wrestle with extending boundaries in a way that provides a solid launch sequence for your teenager here are four helpful things to consider about adjusting boundaries
Boundaries Can Be Moved – Both Ways
Some parents are scared to increase their teenagers freedom or autonomy thinking that once they make the call to do so there is no going back. Fearing they will make the call to early and their teenager will have to live with freedom they are not ready to manage, parents delay giving their teenagers increased responsibility and trust.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Boundaries are not permanent. They can be changed. They can be expanded but they can also be reduced.
While specific boundaries need to be clear and well defined, overall the setting and nature of boundaries change as your teen changes. But they are not restricted to only increasing, they can be decreased if required.
As your teenager grows and matures you extend boundaries accordingly. However, if a boundary extension turns out to be too much too soon you can always back up a little without causing too much grief. As discussed later, sometimes there are great learning opportunities to winding back a boundary for a short while when it is done well.
So don’t let the fear of permanent change stop you making any change. Boundaries are temporary and ca always be changed.
Target Specific Boundaries
Don’t get sucked into all or nothing thinking when allowing your teenager more freedom. It makes sense to give more freedom in some areas than in others at different times. Just because you allow your teen to regulate their own internet usage, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to stay out all night on the weekend.
When giving your teens more responsibility and freedom, start with the lower risk boundaries where the consequences of failure are less significant.
For instance giving your teenager the freedom to decide when they do their homework is a lot more low risk than when and who you let them drive with in a car .
Roll out the increased autonomy and associated trust levels gradually. Start at the lower risk end of the spectrum and work your way up as you get a sense of yours teen’s capabilities and your own tolerance for risk.
Allowing them the space to embrace and learn to manage increased autonomy in environments where failure, while still impactful, won’t be harmful will increase both your confidence and theirs. As your teen demonstrates their increasing maturity in the smaller things expand the boundaries in the more significant areas of life.
Let Natural Consequences Teach
By picking lower risk boundaries first, you enable some teachable moments to occur without serious damage being done.
Allowing your teen autonomy in how they manage their out of school time and balancing social life with homework is a relatively safe yet significant boundary to expand as they get into the middle teen years. If they make a mess of it in any given week the consequences are unlikely to be permanently damaging or harmful, but there will still be valuable and powerful learning opportunities that come from it.
As teens get older and start experiencing more of the adult world it is important to accept that the likely failures will occur. Coming home later than curfew, not advising you of plans changing in advance, calling you because they have consumed to much alcohol when they weren’t meant to be drinking, these are all examples of failures that are disappointing and even contain elements of risk.
However if these are one off events, and as surprising as they are disappointing to both you and your teen, then try focusing more on the learning opportunities than being outraged and brokenhearted. Have calm conversations the next day about how your teen feels about what happened and what they will do differently in the future. If you have been modelling similar processes in the early teen years the disappointing and riskier failures should be minimal.
Initiate Change as a Parent
One of the most overlooked parenting techniques to empower teens to take on responsibility is parent initiated boundary changes.
Most kids get additional freedoms when they initiate the conversation. “Can I stay out later on Saturday night?” “Why do I have to go to bed at 9:30?” etc.
However, when parents offer additional freedom and responsibility to their teenager before he or she asks, it has a powerful motivating effect.
By offering your teen a proposal with an explanation as to why, your teenager feels a sense of validation and empowerment. Teens are so much more likely to honour the new arrangement because of the affirmative power of the gesture than they are when they have to drag every new freedom out of you.
Imagine walking into your teenager tonight and saying “We are extending the time they are allowed to stay out on weekends by 2 hours because you have demonstrated to us lately that you can be trusted and manage yourself responsibly.” What type of impact do you think that would have on them?
Of course you wouldn’t and shouldn’t do this if your teenager hasn’t been demonstrating that they can be trusted or are ready to take on more responsibility.
How’s Your Launch Sequence?
So if you are a parent who is not sure when to let your teenager take on certain responsibilities or freedoms, step back for a minute and consider what your launch sequence is for them. Consider the following questions:
“How old / mature are they?”
“How many years to / months to go until they are considered an adult?”
“What skills / attitudes / values do they need to strengthen and develop?”
“What can I do to progress their development?”
“What expectations or lack of expectations do I have that is holding them back?”
With these things in mind plot out the possible path for the immediate future. Then take action on the next most important thing for your teenager.
If you do implement these ideas I would love to know how you go. I’d also be interested in other considerations or principles you have found helpful in managing your teen’s launch to adulthood. So please share your story or discoveries in the comments below or click here to send me an email.