Adolescents and Autonomy

teen girls lying on their backs on a truck

If it feels like your child has been moving away from you from the moment they were born, it’s because they have. We nurture them, comfort them, keep them safe, teach them how to be in the world and they take all these wonderful gifts and use them to grow and go. And that’s what we want them to do: grow and go out into the world well prepared to make their place in it.

This desire to go didn’t start at 11 or 12. Your adolescent has been practicing being independent in one form or another his whole life. Remember her first “No!” What an enlightening moment that was for your two year old. Each stage of development has these experiences where we let go just a little more as our child gains more independence. However, during the adolescent years the drive for autonomy ramps up.

The definition for autonomy found in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary cuts to the core of what the adolescent is seeking:   Autonomy: the ability to act and make decisions without being controlled by anyone else.  Suddenly there is a lot more resistance to parental input.  Your child has an increased desire for privacy and wants to figure things out on their own. “It’s my life,” and “Why do you have to know everything I’m doing?” are common responses parents hear.

As parents, it’s important to understand that your adolescent is not rejecting you but in a few short years they are going to leave home and be on their own. They need to experiment with this, explore what it feels like and practice, practice, practice. The nice thing is that they are not on their own yet. They are still living under your roof, and though they would never admit it, your presence, input and guidance are invaluable.

How can parents best deal with the emotional upheaval of their adolescent’s drive for autonomy? In her book Untangled, Lisa Damour shares the metaphor of a swimming pool to help parents visualize the choppy waters of these years. Think of yourself, the parents, as the pool and the water as the broader world. Your adolescent is the swimmer.  Adolescents will venture out into the deep water of the world; exploring, playing, interacting with others but when something goes wrong, they return to the safety, security and comfort of the pool’s sides, their parents, to regroup. Then, before you know it, they are ready to go again and push off, leaving again for the deep water.   It is hard to go from feeling loved and connected one moment to distant and excluded the next but understanding that it is not personal helps us to keep our hearts soft while they are out exploring, and to stay open and loving to their eventual return.

How can parents help their child in getting plenty of practice with making decisions before they leave home? Providing her with the opportunity to do for herself is a great way to increase her self-confidence while learning important life skills. Envision yourself in the role of consultant. Whenever possible allow your adolescent to take the lead in making decisions on those things that impact him. Support her in thinking critically and determining the best choice for herself. Give input in the form of choices and questions: “Would you like to be home at 10 or 10:30?” Or “What do you think is a reasonable curfew?” (You can always reply “that’s not reasonable” if they say 4am.)

Ask yourself “What am I doing for my child that he could be doing for himself?”

When it comes time to register for classes, who is driving the selection? Is your vision of who your child is getting in the way of who they are expressing themselves to be? (That’s not to say that parental guidance is irrelevant – my father hounded me to take a typing class in high school. I begrudgingly did and have been thankful ever since. As I said before, your presence, input and support really do have a strong influence on your adolescent.)

What responsibilities around the home could he take on: laundry, meal preparation, refilling the gas tank?  Allowing our adolescents to exert their autonomy on the small stuff gives them practice in making decisions while the consequences of making poor ones aren’t so detrimental as to be dangerous or have far reaching effects on their future well-being.

Adolescence is an amazing time in your child’s life. The brain and body are primed for an intense period of growth that ultimately will lead to going out into the world. With your love, support and guidance, plenty of practice making decisions and handling the consequences, your child will be well prepared when she does take that step into the broader world.


Written by Katie Arnold. Katie is a Parent Liaison at Bozeman High School. 

For more information about Thrive’s Parent Liaisons in the Bozeman and Big Sky public schools, or to get in touch with the Parent Liaison at your child’s school, feel free to contact Thrive at any time.

What is Parent Liaison? Find out here!

katie arnold staff photo against brick wall backdrop


Photo by Steve Freling of Motor Oomph