Responding to the Adolescent Push for Freedom

Growing up requires more freedom from and more freedom for to reach independence

Posted Jan 20, 2014

For parents, their adolescent’s push for freedom can take some getting used to. Repeated with many variations, their complaint can sound something like this.

“No matter how much freedom we allow, he’s never satisfied! Whether it’s a later curfew, sleep overs at friends’, or a higher allowance, he always wants more. Yet when we want something from him, we only get an argument, an excuse, or a delay. It’s all about what he wants and doesn’t want to do! He’s much more self-centered than he used to be. What about what we want? How can we stop the pushing, get him to slow down, and encourage better cooperation?”

So there were really three questions in one. And then there is the matter of the Cultural Divide. Start with the questions.


First of all, to actually stop the push for freedom would be to deny growth toward independence, and that would prevent growing up. So, hard pressed though the parents may feel, they really don’t want to forbid any push at all. They just want a less abrasive adolescent. However, I believe these growing up years are supposed to work ‘roughly’ like this: a healthy adolescent goes for all the freedom she can get as soon as she can get it, while healthy parents restrain that push within the interests of safety and responsibility.

Of course, the cost of parents restraining freedom in this fashion is usually more criticism and disagreement as the time for thankless parenting arrives. They explain: “We are saying ‘no’ to what you want because we believe our refusal is in your best interests.” In response, the angry adolescent replies: “Well, I really appreciate you’re not letting me go!” The most ‘thanks’ parents often get for acts of responsible parenting can be no thanks at all. More complaints and conflicts become the order of the day as urgent adolescent push collides with unpopular parental restraint.

As for freedom, it almost operates like the adolescent’s drug of choice, offering a mood and mind altering liberation from old restraints and for exciting new opportunities, emotionally intoxicating on both counts. And the more freedom an adolescent is allowed, the more his taste for freedom grows. Discontent with having to live on parental terms helps drive growth to independence. Because permitted freedom is only partial freedom, it is never enough. There is, however, slowing this push down.


Parents can put a drag on this push for freedom by insisting that the young person meets basic family expectations before getting more running room. This means, for example, by providing them with adequate and accurate information, keeping promises and agreements, contributing help to the family, taking care of responsibilities at home and at school, being willing to discuss their concerns when parents have need, and communicating with them in a civil and respectful manner. Parents are likely to grant more freedom if these kinds of expectations are consistently being met. If these expectations are unmet, permission for freedom becomes harder to obtain.

Parents can also slow the push down by avoiding the trap of Reactive Parenting where, at worst, they develop a ‘tip-toe-response’ around their intensely willful adolescent, playing wait-and-see before deciding what and when and how to ask her for anything. Now they have given the teenager the initiative to drive their behavior with her moods, and their timing dependent on when is most convenient to her. In this case, they need to retake the active position. So when the front door slams to announce her angry arrival home from a bad day at school, rather than stay out of her way, they get in her way by saying they are glad to see her and then by initiating requests for what they need to have her do. Now she is more on the reactive because it is their terms that are now primarily in play. Not a great choice, but it’s better to take some of the conflict to her than for her to take all of the conflict to them.


One power of the adolescent push for freedom is that it can be extremely self-absorbed, focused on what he wants and doesn’t want. Caught up in his needs and not giving much thought to those of his parents’, he can become increasingly self-centered for them to live with. In consequence, her cooperation can become harder to come by, even to satisfy their simplest request: “Will you set the table, please?” You’d think they were asking for some major effort by the objection he makes, preferring a twenty minute debate to simply accomplishing a five minute task. Except, to the teenager, this is an issue worth fighting for: taking the time to protect his freedom to decide how he spends his life time.

However, for the sake of their relationship to the adolescent, and for the sake of his later relationship to significant others, they take a stand for two-way relationships that are designed to meet the needs of all parties. This is contrasted to the one-way relationship he is practicing that is only intended to meet his own. To restore an adequate mix, they insist that he give as well as get, and for a while may even let him know that before they do anything for him, he will be expected to do something for them. If he wants their cooperation, he must first cooperate with them. “We are happy to let you spend tonight at your friend’s, but before you to leave there are a few things we need from you.”


Under the spell of freedom, adolescents can develop a set of priorities that often run counter to those of parents, setting the stage for more incompatibilities and conflicts in the relationship. For a while, this can create what appears to be a Cultural Divide that contrasts the Freedom Values of the adolescent with the Responsibility Values of the parents. Oversimplified, the divide can look something like this.

Adolescent Freedom Values: vs Parental Responsibility Values:

Focus on Self --------------------------Focus on Others

Time with Friends --------------------Time with Family

Making Arguments -------------------Honoring Agreements

Thinking of the Present ------------Thinking of the Future

The Desire for Play -------------------The Need for Work

Doing Tasks Later --------------------Doing Tasks Now

Liking Excitement -----------------Preferring the Ordinary

Attraction to the New ----------------Attraction to the Old

Going Faster ---------------------------Slowing Down

Following Impulse --------------------Consulting Judgment

Valuing the Latest --------------------Valuing what Lasts

Expressing Rebellion -----------------Expecting Compliance

Getting Distracted ------------------Keeping Concentration

Spending for Fun-----------------------Saving for Need

Taking risks ----------------------------Being Careful

Escaping from Demands -------------Engaging with Demands

Where and when this division is strongly drawn, it’s no wonder that parents and adolescents have a harder time getting along. As for the outcome of this encounter, it is usually a compromise. The parents get less responsibility than they ideally wish, while the adolescent makes do with less freedom than she or he ideally wants.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Individuality