Developing safe independence for older children
Advice for parents on helping teenagers to develop independence safely
Most teenagers are keen to develop their independence. This can create tension between you and your child.
This page presents some suggestions on how you can help your teenager to become self-reliant whilst ensuring they stay safe from harm.
Find out more about:
- why do adolescents seek independence?
- what can make teenagers vulnerable to abuse?
- how can parents support teenagers?
- where to find more advice
- Frank and Josie's story
Why do adolescents seek independence?
Adolescents often seek out new and risky experiences. They often prefer the company of their peers and might avoid adults, especially parents. Although young people want to be independent, they sometimes lack maturity and experience to keep themselves safe.
Parents, in turn, do not always understand what to expect from their teenagers and may be either over-protective or over-confident about their children's independence and ability to protect themselves.
When there is a mismatch between you and your young person's expectations, there may be conflicts, disagreements and arguments. Telling young adults what to do may not work in the same way as it did when they were younger. Equally, it may be difficult to spot the signs that something is wrong, as it can be hard to tell the difference between expected teenage behaviour and signs of distress. You may need to develop different strategies if you want to keep the lines of communication open.
The most important message for your teenager to hear is that they can talk to you and that you will stay calm and listen when they need help, even if they don't appear to be listening to you!
Below are some ideas that might help.
What can make teenagers vulnerable to abuse?
Children who are over-protected sometimes rebel and do things secretly behind parents' backs. Others run into difficulty when they are confronted with situations where they are expected to cope but have insufficient skills. In both situations these young people can feel un-supported and vulnerable. They can fall victim of crimes and exploitation because they have not had opportunity to talk about or practice independence skills.
Not enough support and supervision
Lack of opportunity to talk through challenges or potential risks with a trusted adult can leave young people vulnerable. They may not be able to ask for help when they first become involved in risky situations, perhaps because they feel that they will be criticised, ignored or blamed.
Issues with low self-esteem
Either being held back by too much caution or being pushed out into the world can damage a child's self-esteem. They can be left feeling misunderstood, inadequate or unimportant. This can have a lasting impact on their mental well-being in adulthood or make them vulnerable to bullying or exploitation.
How can parents support teenagers?
Grow responsibility alongside independence
Responsibility and independence need to grow in line with what your teenager can cope with. Teenagers often learn best through making their own mistakes. Getting the balance right with the independence you allow helps ensure the risks they take and the mistakes they may make are more manageable.
Tell them about the risks you see in what they want to do
Explain to them what you are worried about and why it concerns you. Tell them about all the 'what-if' situations that are in your mind, regardless of how silly (also tell them you know they are silly, but the worry is still there). Ask them to be considerate of your worries and help you find solutions to them. Mutually agreed boundaries (for example a curfew or phone/text check-in) can help teenagers learn responsibility and independence and build mutual trust.
Listen to their concerns
Listen to their concerns and experiences. They may also have identified risks or had a bad experience. Although it's hard, try to listen and stay calm. They won't know how to manage the conversation if you get angry or upset or if they feel you are judging them.
Praise them for what they do
Whether it's talking through plans or after they've told you about a situation that has happened, thank your child for their help and for their truthfulness. Praise them for thinking clearly and asking for support.
Keep talking and listening!
Where to find more advice
Family Lives: Advice for parents of teenagers.
ParentChannel.tv: Advice for parents on young people aged 9-14 and 14-19 years.
Netmums: Online peer advice and expert views on parenting matters
Mumsnet: Online peer advice and expert views on parenting matters.
NHS Choices: Advice for parents on coping with teenagers.
Frank and Josie were confident that their 15 year old daughter, Hannah, was mature and independent. 'I know she is really sensible,' said Frank.
They decided to visit friends for the weekend and planned to leave Hannah on her own. Hannah rang a couple of friends and invited them over. Her friends brought other friends and alcohol that they drank until one girl became unconscious. Hannah was so worried that she called an ambulance.
Afterwards Frank said, 'Hannah is sensible, but we weren't. We hadn't spoken to her about how to avoid this happening and who she could call if things got out of hand. We hadn't really prepared her. I still think she's a sensible girl, but we're all a lot more cautious and talk things through together now'.
If you are wondering if your child is old enough to be left home alone overnight, you can contact the NSPCC for advice and guidance.
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