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How Much Independence Should Parents Give To Young Teens?

As kids enter the teenage years, they often beg for more freedom. Moms and dads walk a tightrope between (a) wanting their kids to be confident and able to do things for themselves and (b) knowing that the world can be a scary place with threats to their kid’s health and safety.

Some moms and dads allow too much of the wrong kind of freedom, or they offer freedom before the teen is ready to accept it. Other moms and dads cling too tightly, denying young adolescents both the responsibilities they require to develop maturity and the opportunities they need to make choices and accept their consequences.

Research tells us that teenagers do best when they remain closely connected to their moms and dads, but at the same time, are allowed to have their own points of view – and even to disagree with their mother or father.

Here are 10 crucial parenting tips to help you balance closeness and independence:

1. Teenagers look to their moms and dads first and foremost in shaping their lives. When it comes to morals and ethics, political beliefs and religion, adolescents almost always have more in common with their parents than their parents believe. As a mother or father, you should look beyond the surface, beyond the specific behaviors to who your youngster is becoming. Your adolescent may want to dye her hair orange or pierce her lip, but these expressions may be independent of her sense of who she is and who she will become.

At the same time that many of your youngster's behaviors are ultimately harmless, some of them may not only be harmful but also deadly. Moms and dads need to talk to their kids and make it clear that many of the major threats to their future health and happiness are not a matter of chance, but are a matter of choice (e.g., drinking and driving, smoking, drugs, sexual activity, dropping out of school, etc.). Teenagers who engage in one risky behavior are more likely to participate in others, so moms and dads need to be front and center, talking to their kids about the negative consequences of getting started down the wrong path.

2. Most young adolescents respond best to specific instructions, which are repeated regularly. For example, don't just say, “I want your room clean,” because they don't know what that means. Say instead (in a non-argumentative way), “This is how I see a clean room: the clothes are off the floor, the bed is made, and the lamp is on the desk rather than the floor.” Your child may say something like, “I don't really want the lamp over here …I want it over there.” In this case, give your child the freedom to express himself or herself.

3. Choices make young adolescents more open to guidance. For example, you can tell your daughter that her English homework must be done before bedtime, but that she has a choice of completing it either before or after dinner. And you can tell your 13-year-old son that he can't hang around the video arcade with his friends on Friday night, but he can have a group of friends over to your house to watch a movie.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

Using humor and creativity as you give choices may also make your youngster more willing to accept them. One mother couldn't get her son to hang up clean clothes or put dirty clothes in the laundry basket. So she gave him two options: either all the clothes had to be picked up, or everything would go on the floor. The mother later commented, "I was washing the clothes and then putting them in piles on the floor. It made me crazy, but it worked." After two weeks, her son got tired of the stacks on the floor and began picking up his clothes.

4. The more mature and responsible a young adolescent's behavior is, the more privileges moms and dads can grant. You might first give your child the right to choose which tennis shoes to buy within a certain price range. Later you can let her make other clothing purchases (with the understanding that price tags won't be removed until you approve the items). Eventually, you can give her a clothing allowance to spend as she likes.

5. It’s important for moms and dads to strike a good balance between “laying down the law” and allowing too much freedom. With most young adolescents, it's easiest to maintain this balance by guiding but not controlling. Adolescents need opportunities to explore different roles, try on new personalities and experiment. They need to learn that choices have consequences. That means making some mistakes and accepting the results. But moms and dads need to provide guidance so that their children avoid making too many poor choices. You can guide by being a good listener and by asking questions that help your youngster to think about the results of his actions, for example, "What might happen if you let someone who is drunk drive you home?"

Your guidance may be better appreciated if you ask your youngster's advice on a range of matters – and follow the advice if it seems reasonable, for example, "What should we cook for your father’s birthday?" Also, the fine line between guiding and controlling may be different for different kids. Some kids, whether they are 8 or 18, need firmer guidance and fewer privileges than do other kids at the same age.

6. The most important responsibility you have as a mother or father is to protect your youngster's health and safety. Your youngster needs to know that your love for him requires you to veto activities and choices that threaten either of these. Let him know what things threaten his health and safety – and put your foot down! Doing this may be difficult, however, because teenagers have a sense that nothing can hurt them. At the same time that your child feels that everything he experiences is new and unique, he also believes that what happens to others will not happen to him. His beliefs are based on the fact that the teenage years are the healthiest period of time during our lives. In this period, physical illnesses are not common, and fatal disease is rare. The important thing to emphasize to your youngster is that, while he may be very healthy, death and injury during the teenage years are most often caused by violence and accidents.

7. We, as parents, want our kids to eventually become healthy grown-ups who can solve problems and make good choices. These abilities are a critical part of being independent. To develop these abilities, however, young adolescents on occasion may need to fail, provided the stakes aren't too high and no one's health or safety is at risk. Making mistakes also allows adolescents to learn one critical skill: how to bounce back. It's hard for a youngster to learn how to pick herself up and start over if her mother always rescues her from difficulties.

8. Don’t lose credibility in your child’s eyes. For example, if you tell your son that he must be home by 9:30 p.m., do not ignore his 11:30 p.m. arrival. You lose credibility with your youngster if he suffers no consequences for returning home 2 hours late. However, the consequence should fit the “crime.” Grounding a youngster for an entire month restricts the entire family. Instead, you might talk with him about how coming in 2 hours late has affected you. You've been up worrying and have missed your sleep. But you'll still have to get up the next morning at your regular time, make breakfast, do your chores and get to work on time. Because his lack of consideration has made your life harder, he will have to complete some of your chores so that you can get to bed earlier the next night.

9. Some battles aren't worth fighting. It may offend you if your daughter wears a shirt to school that clashes wildly with her pants, but this isn't a choice that can cut off future possibilities for her. Young adolescents may have a growing sense of the future, but they still lack the experiences required to fully understand how a decision they make today can affect them tomorrow. They may have heard that smoking is unhealthy, but they do not fully understand what it means to die of lung cancer at the age of 42. Talk to your kids about the lifelong consequences of choices they make. Help them understand there are good and bad decisions, and that knowing one from the other can make all the difference in their lives. Let your youngster know that you are "the keeper of options" until she is old enough and responsible enough to assume this responsibility.

10. All kids resist limits from time to time, but they want them – and they need them. In a world that can seem too hectic for grown-ups and teenagers alike, limits provide security. Oftentimes, teenagers whose moms and dads do not set limits feel unloved. Setting limits is most effective when it begins early. It is harder but not impossible, however, to establish limits during the early teenage years.


==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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