Parenting Adolescents and the Dance of Detachment

Adolescent independence grows through more freedom and more resistance.

Posted Mar 10, 2014

In an earlier blog, “A Detachment Theory of Parenting Adolescents,” (12/9/13), I talked about the challenge of moving from Attachment Parenting with a child (focused on Holding On to create a secure trust in parents) to Detachment Parenting with an adolescent (focused on Letting Go to foster the young person’s secure reliance on self.) With a child, parents teach rules for social conduct; with an adolescent, they emphasize increased self-management.

I think of detachment parenting with an adolescent as a process through which a young person “takes on” the more grown up world in two ways that empower independence.

One way is through parents releasing freedom for the young person to act older. Here they allow and encourage the teenager to “take on” more grown up life responsibilities that contribute to greater independence. This release can feel scary for parents who fear risks of new freedom may be discounted or ignored –like when starting to drive or to attend parties, for example.

A second way is through parents respecting resistance to their influence. Here the teenager asserts power to “take on” parental authority for more independent control of personal decision making, social association, and self-definition. This resistance can feel offensive to parents who consider speaking up in disagreement a form of talking back – like when questioning or arguing with what they say, for example.

Both ways in combination comprise a very complicated and challenging “dance,” the “Detachment Two-step” you could call it, that parents must try to lead and follow during adolescence as the teenager’s push for independence grows. The dance is a more reluctant partnership than in childhood and more awkward when parent and adolescent tread on each other’s toes and collide, as they frequently do, often inclined to blame the other when collisions occur.

By the young person’s early to mid-twenties, the dance is mostly over. With a free standing separation between them, there is no further release of freedom for the parent to give, and no further resistance to parental authority for the adolescent to mount. Functional independence has brought the dance of detachment to a close.

Now, consider the two steps of detachment in a little more detail, first releasing freedom, and then respecting resistance.


There are freedoms that adolescents request, freedoms that adolescents take without asking, and freedoms that parents assign, each kind providing more room for responsibility to grow.

Freedom requested and freedoms taken put adolescents at the mercy of their own decision-making which is why from here on the choice/consequence connection must be honored. Now, after-the-fact education and learning from hard experience counts for at least as much as before-the-fact education and formal preparation. Thus any costs for parking tickets, moving violations, or fender benders, for example, are the young driver’s to pay. “You must face the outcomes of your decisions – crediting the good, confronting the bad, learning more responsibility from both.”

Freedom assigned fulfills the parental agenda for adult preparation, training the young person in assuming more self-management responsibility. Thus during the 48 short months of high school, parents are training and turning over more life management functions so that upon graduation and moving off, the young person is equipped with necessary knowledge, skills, and experience (budgeting, banking, and bill paying, for example) to support the demands that come with living more on one’s own. “You will have to depend on your own organization, motivation, and self-discipline when you leave our care.”


Resistance against what parents want, are used to, or can easily accept is part of adolescent growth. Consider three engines of growth for independence that tend to cause the most strain. There is opposition and actively and passively pushing against parental authority to operate more on one’s own terms. There is separation and pulling away for more social distance from family and more affiliation with friends. And there is individuation and playing with an increased variety of interests and images to develop a fitting personal identity. In each case, the young person asserts more independence, causing conflict when what the adolescent wants to do, who the adolescent wants to be with, or how the adolescent wants to be defined departs from the parental agenda or exceeds their tolerances.

These kinds of resistance should be seriously respected by parents because at stake is going up against the most powerful people in the adolescent’s world to assert independence of them. Therefore, do not discount these efforts or in any way diminish the adolescent for making them. Independence of the resistant kind takes more adolescent courage than most parents usually appreciate. “I hate getting on my parents’ wrong side, but sometimes that’s what I have to do!” So set expectations for your willingness to deal with resistance. For example, you might declare something like this. “When we disagree with what you want, or you disagree with what we want, please know that we stand ready to hear everything you have to say. That done, will be firm where we feel we have to and explain why this is so. And we will be flexible where we feel we can, willing to work out what you want.”

Parents must accept and anticipate the reality that to some degree, in service of detachment, they will have to release more freedom and encounter more resistance to help their adolescent gather more power of independence.

So, one formula for detachment parenting is this: DETACHMENT = RELEASE + RESISTANCE. Parents must allow themselves to release more freedom to their adolescent and they must encounter more resistance to their authority. In consequence, parents can’t detach without undergoing more anxiety from letting go control when they release, and experiencing more frustration in conflict when they encounter resistance by resisting back. This is why parenting adolescents can be stressful for parents.

This is also why steadfast parenting adolescents is crucial as well. Through constant communication, caring, and cooperation they must stay connected with their teenager while this dance of detachment is growing them apart.

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

Next week’s entry: Parenting and Not Taking Teenage Behavior Personally