Some of the hardest decisions parents of teenagers face are around how much freedom to give at what age. What is the correct curfew time for a 14 year old? At what age is it ok for them to go to the shopping arcade with their friends? Take a train by themselves? Have a girlfriend/boyfriend over? And what about parties? And alcohol?
The problem is that different parents make different decisions. It would be really handy if there was a universal consensus that all parents of teens would stick to, but there isn’t. There will always be teens who are allowed to stay out later or walk home in the dark (or do whatever it is you are telling your teen they can’t do) and that can make it really tricky to feel secure in your decision-making and stick to your guns in the face of a protesting teenager.
Of course, a universal standard would never be viable because all teens are different. They mature at different rates. One youngster might be perfectly ready to stay home alone all weekend while another can’t boil an egg without serious risk of injury. (If you’re not sure where your teen lies on that spectrum, see Is your child ready to stay home alone? for guidance).
The teenage years are the time when parents hand over power to children. And by power I mean freedom and control over their own lives. And that can feel pretty scary – how much freedom is safe? The teenage brain is ill-equipped for accurately assessing risks and is overly attracted to instant thrills – not exactly the criteria you would choose for a safe pair of hands.
But if you don’t hand over power you will end up in parent-teen conflict and teenagers need to be given opportunities to make their own decisions in order to learn how to weigh things up and manage risks.
The key is to move the goalposts slowly enough to be sure your teenager is ready for the new freedom but quickly enough that s/he feels like things are moving in the right direction. And that means linking new freedoms to evidence of responsible behaviour. In essence, what we are aiming for is a negotiated process which says “I am going to give you this bit of freedom and we will put some boundaries and risk-reduction measures in place so I feel secure and I know you are safe. If you stick to the rules then I will know you are ready for that freedom and next time you will get more. But if you don’t stick to the rules I will know you are not ready for it.”
Next time your teenager wants a new freedom or to do something that feels risky or to go somewhere by themselves or with their friends, try using this checklist:
- Identify the new freedom your teenager wants
- Discuss your concerns and any potential risks (Why are you worried? What could go wrong?)
- Agree risk-reduction strategies (eg specific actions that will keep them safe)
- Agree rewards for sticking to the plan (eg greater freedom next time)
- Agree consequences for deliberately not sticking to the plan
Sometimes things will go wrong because something happens that neither of you anticipated. As time goes on you will both get better at identifying the important issues. And seeing how your teenager handles the unexpected can be a great way of finding out just how responsible they are (or aren’t) and how much freedom they are really ready for.
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