5 Ways to Preserve your Teen’s Freedom (and Your Relationship With Them)

When I work with parents of tweens and teenagers, I am reminded how very difficult is to give teens the freedom they so desperately yearn for. In the teens’ attempt to break free from their parents and create some autonomy, parents experience increased stress and as a result, begin tugging at the little freedom their teens do have in an attempt to recreate the closeness they once felt when their teen was a toddler.

Ring a bell with any of you? It’s normal.

If you are the parent of a younger child, the time to start offering independance is now. Spend some time learning how you can start supporting your child’s independence in small ways over the course of many years so that when they finally reach the teen years and your instinct is to pull back the reins – you will have experience that tells you – your child can handle this exciting and exhilarating time of life.

Timeline for Child Independence

Identifying the natural evolution of your child’s independence helps to understand WHY the power struggles develop and gives us a better understanding of how to maintain our connection without smothering your kids. Now more than ever, you want your child to see you as their advocate and ally. This means supporting their growing requests (or demands) for more freedom and independence. You can’t stop this natural drive so as parents, you might as well figure out healthy ways to support your kids and stay connected to them as they grow and mature.

At infancy, we are connected to our children – body, mind and soul – in a way that will never be duplicated again during their lifetime. We teach ourselves how to listen for small subtle changes in the baby’s’ cries, we spend hours holding, feeding, changing and just staring at these small wonders. At no other time will we be as connected to a human being as we are to our child during early infancy. It’s bliss.

As they become toddlers, we are still close at hand, ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice if necessary. Imagine a rubber band tethered to both you and your toddler. They may travel as far as five feet away from you at any given time, but the truth is, you are close enough to scoop in, pick them up football style and remove them from any impending danger. And yet, they are beginning to experience the first thrill of freedom and independence. They are exploring, learning, and experiencing the world with just a bit of autonomy.

School Aged
As they reach school age they enter what I call “The Grace Period”. They are old enough to understand certain dangers and how to avoid them, so we allow them to stretch the rubber band — and we even add a bit of extra slack, conveying to the kids, we trust them. Because we are more relaxed, and because the kids feel this loose line between themselves and their parents, they tend to check in regularly. No need to stay far away because they are certain that after a quick check-in with mom or dad they will be allowed to travel back into the world and explore.

And then our kids reach the tween years and suddenly parents are acutely aware of how dangerous the world is and how one bad decision could lead to a ruined life (or so we tell ourselves), so they pull that rubber band in as close as it was during during the toddler years. Because we are unable to articulate our fear in a sensible and respectful way and because our kids have no idea why we suddenly stop trusting them and begin hovering around them as if they were two-years-old, tensions rise.

Soon power struggles ensue. Our teens want parents who extend more freedom, not less, with even more slack so they can continue their march toward independence. In return, they get parents who begin tugging and pulling on the metaphorical rubber band and with each tug the child becomes more determined NOT to turn and reconnect with their parents. All for fear that if they dare come close, to look for guidance from a parent, to feel a connection that reminds them they are loved and safe, their freedom will be taken from them and they will be forced to fight their way back to the independence they so desperately need.

After a few rounds of this, teens soon learn to distance themselves from parents. In the haste to be a part of their teens’ life, parents begin snooping, interfering, prying, and they stop honoring privacy. The relationship continues to suffer.

Here are 5 tips that will help you lengthen the cord, trust your teen and preserve your relationship:

1. Accept when your children are infants (or whatever age they are at the time you read this) that they are going to leave you and that you are charged with ensuring that when they leave they are ready to fly on their own.

2. Begin backing out of your job as your child’s “manager” the minute they arrive on the planet and by the time they are 18, you will both be ready for more physical distance without feeling emotionally distant from each other.

3. Be honest with your kids about any trepidation you have about their increased freedom. Ask them to help you be more reasonable and to accept that they can handle more responsibility for their world. If you do, you will inevitably create a bond that makes both of you feel closer and more connected to each other.

4. Make sure that you are talking with parents who have kids 3, 5 and 7 years older than your kids and ask for their perspective, their tips and what life is like when you accept that your children will move away from you and how to bridge that gap with grace and dignity.

5. Trust your kids. They love you. They want you in their lives. They do not want to be smothered or worried about or babied or saved. They want to prove to you, that they are strong, wise, and resilient. They want to prove that they can handle the next phase of life, so be their champion not their babysitter.

These suggestions can be very difficult for many parents to reconcile. For those of you who have difficulty letting go, please take the time to dig deep into the WHY of your management of your teen. Do you really not trust them? Do your actions SHOW your trust in them? Look your teenager in the eye and decide what small actions you can take to begin to overcome some of your resistance to letting go. It’s never too late…

3 thoughts on “5 Ways to Preserve your Teen’s Freedom (and Your Relationship With Them)

  1. Curious about your thoughts on freedom with teens and their going “out” on weekends. Out to places where as a parent, you may not know what is there waiting for them {most likely kids that are vaping, drinking etc}. You trust that your child is not THAT child {but so do your friends who have kids that ARE those kids!}. I don’t let my child go to those events. My friends say I need to trust them more. Why put them in the line of fire and set to fail is how I feel. This is for 9-10 graders btw.

  2. Great Question. Here’s the thing, as a mom who raised 5 kids, I know how tough it is to make this call. The same parents who swore they would NEVER support underage drinking when their kids were in 2nd grade, suddenly find it acceptable to allow parties at their homes. They use all kinds of rationale to justify their decisions and that’s great – for them. But if you have decided that you are not going to condone underage drinking, etc., then it means you are going to have to work hard at maintaining clear boundaries, following through even if your child gets mad at you AND you are going to have to prove that you trust your child by allowing them to attend events where you are fairly certain they will be tempted to …. well, whatever. Here is the thing. When your child leaves home at 18, there is nothing you can do to influence their decisions. You have to make sure that they are allowed to make tough decisions in tough circumstances today and that means that they are going to mess up. So if your goal is to guarantee that your kids never make a mistake or get into trouble, then they are in for a tough time when they leave home. Find the balance here. Keep communication open and hold your opinions. Listen, ask questions, empathize and encourage. A solid relationship with you is the best defense. Thanks so much for sharing your experience You aren’t alone. Parenting is challenging and it’s getting tougher by the year.

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