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Parenting and Adolescent Freedom

As the teenager keeps pushing to be let go, parents have to do some holding on.

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

The very breath of adolescent life, freedom of choice, is continually required to create room to grow. Without a sufficient amount of it, teenagers can feel stifled, particularly when they have some friends who are given more, which is often the case. “Everybody else can! Why can’t I?”

How much freedom to allow

Now parents can feel caught between two extremes. There is over-parenting by protectively and oppressively getting in the way of independent growth with excessive supervision or restriction. And there is under-parenting by permissively or neglectfully allowing more experience than the young person is prepared to safely manage.

At times, parents sometimes can find themselves at each extreme, but mostly they chart a middle way—moderate-parenting where “some” has to be enough. Moderate means striking or negotiating a working compromise between what the teenager presses to get and what the parents are prepared to allow. “We’ll give you more freedom as you demonstrate more responsibility.”

How freedom isn’t free

Freedom is “freedom of choice.” However, as the adolescent soon finds, freedom of choice comes with many constraints. Consider a number that the adolescent painfully discovers through personal experience.

  • Choosing is limited: Much in life is not from personal choice. “Most of how things are isn’t up to me!” Social rules determine what’s allowed, while social circumstance brokers opportunity.
  • Choosing is losing: One choice preempts making others. “If I do this, then I can’t do that!” Each decision forecloses on pursuing other options at the time, and maybe forever after.
  • Choosing is thinking: Decision-making requires thoughtful effort. “It’s really hard to make up my mind!” Weighing the pros and cons of what to do can take a lot of figuring out.
  • Choosing is chancy: The choice one makes creates the risks one takes, like a roll of the dice. “I never expected this!” The most careful planning doesn’t keep the unpredictable from happening.
  • Choosing is complicating: All choices create outcomes. “Deciding that, now I have to deal with this!” Because all choices come with consequences, every choice creates new demands.
  • Choosing is emotional: Choices are not simply a matter of judgment. “What felt right at the time turned out wrong!” Feelings are not always good advisors.
  • Choosing is changing: Choices alter the course of one’s life. “Now things will never be the same!” Choices are steps through life that determine the winding path one makes and takes.
  • Choosing is revealing: Choices express one's character. “My decisions show how I am!” Decisions are autobiographical; they offer testimony about what a person is truly like.
  • Choosing is taking charge: “What I decide to do or let happen in my life is up to me!” Sometimes it’s easier to be told what to do than to direct one’s self.
  • Choosing is accountable: “When it’s me deciding, then it’s me who gets the blame!” Every decision comes with a measure of personal responsibility.
  • Choosing is forever: “I can’t undo my choices!” All decisions are irrevocable, but making other choices can change the effects of the choices you already made.

In all these ways and others, freedom proves to be un-free.

Adolescent ambivalence

One of the hardest realities that adolescents struggle to understand is how mixed freedom can be. No wonder they can feel ambivalent about it. Part of them wants it, but another often does not. So it’s easy to get hung up: “I want to be able to go to college, but I can’t make myself complete the application!”

Not wanting what one wants is a very common adolescent dilemma when it comes to more getting more freedom. “I really want to try out, and I also don’t!” “I really want to go, and I also don’t!” “I really want to see what that experience is like, and I also don’t!” “I really want to fit in, and I also don’t!” “I want to change how I am, and I also don’t.” “I want to make my own decisions, and I also don’t!” “I want to act more grown-up, and I also don’t!”

I believe the picture of a purely freedom-loving teenager is mostly a false one. In fact, they are often tormented by freedom. A middle school student who was planning to take her new hairstyle to school aptly called this choice “the big dare.” In doing so, she testified to a truth parents should appreciate: Asserting adolescent freedom can often be an act of courage.

The deal

So when it comes to freedom, here’s the deal. A healthy adolescent keeps pushing for more freedom to grow, while healthy parents keep restraining this push when concerned about preparedness and safety. And this conflict of interest unfolds over the course of adolescence as teenage dissatisfaction frequently contends with parental disagreement. “I want to now!” often argues against “You’re not ready yet!”

Thus personal freedom becomes a more contentious issue in their relationship during adolescence, which is how it should be.

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