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Adolescence and Freedom of Choice

The more independence gained, the less free the adolescent can feel.

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

With the onset of adolescence, the issue of “freedom of choice” becomes more central to the management of the parent/teenager relationship, and justly so.

After all, when separating from childhood, the young person’s job is to push for all the freedom to grow up they can get as soon as they can get it, while the parent’s job is to restrain that push within the interests of safety and responsibility.

And to varying degrees, this conflict of interests unfolds over the course of growing up as the young woman or young man gradually builds a more functional independence and increasingly expresses a more individually fitting identity — the twin developmental purposes of adolescence.

It’s complicated.

Adolescent Freedom of Choice

Looking back, both parents and teenagers would likely agree that childhood was a simpler time in their relationship. That was the Age of Command when the child believed parents could control one’s decisions, could dictate what the girl or boy must and must not do.

However, with the onset of adolescence, around ages 9-13, the young person enters the Age of Consent and now knows that freedom of choice is up to her or him. They understand that a parent can’t make them do something or stop them without their cooperation. “Command is up to my parents, but compliance is up to me.”

Liberating though this understanding can be, it is also scary — feeling that one has more freedom of choice than can be comfortably and safely managed. This is partly why (respect is another part) the adolescent gives consent to the family structure of rules and expectations that one is supposed to operate within. It feels simpler and more secure this way, even though they may complain about having this protective cage of family structure to rattle around in.

While oppressive parents may be angering (“My parents don’t let me do anything!”); permissive parents can be frightening ("What I get to do is all up to me!”)

On the one hand, parents can honestly say that there is such a thing as freedom of choice; on the other hand, they can say that there is no free choice. “Although we can influence your mind, you do get to make it up; however, there is no free choice because every personal decision comes with baggage in the form of consequences that follow.”

This is why parents hold the teenager responsible for the choice/consequence connection, recognizing what decisions seem to turn out well and can be enjoyed, and which ones do not and must be paid for with hard lessons that can unhappily be taught. “Break a school rule for the fun of it, and school may make you pay for your enjoyment.”

Abusing Freedom of Choice

A common abuse of adolescent freedom of choice occurs when the young person realizes that how she or he is now the prime informant for parents about what was, is, or will be going to happen in the teenager’s life. The name of that abuse of power is lying, deliberately falsifying information for freedom’s sake. Ten of the more common lies parents report being casually told are:

  • “I already did it.”
  • “I didn’t do it.”
  • “I’ll do it later.”
  • “I don’t know.”
  • “I forgot.”
  • “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
  • “I didn’t know that’s what you meant.”
  • “I didn’t think you were serious.”
  • “It wasn’t my fault.”
  • "It was an accident.”

The consequences of lying depend on the parents being lied to. Some overlook adolescent lying. “All teenagers lie; so what?” So this: Lies procure illicit freedom of choice, they evade discovery of choices made, and they deny responsibility for actions taken. In all cases, I believe parents must take lying seriously by explaining the harm they do to a caring relationship.

“Choose to lie to us and you put distance between us because you go into hiding. You fear being found out and can feel lonely on that account; while we can become hurt and angry and distrustful from being lied to. Now let’s talk about the truth about what is really going on, why this was so hard to tell, how it felt to us to be lied to, how it felt for you to lie to us, and how you plan to tell us hard truths in the future. And as a consequence for lying, we expect you to do some additional household tasks to work off the offense. Hereafter, we expect you to keep us honestly informed.”

Earning Freedom of Choice

As for earning more freedom of choice, parents might want to declare how this is to be done. In earlier writings, I suggested that parents might consider holding the young person to a Freedom Contract, and explain how this will work.

“You meet all six of the behavior requirements of this contract, and we are more likely to permit the freedom you want; while if you fail to do so, that permission will be harder to come by. The requirements read like this:

  • Believability: You give us accurate and adequate information about what is going on in your life. You do not lie by commission or omission.
  • Predictability: You keep your promises and agreements with us. You do not break commitments we have counted on with no concern for us.
  • Availability: You are willing to discuss our concerns when our need arises. You do not avoid conversations we want to have with you.
  • Civility: In conversation and disagreement, you communicate with courtesy and respect. You do not talk with us in ways that put us down or cause us hurt.
  • Responsibility: You take satisfactory care of personal business at home, at school, and out in the world. You do not slack off in your daily obligations.
  • Mutuality: You live on two-way terms with us, doing for us as we do for you. You do not act like our relationship is all for you, with no regard for us."

Social Freedom of Choice

Of course, toward the end of adolescence, society confers more legal freedom for the young person by allowing choices over which parents no longer have control.

So at the magic age of 18, for example, school and health records now belong to the young person; enlisting in the military and getting other jobs no longer require parental permission; some business contracts can be entered into, with a proven earnings records a credit card can be obtained without a parental co-sign; one is allowed to vote in local and state and national elections, if a law is broken one is treated as an adult and not a juvenile; in most states at this age, it is legal to get married; and one can freely choose to get a tattoo or body piercing without a parental okay. Thus, although a young person is still not legally allowed to go pub crawling to celebrate turning 18, she or he can now mark their body to mark the occasion, as some elect to do.

Turning 18 can feel like a true emancipation: “Now I can choose to run my life my way without your say!” To which parents can add: “That’s right. Now you’re free to conduct your life as you see fit. And with that right to decision-making, you get to take responsibility for all the consequences that follow, too.”

One of the great disillusionments of social independence is discovering how increased freedom of choice turns out to be not so free after all. It’s a hard reality to accept: While there is more freedom of choice; more choice is not entirely free.

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