Most parents expect raising a teen to be stressful. Minor disputes over curfews, when to clean the bedroom and walking home alone suddenly become frequent and belaboured. However, according to Dr. Chris Daddis, part of a teen’s sudden self-determination is really a way of seeking more autonomy. And this desire for independence becomes salient in late adolescence.
“It’s not about becoming selfish,” says Dr. Daddis, a developmental psychologist who researches adolescent development at Ohio State University. “A teen’s job is to develop healthy autonomy.” Adolescents particularly value making decisions about things that reflect their individuality, such as decorating their bedroom, choice of friends, or how they choose to spend their free time.
What influences a teen's compulsion to liberate? One factor is the perception of their friend’s autonomy. In his study, published in the journal Child Development, Dr. Daddis surveyed over 500 adolescents around the age of 15. He found the teens not only highly valued personal autonomy, but used their friends as metrics to gauge how much personal freedom they wanted for themselves. “Adolescents are keen observers,” says Dr. Daddis. “They construct an understanding of what is important to them by looking at their friends.”
Older adolescents are also undergoing major cognitive changes. Their mind is now set up to develop better reasoning and conceptual thinking skills, which help navigate their desire for more autonomy. But these more sophisticated cognitive instruments are large and overwhelming. “It’s like they are given tools that are too big for them to handle,” says Dr. Daddis. Consequently, pre-teens begin constructing what psychologists call the 'personal fable', in which one's own experience feels more intense. It heightens the perception that no one around understands.
“Conflicts arise when these ways of reasoning collide between parents and the teen,” explains Dr. Daddis. Issues the early adolescent never considered problematic become more personal when entering the teen years. While a parent may insist on cleanliness out of social convention, an adolescent sees the decision as personal and therefore an infringement on their autonomy.
Trying to contain a teen’s need for personal freedom can in fact fuel problem behaviour. “You do need consequences, but it has to be in a climate of communication and warmth,” says Dr. Daddis.
Become a precision parent
Finding a balance between control and leniency is a strategy called ‘precision parenting’. “It’s about [parents] finding the right amount of control,” says Dr. Daddis.
One technique is to set up mini-contracts with your teen. For example, let them go to a party on the condition they show they can handle it maturely like respecting curfew and behaving responsibly during the party.
Being able to openly communicate with your teen is much easier in a relationship that is based on mutual trust. “You can’t have a dialogue if you are not in a warm, communicating relationship,” Dr. Daddis says. “Trust does not just come when your child turns 16.” He adds that parents should be bonding with their child from the early years. “Always be a part of their conversations.”
Don’t expect storm and stress through teen years
Despite popular media depicting high-strung parent-teen relationships, research shows otherwise. “About 75% of adolescents report harmonious relationships with parents,” explains Dr. Daddis. “If you expect storm and stress, you’re more likely to get it.”
Nira Datta, @NiraDatta