How Much Freedom Should I Give My Teen?

All teens chafe at the bit. They are in a hurry to become adults who are not accountable to parents, or teachers. Whether they are equipped to deal with responsibilities that come with freedom is debatable. The average parent is often in a quandary about how much freedom they are to allow their teenager. There is no formula here. It is an evolving equation that is built on the foundation of mutual trust.

It is important for parents to know that it is very easy for teens to misuse their freedom since they are not quite sure of boundaries. Varied parenting styles make it difficult for even experts to agree on limits. There are “helicopter” parents who are heavily involved in their children’s’ lives. They are the parents who visit schools and bombard teachers with questions most often. They schedule every minute of their child’s life and dictate what the child will do, who they will meet, what hobbies they will take up and what college courses the child will take.  While this style emerges out of a need to protect their child, it works adversely by making the child either too dependent on the parent or unable to take their own decisions. These kids also tend to break all restrictions once they are out of sight. The latter are usually very resentful and often lie to their parents to get them off their backs.

On the other end of the spectrum are the parents who  are either not very involved in their child’s life or who believe that teenagers need to be given  a long rope. These are the children who often have a life away from home that their parents are unaware of.  They are prone to abuse alcohol and drugs in the absence of parental control and invariably get into trouble of some sort at school. Parents are shocked when they get to know. They often wonder where things went wrong.

Of course the ideal is a balance between the two extremes where parents succeed in walking the thin line between over-involvement and detachment. This is one place where saintly detachment backfires. There are no tried and tested methods and most parents arrive at the formula that works for them and their children through trial and error. Parenting is a never ending learning process. Parents must be open to change their perspective if they feel it is not working.

However there can be a few guidelines that are recommended by psychologists and parents who have walked on the fire:

1. Establish ground rules: From childhood, interactions work well when ground rules are established very clearly. This can be related to a bed time, bringing home toys from places you visit, screaming in public, homework deadlines or finishing food on the plate. When the child is growing up and interacting with the external world they must understand that there are rules that need to be followed. While establishing rules, parents must consider what works for their own family not what the neighbor or a close friend is doing. Your child might question you “why should I do this, my friend does not do this”. When cell phone became the rage parents did not know how to react to the children’s demands. In our family the rule was “ you will get it if you need it – not because your friends have it”.  While teenagers are very eager to taste the freedom, many are uncertain about how they should deal with it. Rules help. A policy that works and has a strong psychological basis is to establish the rule and stick to it. Don’t change rules midway, without a valid reason. Rules can be changed after a discussion if parents feel that it is a reasonable request.

2. Feel free to rein in your teen when necessary: When I complained about my child’s tantrums, a wise teacher once asked me-“Who is the adult?” This works for teenagers too. They must realize that the freedom given to them is based on earlier responsible behavior. For example, if time and again your teen’s cell phone charges cross the limit you have set, parents can refuse to recharge the phone. Or if your child is spending too much time outside home or demanding to go to late night parties you can change the curfew time and insist they spend more time at home. However, I recommend making this time fun for the kids at home by inviting people home or planning a family outing. Acceptance though reluctant will come eventually. Your child must learn through your action that irresponsible behavior will result in cutting back privileges. Be firm but not nasty.

3. Discuss misuse of freedom and consequences: Freedom always comes with a price, the price of responsibility. If you find your child misusing the freedom you must spell out consequences and implement them. Just threats will not work. If threats are followed by action, your child will realize that you mean business and even respect you for it. If grades drop then the weekly movie with friends will be cut back. If teachers complain of disrespectful behavior, then the teen will be chaperoned everywhere – these are just examples, Parents can use what is acceptable for their family. Many parents feel bad to do this since they feel they are punishing their child. “Tough love” is necessary to build character.

4. Nip it in the bud: As parents, we have a tendency to ignore errant or undesirable behavior when we first notice it, hoping that it will go away. Human nature always tests limits. If nothing is said the first time a teen breaks curfew time or is on the phone for two hours, it will be considered acceptable behavior. However if the parent makes a mention of the incident and stresses that it should not happen again discipline will be easier. I have seen parents displaying amusement when kids as old as 3 or 4 punch their parents, or call their siblings names they may have overheard adults using. If the behavior is not corrected the first time, the child will get more resistant to being corrected and by the time they are teens will either be sullen or rebellious or both. Paradoxically, parents must always respect the teen for his/her emerging faculties and the need to participate in decisions about their life. Belittling them in public for bad behavior or calling them irresponsible will not only provide bad role models but also them determined to flout rules when they get a chance.

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