Helping teens learn independence and responsibility – part 1

Positive actions for parents to practice to help teens handle their freedom with responsibility.

Michigan State University Extension offers a program called Building Strong Adolescents as a way to help parents prepare teens for adulthood. The years of adolescent development (considered ages11-19) is a perfect time for teens to gradually prepare to take charge of their own adult lives. With this newfound freedom, teens need to learn a balance between freedom and responsibility. Responsible teens should be capable of the following:

  • Considering possible consequences from their actions.
  • Taking ownership of problems, not placing blame.
  • Consider the needs and rights of others.
  • Act with integrity, values and inner discipline.
  • Fulfill duties, obligations and promises.

As teens mature, they gradually gain new abilities that greatly expand their world. They are able to think ahead, consider alternatives, predict consequences, dream about the future, detect subtleties of right and wrong and commit themselves to certain values and ideals.

As teens skills grow and they feel less of a need to depend on their parents to make choices for them, teens tend to challenge parental authority. Although frustrating to parents, this is usually a healthy sign that they are exploring their world and working to build their own identity.

Parents who gradually begin the process of "letting go" of their teens, allow them to develop capabilities to successfully handle their expanded world. Some degree of trust must be given in order for that trust to be proven.

As teens gain more free choice and independence, parents still need to take time to teach teens how to make responsible decisions. During teen years, parents should adopt a "consultant" role. Consulting parents remain interested in the lives of their teens, set up positive expectations, set a good example, are available for advice, provide information, teach decision-making skills, and stress values to help teens gain independence. In other words, consulting parents encourage teens to make the most of their own decisions while simultaneously facilitating important decision-making skills.

Parents can help teens grow into their own abilities by encouraging them to:

  • Set goals and priorities
  • Consider alternatives
  • Predict outcomes
  • Meet ethical standards
  • Evaluate experience
  • Make decisions
  • Learn from success
  • Learn from mistakes

Parents who provide their teens appropriate autonomy give them a number of advantages: the excitement of making their own choices, pride gained from making good choices, opportunities to accept and learn from mistakes, opportunities to make their own plans and decisions, and opportunities to learn how to struggle with complex decisions.

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