Independence and Autonomy: Building Self-Esteem During Teen Years

Via Pixabay

Adolescence is a period marked by significant developmental changes. Teens begin to have an increased capacity for abstract thinking and self-reflection and experience physical changes as they enter puberty.  They move from the more structured environment of elementary school to high school, with greater independence and freedom. This transition can have a major impact on your child as they experience a change in status and comfort level. For many who already have a healthy view of the self, this transition will likely be smooth. For others, the transition to high school can be more difficult and may provide new challenges to self-esteem.

During adolescence, teens begin developing independence from parents and start forming their own separate identities.  It can be a time of increased conflict or friction in the household as teens begin to assert their autonomy and experiment with new behaviours, explore their identity, and experience greater influence from peers.  Part of this important development phase involves teens pushing away from parents to develop greater autonomy. Yet, at the same time, they don’t feel ready to stand on their own two feet and face the world alone so they remain reliant on parents for support, guidance, and care.

This can be a challenging phase for parents as they begin to feel that they have less influence on their child’s life.  Many parents have the urge to protect their teens from the impulsive decisions or poor choices that they are bound to make on occasion as they learn and grow.  At this stage, it is crucial to allow your child to begin to take responsibility for their behaviour and choices so that they can become self-reliant, independent and learn to trust in themselves.

To support your child’s autonomy and differentiation, allow them to make as many of their own decisions as possible, even if it goes against what you think they should do. Despite what you may sometimes believe, teens have generally internalized the values you have instilled in them.  Allow your teen to take risks that they can learn from and be there to provide guidance and support, but not judgment, when they make poor choices or fail.  These opportunities foster resilience and help teens to internalize coping strategies when faced with adversity.  These are critical life lessons that they will carry with them into adulthood to help them deal with the challenges they will face later on.

Another important factor in the individuation process is your child’s peers. Being accepted by their peers is a protective factor that is often crucial to maintaining positive overall self-esteem since adolescents are generally more vulnerable to feelings of social inadequacy and are seeking to solidify their social and personal identities.

As a parent, this process of letting go and encouraging autonomy can be tough.  Watching your child make mistakes and experience setbacks can be very anxiety provoking for many parents who want the best for their children.  As mothers, fathers, and caregivers see their teens struggle and make mistakes, often their instinct is to want to step in, control or protect.  Being overprotective threatens your teen’s emerging identity and prevents them from developing self-confidence and self-reliance.

Adolescence can be a tumultuous time for both parents and teens.  During this phase, your child is making the transition from childhood to adulthood and there are sure to be bumps along the way.  As a parent, your primary task is to play a supporting role on this journey towards greater autonomy and independence by providing direction and guidance while allowing for exploration and increased freedom.  By allowing your teen to take increased responsibility for his or her choices, you are communicating trust in them and their ability to make decisions and navigate the world. This helps to build self-confidence and foster a healthy sense of self-esteem.

Written by: Lindi Ross, M.Ed, PPCC  Montreal Therapy Centre