May 30, 2024


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Adolescent Freedom and Responsibility – Learning Through Mistakes

3 min read

Have a teenager? Finding the experience not, perhaps, unending simplicity and joy?

You’re not alone. Adolescence is a complicated time, during which the teen’s main job is seeking out his/her own identity separate from the parents’. The developmental tasks of adolescence are accomplished by the teen going to the extreme before s/he can return to the mean. One of the ways to help your teenager develop this identity is easier said than done-you need to allow your teen to learn by making his/her own mistakes.

This is a painful task for most parents, but it’s how true independence is achieved. Think through what it means concretely for your child, as I offer some examples.

One easy way to start is with chores. Provide ones that begin and end with your teen. First, she develops ownership, but second, if she fails, she herself suffers the consequences, which is the structure you want. Have her do her own laundry, clean her own room, change her own linen. It’s true her sheets might end up growing unidentifiable fungi–but she’s the one who has to bed down with them.

Let’s say it’s a more communal chore– emptying the dishwasher, or making lunches. You can’t force your teen to do these things; the ball’s in his court. But if he hasn’t done them, why don’t you wait until he needs you for something–and he will–and then tell him, without malice, you’ll be happy to oblige, as soon as X is taken care of.

There are certain things your teen will do that will have external consequences, and you won’t need to intervene at all, so the best you can do is bud out. If he refuses to wear a warm coat or boots, if she insists on staying up late on a school night–no one will be sorrier than your teen if you just let the scenario play out.

I see many adolescent girls from religious families in my practice, and the parents are, obviously, concerned about their children’s religious choices–in terms of modesty, praying, being with the right friends who encourage them spiritually, etc. It is painful to watch your daughter make different selections from those you value so highly, but you cannot force them to practice as you see fit. The best advice I have is to teach by example. I’ve found that most girls in religious rebellion are really angry with their parents and expressing it this way. If prayer time is an unhappy experience, you’re teaching that connection to God is unpleasant, no matter what you preach.

And remember this, too. You are the parent, the siblings are your children. Your daughter shouldn’t need to get married just to get a break from housework you give her. The girl who overdoes babysitting and chores may have as many issues as the daughter who refuses to help at all. Through learning from their own mistakes, your little babies move from childhood into adolescence–and beyond.

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