As children grow, they naturally crave more “grown up” experiences and responsibilities. This occurs particularly in adolescence, when it is a developmental imperative for teens to learn how to identify themselves as independent in the world. Some teens do this smoothly, handling the responsibilities of taking on part-time jobs, staying out later, learning to drive or starting to be sexually active, for example. Others, who may have more challenging emotional or developmental circumstances, don’t go through this change as smoothly.
Children who need help with autonomy may not know how to define themselves. They may have difficulty with their self-image, or feel pressured to be someone they’re not. They may be overly- dependent on parents, or even angry or defiant, appearing as a “rebellious” teen. Finding appropriate independence means having parents who support the teen to have goals of their own, different from their parents and to learn how to achieve them. It means experimenting with having personal values that are different from the parents. For example, when youth declares to the family “I’m a vegetarian” after being raised eating meat, this is a declaration of independence from the family values and its best to allow space to for the appropriate experimentation to occur.
When a teen is able to define a goal or make a declaration, they automatically assume more responsibility for themselves, their beliefs and their actions. But making a declaration means having a sense of self in which to discover those personal goals and values. Some teens have been living in circumstances in which they are not able to define a sense of self, or feel afraid to and overwhelmed with the idea of thinking for themselves. Some teens may feel “stuck” or unmotivated to take on any responsibility, for themselves or for contributing to their families. Or, some teens have been overloaded with responsibility at an early age and are not able to differentiate between what is their and what isn’t.
issues such as autonomy and responsibility can be helped with the appropriate therapy. Helping young people to learn who they are, what they believe, how to feel safe in their personal declarations and motivated to actualize their needs and wants is possible, with the support of parents who exhibit appropriate respect and boundaries, and with a therapist who can support both parents and teen to foster development.
Megan Hughes has worked with teens in Alternate Programs in the Vancouver School Board for over a decade, addressing issues of self-image, autonomy, self-esteem, decision making and responsibility. Megan Hughes finds teenagers dynamic and vibrant and she feels respect for the difficulty of this developmental stage.