Parents of teenagers seem to have one question that I hear over and over again, both from friends and professionally: How much freedom should I give my teen? Unfortunately, there is no one right answer, and not an easy question to answer at all.
By definition, teens are trying to separate their identities from yours and define who they are as individuals. Their peer group becomes all important, and the family less and less. The sometimes scary reality is that in just a few short years, they will be off to college and essentially on their own, making most of their own decisions about what to do and when. If they go away having had no experience with freedom, you will have a disaster on your hands.
You must give some freedoms and increase them over time, so that when your child leaves home, he is prepared. The best answer to how much and when is really is that it depends. It depends on many factors, from your own personal values and comfort level to the traits and behaviors of the teens themselves. I will demonstrate some different and most common scenarios with some advice on how to handle each.
Example 1: Your child is very independent and self-motivated. He comes home from school, does his homework, studies and does well on tests. He picks up his clothes and takes out the trash without being nagged or reminded. He’s never really gotten in trouble at school or anywhere else, and he has chosen friends that your believe are “good kids”. He has typically displayed good judgement when faced with decisions. He doesn’t give you much attitude or back talk, and does what is asked and expected of him at least most of the time
If this is your child, you are truly one of the luckiest parents in the world. Give your teen as much freedom as you feel comfortable with. He seems trustworthy enough to go out with his friends and not get into trouble. He doesn’t need you micro-managing everything he does, so minimal interference is appropriate as long as his behavior stays on par.
Of course, respectful boundaries and communication are in order. He must let you know where he is going, with whom, when to expect him back, tell you when he’s running late, etc.
Example 2: Your teenager is somewhat dysfunctional when it comes to managing his own life. He needs constant reminding and oversight with his homework and studying. His grades are mediocre, he sometimes misses assignments, and doesn’t seem all that concerned about it. He often forgets necessary materials and often loses things. He loses track of time, needs to be asked multiple times to do the things he’s supposed to do, and often gives you attitude or back talk. His friends can be pretty obnoxious, and he’s been in some minimal trouble at school or other places before.
A dilemma comes into play here. As a normal teenager, he still wants to separate from you and do his own thing, and he does need to learn how. The problem is that he’s not really there yet. And this will frustrate him. So you give a little, with a lot of boundaries, and constantly discuss how he can earn more freedoms by showing you the ways in which he is ready for that, such as being respectful, doing the things he’s supposed to do, etc.
When you let him do something, make sure you know everything you need to know to feel comfortable: who, what, where, when, and why. Discuss how he is getting there and how he is getting home, and at what time. Let him know what your expectations are, and if he violates them, you take a step back on the freedom. On the other hand, if he does a good job repeatedly, honor that by giving even a bit more freedom.
Example 3: Your teen is completely disrespectful of nearly all authority and boundaries. He consistently violates rules and frequently gets himself into trouble. He doesn’t help around the house, rarely does what is asked, and doesn’t get good grades. You don’t like his friends and they’re into some pretty bad stuff, like drugs or alcohol.
You’ve got your work cut out for you. First of all, I would recommend some professional help, starting with you. You need to learn how to set boundaries and have authority over your teen so he doesn’t become completely out of control and end up in jail. He may benefit from counseling, as there may be underlying issues with anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc.
While your teen likely believes he is an independent and mature individual who can make all his own decisions, he clearly is not. None of the behaviors described above are demonstrations of independence or maturity. Reel in the freedoms and privileges until significant changes are made. If none are made, let this kid go out into the world as soon as he turns 18 and he will quickly figure out that he has a lot a maturing to do.
Honestly, as harsh as that sounds, it can sometimes be a gift. Stop giving them money, stop doing things for them, and watch as they grow up quickly. I’ve seen it a million times, it’s either sink or swim. Usually, after struggling with an adjustment period, they end up swimming.
If you have a more typical teen, one that teeters between example 1 and example 2, just give out freedoms based on what you see. Freedoms can be given and taken away based on current behaviors and circumstances. But the reality is, they must be given. And it is likely that your child will mess up some of the time. Talk about this, and use these moments for learning and as opportunities for growth.
Try to remember what it is like to be a teenager, thinking you’re all grown up, but still dependent on your parents. Take a breath, engage every ounce of patience you have in you, and move forward. With your hard work and due diligence, you will raise your kids to become successful and productive adults.