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Adolescence

Foster Independent Thought (Not Compliance) In Tweens/Teens

Self-reliance and self-advocacy start at home.

Key points

  • Most parents have similar goals for their teens/tweens: to become healthy, independent, responsible adults.
  • Focusing too much on teens' "behavioral compliance" can take away their opportunities to gain independence.
  • Supporting teens' emotional and cognitive autonomy is linked to positive mental-health and academic outcomes.

By Annalise Caron, Ph.D.

I recently heard two different parenting approaches in response to the same situation. A fifth-grade teacher had held a strong line that the kids who did not bring in a $1.00 donation for a local cause would not be allowed to participate in the school spirit day, “Hat Day.” The children who failed to bring the dollar were called out by name and told to remove their hats. To Gen X parents, this may not seem like a big deal, but to the kids in the class who were publicly called out for failing to bring in $1.00, it was upsetting.

One parent said that she listened to her son’s report of the teacher’s stance and asked him how he felt about it. He reported that he thought it was unkind and unnecessary for the teacher to make a scene of it for the 3 kids who forgot their dollars, and he spoke up to the teacher about that, which got him in trouble. This mom validated her son’s opinion and said she was not upset that he got in trouble for speaking up when he thought something was genuinely wrong, as long as he kept a respectful tone while explaining his position. In the same conversation, a second mother told her son that, “…if that is what Mrs. Smith wants in her classroom, that is what he should do: End of discussion.” The same situation resulted in two very different parenting responses: one asking for and supporting a child’s independent viewpoint and another prioritizing compliance with the adult above all else.

Most parents want similar things for their children—to raise healthy kids who turn into responsible independent adults. However, in our busy lives, often parents place their kids’ behavior in the moment (i.e., doing what the parents want or adults expect) over the long view (i.e., raising them into adulthood). When we focus on behavioral compliance in the moment, we miss out on helping our kids develop their own emotional and cognitive autonomy—the ability to think, feel, and make decisions on their own. Tweens and early teens who are given opportunities to think and make decisions—independently from their parent(s)—increase their sense of self-reliance, self-direction, and positive sense of self. This is a fancy way of saying that they learn to trust their own judgment, which increases their ability to make good decisions on their own when their parents aren’t around.

So, the next time a tricky situation comes up with your teen or tween, and you have the urge to tell them what to do or how they should act, remember this:

  • It’s not just “what you say or do” with your kids—but “how you are” with your kids and teens that matters to their development and future independence.
  • Ask them what they think about the situation first, before offering your opinion. This shows them some respect, which will help them feel supported by you.
  • If you disagree or feel anxious about your tween or teen’s perspective, try to watch your own comments and facial expressions so as not to be overly judgmental. This can shut down conversations.
  • The parent-child relationship serves as the foundation for shaping the development of future relationships outside the family. So, kids who feel safe sharing their thoughts and opinions at home, are more likely willing to do so with friends, colleagues, and romantic partners later on. They are more likely to speak up for themselves in general.
  • Research shows that tweens and teens who receive support for their autonomy at home tend to have more secure long-term relationships, better academic and vocational outcomes, and less susceptibility to peer influence regarding substance use and risky sexual behavior.

The take-home is: It’s not what you tell them to do, it’s how you are with your teen or tween that can make all the difference. The more you maintain a warm and patient parental approach, while respecting your tween/teen’s independent thought, the more they come to trust you over time, ask your opinions, and seek and expect those same qualities in future relationships.

References

Allen, J. P., Chango, J., Szwedo, D. E., Schad, M. M., & Marston, E. G. (2011). Predictors of susceptibility to peer influence regarding substance use in adolescence. Child Development, 83(1), 337–350. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01682.x

Loeb, E. L., Kansky, J., Tan, J., Costello, M. A., & Allen, J. P. (2020). Perceived Psychological Control in Early Adolescence Predicts Lower Levels of Adaptation into Mid‐Adulthood. Child Development, 92(2). https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13377

McElhaney, K. B., Porter, M. R., Thompson, L. & Allen, J.P. (2008). Apples and Oranges: Divergent meanings of parents’ and adolescents’ perceptions of parental influence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 28(2), 206–229.

Oudekerk, B. A., Allen, J. P., Hafen, C. A., Hessel, E. T., Szwedo, D. E., & Spilker, A. (2013). Maternal and Paternal Psychological Control as Moderators of the Link between Peer Attitudes and Adolescents’ Risky Sexual Behavior. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 34(4), 413–435. https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431613494007

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