Have you ever looked at your teenager or young adult and wondered, “How are you ever going to make it out in the real world”? You aren’t alone, and especially as your child enters the beginning stages of adulthood, your concerns about their independence and autonomy might feel overwhelming.
Developing autonomy in teens is no small task, so feeling worried about your child developing independence is normal. Sometimes, teens and young adults need a little more time before launching into the real world, and a therapeutic gap year might be just the solution to give them the space and support to gain the confidence they need to become independent.
The Benefits of Autonomy in Young Adults
Obviously, as the parent of a teen or young adult, when you think about the benefits of autonomy in your child, you are thinking how nice it would be if they got good grades without you reminding them to do their homework or put away their laundry, or got a job and learned how to manage money. And while all those tasks are certainly helpful to you and your child, those aren’t the main benefits of teaching autonomy to your young adult.
Autonomy in young adults leads to confidence, which leads to more autonomy as an adult. An independent, autonomous adult functions well in society and can have healthy relationships with their parents. Autonomous teens and young adults lead to healthy and happy relationships between parents and children. If your child has a job, fulfilling relationships, hobbies, and drive, your relationship with that child can evolve into less of a caretaking role and more of a cheerleader role. Instead of managing and worrying about your child, you’ll get to celebrate their successes and empathize with their losses, knowing they can handle difficult situations because they are autonomous.
5 Ideas for Building Autonomy in Adolescents
While we all know the importance of autonomy and independence, teaching someone these skills isn’t necessarily obvious. That’s why we’ve narrowed down a few ideas to help you teach your young adult or teen how to be autonomous.
1. Listen To Their Beliefs (Even If You Disagree)
How can we expect our teens and young adults to develop autonomy if they don’t have the space to practice having thoughts and beliefs different than yours? Sure, some of their beliefs may be wild to you, but developmentally, it’s normal for teens and young adults to “try on” different identities. Hear them out, ask meaningful questions, offer your opinion only when asked (they already know your opinion; they’ve been hearing it all their lives), and try to find common ground in differing beliefs.
2. Offer Meaningful Choices
We all know the trick we used on our kids as toddlers to get them to do what we wanted- we’d offer them carrots or peas and let them choose, giving them a sense of autonomy while ensuring they get the nutrition they need. This works for teens and young adults most of the time, but the choices have to be meaningful to them. Offer choices like “Would you like to clean your room now with my support or later with Dad’s support?” “Do you want to apply for jobs online or in person?” or “Do you want to start college right after you graduate from high school, or do you want to take a gap year?” Giving meaningful choices allows your child to feel autonomous and experience the consequences of their choices.
3. Allow Expression Of Their Individuality
Whether painting their room their favorite color, enjoying a distinctive fashion style, or choosing a new hairstyle, allowing your teen to express themselves helps them find themselves. Remember, adolescence and young adulthood are periods of identity formation, and during this formation, your child will try out different looks, vibes, and outfits to figure out who they are. Establishing a sense of identity separate from their caregivers helps them build autonomy. While you might not love their selections, all these are normal and can be part of the adolescent experience.
4. Follow Through On Your Promises
Whether you promised to come to their concert or you promised they wouldn’t get to go out over the weekend if they didn’t mow the lawn, you have to follow through with your promises. It might not feel like it, but your teen is watching you closely to see if you are a parent who keeps their word. If you don’t follow through, you are teaching them they can’t trust you and can walk all over you and that adults don’t keep their promises. You are the initial blueprint for adulthood for your teen or young adult, and when you don’t stay true to your word, you are teaching them that is what adults do. If your young adult thinks adults don’t have to follow their promises, they’ll likely never learn to be independent.
5. Be Their Biggest Fan
Teens and young adults can be challenging for parents to cheerlead. After all, just a few years ago, they were losing their teeth, snuggling in for another story, and still needed you to check under the bed for monsters, and now they are getting older and more independent and challenging you on everything. But now is when adolescents, teens, and young adults need more support and cheerleading than ever from you! They need someone to tell them they’re proud of them, that they see them, and are excited for them to continue to develop into autonomous adults.
Overcoming Challenges in Fostering Autonomy
You might have read over our list of ideas for cultivating autonomy in young adults and thought, “I don’t have anything to be proud of my teen for,” or “Giving them meaningful choices won’t help when they simply tune me out” or “if I allowed them the full expression of their individuality, they’d come home with a face tattoo.” You aren’t alone; none of our ideas are a one-time fix or perfect for every situation.
There are many challenges in fostering autonomy in young adults and teens, but consistency and time are the best ways to overcome the challenges. If you’ve been hesitant to let your teen or young adult add a blue streak to their hair, and then suddenly you allow them to do it, they’ll likely write it off as a fluke and not track it as meaningful. But, if, over time, you allow them to have independent thoughts, express their individuality, give them meaningful choices, and celebrate their wins, they’ll notice. You’ll see a difference (and not just because they have colorful hair now).
You’ll see more connection, and they’ll seek your guidance more often because they see you as an adult who values their autonomy. Sometimes, however, even with time and consistency, your young adult or teen might still struggle with building autonomy and independence. That’s where a Therapeutic Gap Year could be instrumental.
How a Therapeutic Gap Year Can Help Develop Autonomy
A Therapeutic Gap Year is dedicated to self-discovery, building independence, practicing meaningful life skills, and building friendships. It’s better than a standard gap year because your young adult will be learning life skills and therapeutic concepts and building autonomy with the support of trained mental health professionals. Sometimes, even after your best efforts, having professionals who have dedicated their careers to helping young adults flourish support your young adult through the transition to adulthood is exactly what you need to ensure they build the skills they need.
Pure Life Adventure offers a Therapeutic Gap program in beautiful Costa Rica, where young adults learn independence and self-awareness through adventure, service, private and group therapy, and nature. If you are struggling to find resources to help your teen or young adult gain independence and autonomy, reach out to us today to find out how we can help them flourish to their full potential.