Autonomy in Adolescence and Learning to Let Go as Parents
By Lynn Cukaj, ATR-BC www.CreativeExpressionsConsulting.com
Art Therapy for Children, Teenagers, and Adults
Letting go is an interesting way of looking at how an adolescent expresses their autonomy. Conflict during adolescence is common due to the teenager trying the express their autonomy. Autonomy means the state of self-governing; self-directed freedom (www.merriam-webster.com). So of course, this time would be filled with conflict when the constant situation is who is in charge?
A parent can no longer just say because I said so or I am the parent and that is why. Letting go would be more rightly attached to the parent. To let go of something is to stop holding or gripping something or someone (www.merrian-webster.com). I think there are other ways to also describe this process; allowing our children to spread their wings being one of them. When this does not happen or is not allowed to happen, a failure to launch can occur. Especially during this present time of COVID where a number of adult children moved back home and teenagers may not have had the opportunity to leave for college right away. What then? Parents can learn how to establish rules, guidelines, and monitoring but in addition could practice mindful techniques to reduce their anxiety about their teen establishing autonomy. Teenagers are attuned to social cues and will pick up on their parents’ anxiety which could lead to conflict.
Brain development takes a role in the why and how teenagers may act in ways that do not make sense to their parents. Imbalance in the brain is occurring where different parts are developing at different rates therefore this imbalance may explain why teenagers are more sensation seeking than other age groups. Sensation seeking may lead to more high-risk behaviors that include sexual intercourse, drug and alcohol use, driving under the influence, and possibly criminal behavior. These behaviors are very worrisome; however, protective factors would center on secure attachment and the communication style of the parent and teenager.
Parent monitoring has been found to serve as a protective factor to reduce risky behavior.
This includes tracking their child’s whereabouts, friendships, and activities. Personally, I have engaged in this but over time tracking my children’s whereabouts was counterproductive and lead to a reduction in our communication, predominantly with my older son. So, for our family we got rid of the life360 app and resumed what had been working for us, talking. We have a family group chat, and it has been working out much better. As a parent, it is important to find out what has worked for your family before conflict arose. Was there a period that your parent-child relationship was in a good communication pattern? You and your teenager/s may have very different perspectives on this, but it is important for you as the parent to discover what has worked positively in the past. What is the current state of your family dynamics regarding communication? How has it changed? Why?
Cultural expectations can play a role in how autonomy in adolescence is supported. In the United States, sense of obligation to the parents declines in 7th and 8th grades while in China it increases which has been found to lead to better grades, greater mastery of learning, and improved self-regulation. Gender differences may also arise during this time. Environmental factors such as socioeconomic status can negatively impact a teen during puberty however a secure attachment is a protective factor that can minimize the negative impact. General individual differences will affect how this process occurs for each child in a family. Due to the changes in the teenage brain currently, teens are not only open to new experiences and learning opportunities but are more vulnerable to stress. Therefore, it is important for parents to understand that their parenting style and approach to autonomy needs to be done in an empathic, non-judgmental, and minimal stress inducing manner. Your teenager is already experiencing a heightened level of stress response and does not need additional stress from their loved ones. Family dynamics are an ongoing organic process and change is part of life.
Stress and anxiety connected to the greater autonomy of a member of the family can have effects on the whole family.
It would seem to me that the letting go process is a continuum and flexible depending on the individual needs for the teen. It would be important for a parent to help their teen express their need for autonomy by being specific on what that means for them. Strategies to help teens would be to help them understand how to achieve autonomy and stay connected to their family. It is important that the parent understands that autonomy is an important developmental process for their teen and even if they have their own feelings about this process, they need to do what is best for their child. That can be difficult for some parents who may have had difficulties throughout their parenting relationship with their child. Some issues that may come up during this time are problem behaviors, which can be reduced by parental control. However, too little, and too much control can become problematic. Teenagers need parental control that is neither rigid or loose; parents need to be warm, responsive, and empathic to allow their teen to grow roots and spread their wings.
The most effective parenting style is authoritative where the parent can combine high responsiveness and high demandingness.
Establishing rules and guidelines is part of the proactive component described in the Flemish model for parental conflict management model. This model could offer some good strategies for parents. Parent control focuses on communication, establishing boundaries, and maintaining age-appropriate involvement while psychological control focuses on reduction of communication, communicates distrust in the child and wants conformity from the child. Strategies for parents would be parental monitoring which needs to be clearly distinguished from psychological control, which has been associated with creating internalizing and externalizing problems and disorders.
Regarding this process, I have been personally living it for the last 8 years with my three children. I am a proactive person by nature so when my oldest went to middle school, we had the first of many conversations about drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. Middle school years are the years of more mixed gender hangouts, parties, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, etc. In addition, I said to him “you can choose whatever way you would like to decorate your room; you decide.” Now of course my husband was livid because my son hung posters, banners, hats, etc. using nothing but thumbtacks. My response was to let go; “it can always be painted, no big deal, if he feels control over the area that is his, he will feel in more control of himself.”
It may help parents that a strategy could be to consider the areas that they are willing to let go of some control, there may be less conflicts. I am also a firm believer in addressing issues before they become issues. One way that as a parent we were able to make it look like we were giving up some control was in the curfew. My husband and I did not grow up with a curfew so setting one seemed counterintuitive. However, we wanted to set some guidelines for our son. We set a weekday curfew of 11 pm and weekend curfew of midnight. We had a long conversation about the fact that nothing good happens after midnight. Our one rule was that if he was going to miss the curfew he had to text or call us and tell us. I will say this process had a lot of bumps but ultimately it has worked out. The key we found was to keep consistent and have an open and nonjudgmental dialogue with our son.
Adolescence is filled with moments for dying their hair, change of hairstyles, having a different style of dress, deciding not to shower for a few days, etc. It is a peculiar time for parents and teenagers to both learn from and acknowledge what can be learned from this time.
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Broderick, P. & Blewitt, P. (2020). The life span: human development for helping professionals
(5th ed.). Pearson.