New to learning about autonomy in kids? Start with our post on creating autonomy for toddlers and preschoolers.
Welcome back! Ready to create autonomy for teens and school-aged kids? Feeling a sense of control and direction over one’s life is hugely important to school-aged kids and teenagers, and it starts in the toddler years. In addition to continuing to give choices (when reasonable) and involving kids in tasks, it’s more important than ever to name and acknowledge their feelings and give age-appropriate feedback. Autonomy for teens is crucial for school success and beyond.
Ever wonder why your teen’s friends are SOOO important to her? At this age, kids develop their own autonomy through the encouragement of peers. Therefore, your daughter’s friends’ thoughts and opinions are crucially important to her. She’s beginning the process of spreading her own wings by watching her friends spread theirs.
Give teens safe opportunities:
One of the best things I ever did for my teen was to say ‘yes’ when he asked to hike the Pacific Crest Trail across Oregon when he was 16. Was this a crazy parent move? Maybe…and it may not be in the comfort zone of many parents. But it created autonomy like crazy! Examples of smaller safe opportunities might include encouraging your child to get her driver’s license, get an after-school job, or stay home alone. School-aged kids might receive the opportunity to care for a pet or babysit a younger sibling for a short time period.
Have rules, but agree on them together:
Kids this age can have SOME say in the rules. Have you ever offered to allow your school-aged kid to choose their own punishment? You might be surprised to find out that they’re typically harder on themselves than you might be! Teens follow rules best when they can see some logic in them or understand the reasoning behind them. (They stand by of ‘because I said so’ is the opposite of creating autonomy for teens.) Allow teens to be part of the conversation when establishing curfews, and allow school-aged kids to offer their opinion on bedtime rules.
Don’t we all just want to be listened to, at the end of the day? Yes! Listening to the very real problems and successes of your school-aged and teen kids shows them that you value them. And kids who value themselves feel autonomy to make choices for themselves. It can be hard to listen without giving advice, or worse, solving their problems for them, but try to frame suggestions as observations. “Maybe your friend feels left out, and that’s why she’s acting this way.” Pose questions: “What do you think will make her feel better?”
You started giving your child reasonable, low-stakes choices as a toddler and preschooler, and now it’s time to step it up. Give your school-aged kid higher stake choices. Maybe you wish for your child to pursue an after-school activity. Compile the choices, eliminate any you are not willing to grant (maybe that karate class isn’t in the budget or that voice lesson is too far of a commute), and then allow your child to pick. Teens can be given more choice, especially if parental counseling or advice is included, and consequences are understood. For example: “Yes, you can take that AP class instead of the honors class, but if your grades slip, you will have to play an hour less of video games on the weekends.” Put the choice in your teen’s hands when possible and reasonable.
To do this successfully, give plenty of guidance, but go easy on the instructions. Parents ultimately need to leave the successful follow-through of a task or ask (curfew, for instance) in their teens’ hands. Is this easy? Heck no! But part of giving responsibility is learning to trust. And make sure your teen knows that if he loses your trust, he will no longer have responsibility, either. School-aged kids can start to learn responsibility with chores around the house, babysitting, or neighborhood jobs.
Don’t criticize peers:
Remember how much teens look to their peers? Yeah, it’s frustrating. But unless you have cause to believe your teen should have no contact with a peer, try not to criticize the small stuff. Teens see themselves reflected in their peers, so when you criticize their best friend, your teen may interpret that as criticism of themself as well.