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Negotiating Independence with Teens
Independence is one of the biggest issues working parents with teenagers must grapple with. Teens want it, and often demand it. And parents want teens to become independent, fully functioning responsible adults… eventually. What we disagree on is the schedule. Teens are capable and creative, but we know that their brains are not fully developed until they are in their 20s. Thus, navigating teens’ quest for independence involves a lot of negotiating. Here are some ideas about how to communicate with teenagers about independence, whether it’s about curfews, house rules or how high-school students are managing their online learning this coming school year.
Focus on safety more than rules
If your child is going to have more independence and freedom in their activities (e.g. on the computer, with friends, travelling to and from school, etc.), you need to feel that they will be safe. Talk with them about how to stay safe, why it is important, and how to get help if something goes wrong. Know that they are watching your own behavioural modeling. Try to have conversations about safety and risk during calm moments, when you are both best able to communicate and listen.
When you discuss risky behaviours, try to stick to facts. Avoid making dire predictions about worst possible scenarios. Those can be a communication stopper for teenagers.
Ask for their input and make decisions together when possible
One of teenagers’ biggest complaints about parents’ rules and restrictions on independence, is that we don’t understand them and don’t take their views into account. So when your teen asks for some independence, ask what they think. What do they think the risks are? How can they minimize the risk? What’s their plan? If, for example, a teen wants to go to a party (where you think there might be drinking) what is their plan for getting home safely? What are some computer sites that are not safe to communicate on?
If it’s not negotiable, don’t negotiate
Some things that your teen wants to do may be totally out of the question. Tell them why. If not negotiable, don’t get drawn into a negotiation. For example, the restrictions placed on social contact because of COVID-19, such as physical distancing and limiting the size of social gatherings, are non-negotiable. This is a good time to make sure your teen understands the danger of young people starting outbreaks that cause the virus to spread to vulnerable members of our society and may lead to further lockdowns.
Go step by step
It takes trial and error to find the right level of independence for our kids at various stages of their development, in part based on our family history and culture too. Try starting with smaller amount of freedom. See how they handle it. If something goes wrong, talk about it and make a new plan with them. Independence is a learning experience for both of you.
Speak with other parents
We can learn a lot from other parents. Ask some of your friends how they manage challenges with independence in their preteens and teens. It’s not that you should always do what other parents are doing, but comparing notes with other parents is a good way to learn new strategies and see how typical your rules and standards are. It can also help you feel more supported, knowing that other parents are dealing with similar issues, especially in the face of peer pressure.
Watch for signs of anxiety and stress in your child
Even though teenagers are often fierce in their quest for independence, they can also feel anxious about it. And the negotiations with you and with their peers can be stressful. Plus, kids will sometimes demand a freedom because they think they are supposed to (like going to a party they are uneasy about themselves), so they’re secretly relieved when you set limits. Additionally, watch out for and be sensitive to signs of stress and anxiety and deal with those before you try to tackle tough issues with them.
Deal with your stress
Navigating a child’s growing independence is stressful for parents too! If you are stressed out because of issues around independence, or for any other reason, you won’t be able to communicate or listen as effectively. Your stress can affect your tone of voice, body language or facial expression in ways that put your child on edge or make them defensive, and that will make the negotiation harder and less effective. For a comprehensive guide to dealing with adult stress, visit Stress Strategies, the Psychology Foundation of Canada’s online stress management tool.
Listen and be flexible, but still be in charge
Teens seeking independence will inevitably find reasons to question your decisions on their independence. They may say you are unfair based on what (they say) their friends are allowed to do. Let them know that every family and child are different, but this is the way you see it. Listen to what they have to say, and be flexible on the rules where you feel you can. It will mean a lot to your child to know you can be reasonable and that you respect and value what they have to say.
The biggest mistake would be to avoid talking, cross your fingers and hope everything turns out OK. Having two-way conversations with teens about independence, safety and risk gives you the chance to have at least some influence over how your child manages their growing independence. It also signals that big issues like sex, drugs, alcohol, COVID-19 safety and school problems are acceptable issues for a parent-child conversation.
The Psychology Foundation of Canada website offers many resources about parenting teens and preteens including:
Parent Tip sheets
Parenting for Life Booklets: You and Your Preteen and Straight Talk About Teens.