Increasing autonomy

Encouraging your young person to develop autonomy at a pace that everyone feels comfortable with can be a balancing act. They might think they’re ready to stay out later with friends; you might disagree. You might be asking them to take on more personal responsibility for decisions; they might resist.

The trick is to stay involved and show your interest without being intrusive.

Navigating changes

Becoming autonomous and independent is a key stage of adolescent development. Young people often begin to challenge more of the decisions made by others – including parents and teachers – and explore their own thoughts, beliefs and desires.

Testing boundaries, taking risks and being impulsive can be part of a young person’s quest for new experiences. They learn to reflect on their mistakes and consider other options, and they become more aware of what or who influences their thinking. They also begin to work through more complex problems independently, and move from focusing inward on themselves to being more thoughtful and aware of others and their situations.

Part of this development may include reflecting on family, cultural and community values, particularly for young people of refugee and migrant backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people. Young people’s friendships and other relationships are also changing, and the beginning and ending of their first relationship in particular can be a learning and emotional experience.

As they navigate these developmental changes, young people will experience a range of emotions – moodiness, irritability, frustration, but also happiness, pride and satisfaction. These are normal responses to new challenges. It can be an exciting time, but one that can be a little confronting and at times disappointing.

Establish limits with room to grow

It’s important to be clear about what behaviour is okay and not okay in your family. But teenagers aren’t at their best when they feel they’re not being listened to, or that they’re still being treated like a child. Try involving your teenager in establishing the rules of the house, and in determining the consequences for breaking those rules.  

Set the limits strictly enough so your young person stays safe, but widely enough to give them room to grow. It’s hard, but accept that they will make mistakes along the way.

Be involved in your young person’s life…

Paying attention to your teenager and being involved in their life can help you spot any changes in their behaviour, as well as helping them to feel supported and respected.

Here are some ideas:

  • Pick some fun activities that you both enjoy and that give you a chance to spend some one-on-one time together.
  • Develop a habit of doing something special with each child once a month away from the rest of the family.
  • Try and eat dinner together as a family (without being glued to the TV).
  • Get to know who their friends are and what they’re up to.
  • Check in with them on school work – ask if they need extra help with anything and keep providing encouragement.
  • Take an active interest in what your teenager’s doing at school and in their extra-curricular activities and hobbies, whether they’re into footy, flamenco dancing or fire twirling.
  • Even though it might look like their focus is now on their mates and they’re not interested in the family board games night, don’t underestimate how important feeling part of the family continues to be for your teenager.

…but avoid over-involvement

It’s important to balance being involved with giving your young person the privacy and space to figure things out on their own.

Give them a chance to make mistakes and try to avoid taking over. If you’re unsure if you’re stepping in too often or too early in a situation, ask yourself “Did I really need to get involved?” and, “What would have been the worst thing to happen if I didn’t step in?”

Gradually increase your teenager’s responsibilities and independence over time to allow them to mature. Encourage your teenager to try a variety of activities and interests to help them find out what they’re interested in and what they’re good at. This will help to build their self-confidence. Encourage your teenager to help around the house by giving them age-appropriate jobs and responsibilities.
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