Skip to content

Encouraging Independence in Your Teen

“I can do this on my own!”  “I don’t need any help!”  “Quit treating me like a child!”  How do you respond to statements like these from your teenager?  Do they upset you, or do you see these as signs of a necessary process taking place?

Rather than viewing such words as a slap in the face from an ungrateful or rebellious child, I encourage you instead to view them as signs that your training is working and that your child is getting ready for adulthood. I’m not saying that anything goes as far as allowing disrespectful words or a really bad attitude, but we need understand that these statements are not inherently rebellious. Look behind the words to what is really going on; it may be that you are holding on too tightly and not giving them enough opportunity to assume responsibility.

A parent asked me recently about the concept I often talk about of extending the rope and giving teens more freedom and responsibility. “How do we know at what stage to do that?” That’s a great question. Here’s how I suggest you go about answering it for your child. First, sit down and establish what you want to accomplish with your child in the next six to twelve months. Come up with a plan to move them from dependence to independence in certain areas.

Once you have identified areas where you want to give them more responsibility, do it now.  Don’t wait. If you are just thinking about doing it, it probably should have already happened. If you hold on, they will have to fight for it, and that increases tension. Picture this: let’s say you told your teenage daughter she could have a cell phone when she’s fifteen. So give it to her at fourteen and a half. Say something like, “I appreciate the way you’ve taken responsibility and I believe you’re ready for this now instead of later.” She will look at you in a different way and appreciate it far more than she would have if she had gotten it when she was entitled, as a 15th birthday present.

Most kids do a good job of stepping up when they’re given responsibility. If we wait until we think they’re ready, the seeds of rebellion from frustration may already be growing. By gradually increasing their responsibility and freedoms before we think they are capable of handling them, we are helping prepare them for the future and preventing the negative feelings that they aren’t trusted. Let me share with you a few practical steps that go a long way toward promoting independence in your older teen’s life.

Give them room to decide some things on their own.

It’s tempting for parents to make all the choices for their teens. It’s faster, and there isn’t a battle every time. But making decisions for your teen can be destructive to their independence. Decision-making is a skill that only comes with practice. It isn’t something that’s magically conferred on them when they turn 18 or 21. Letting them make choices means that they will probably do some things wrong and make poor choices, but they’ll learn from those, too.

For example, instead of telling them what time to get up, ask them what time they think they should get up, and remind them you will not take them if they are late. If they say 7 o’clock when you know the bus comes at 7:15, just say, “Okay.” Then, after they miss the bus and have to find their own way to school, they may reconsider their decision—but they will have learned the lesson rather than having you make the choice for them. Let them figure it out on their own.

Don’t continually force your opinion on them.

We sometimes don’t trust what we have taught our children. Did you ever plant a garden or some flowers? What happens if you yank the seeds out every day to see if they’re growing? No plants and no flowers! Give the truths that you have poured into their hearts and minds some time and space to take root and grow.

God promises that His Word produces results in time. Let your teenager develop their own spiritual ideas and opinions rather than forcing them to parrot yours exactly. One of the reasons that so many Christian young people stop going to church when they leave home is that their faith never became their own; it was always their parents’ faith. They went along with it for as long as they had to, but once they left home they no longer had a reason to go. Remember, we are responsible to teach our children about God, but we cannot make them accept our faith in God as their own faith.

Major on the majors, not the minors.

Face it, some things simply don’t matter that much. They may matter to you, but do they matter to your child’s future? Some parents spend a lot of time focusing on the minor things like appearance. Even if you don’t particularly love their latest haircut or shirt style, if it isn’t an issue of modesty, it’s not worth making a federal case out of it. Allow them the freedom to express their own personality.

The music I liked as a teen drove my parents crazy. They couldn’t understand why I liked that “noise.” But even though I may not like a particular type of music a teen enjoys, if they are suicidal or on drugs or dealing with major anger issues, music isn’t going to be my focus. I want to spend my time on the things that matter most, and allow the teens to develop their own tastes. Believe me, it’s amazing how much their tastes will change over time, and before long they’ll like much of the same music you and I do. For now, they will mostly listen to what their friends are, so they can keep up on it and not appear to be out of touch with their culture.

Don’t drive them crazy.

Many parents of teens use the “Spare the rod and spoil the child” approach, saying it is scriptural, while overlooking the “Fathers, do not exasperate your children” reference. The definition of “exasperation” includes a number of words that clearly describe the situation like: “make furious, irritate, provoke, annoy, anger, inflame, infuriate, exacerbate, make worse, enrage, and aggravate.” Using the same discipline technique in the teen years as when they were young will lead to exasperation. It just doesn’t work with teens, and it turns them against their parents. Oh, they may appear more docile, but it is likely that they are seething inside or broken in spirit. There are better ways to discipline a teenager which usually entail letting them feel the “pain” of the loss of privileges and added duties.

Some may read the “Do not exasperate” verse thinking that the intent of the writer was to only to discourage parents from abandoning, cursing, demoralizing, abusing, or screaming at their child. However, I believe teenagers can also be exasperated by parents who treat them still as children, not as thinking, reasoning, pre-adults.

In conclusion, I want to remind you that the measurement of good character is not just following all the rules; it is the presence of taking initiative and thinking well and responding properly to life’s challenges. One of our primary responsibilities as parents is to train our children and give them the tools to be successful adults. By promoting independence in growing and appropriate ways as they get older, we are preparing them to make good decisions and move ahead confidently into life on their own.

We talked about this issue in depth on our radio program last week titled “Helping Independence Happen.” To listen online, look for the program dated May 21, 2011 at

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit, or to read other articles by Mark, visit

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.