How to Help Your Teen Become Their Own Person

By: Michael Toohey, Psy.D. | February 7, 2022

Individuation is a crucial developmental phase that starts in early adolescence. During this time teens and young adults begin to assert their own independent identity and establish a cohesive sense of self. Physician and psychiatrist Margaret Mahler describes this period of development as follows: “The child’s life begins in a symbiotic relationship with their primary caregiver before they eventually realize their separateness and form an autonomous identity.” This autonomy can look like a need for space, an increased importance of their peers, and, as most parents of a teenager can tell you, intense and mixed emotion states.

Parents can help their teen through the phase of individuation by encouraging healthy autonomy and practicing independence.

Understand the Process

When your child was young, your role as their parent was to nurture and guide them. You did things for them because they hadn’t yet developed the skills necessary to do it themselves. As your child grew older, they developed the capacity to care for themselves and started to individuate. At this stage the relationship between you and your child evolved. As the parent, you stepped back to assume the role of “the manager” so that your teen could learn how to manage their own lives.

Stepping back doesn’t mean abandoning or becoming detached. Instead of giving directions and overseeing your child’s every move, now you can provide guidance in the form of options that they can choose from, suggestions that they might take, or opinions that they can take into consideration. This is an important time for your teen to practice making decisions on their own and learn from their mistakes. Remember, at this stage, Failure is Not an Option: It is a Requirement.

Your teen will also need space to make their own decisions, and yes, they will make choices that you don’t agree with (hello blue hair!)

How Parents Can Help

Moving through the process of individuation is no easy task. The suggestions below will help you and your teen navigate the uncertainties of this stage with greater ease:

1. Ask Questions

Rather than telling your teen what to do (ex: “Don’t dye your hair!”), ask them questions instead. For example: “How long have you thought about dying your hair?”, “What, or who inspired you to dye your hair?”

2. Maintain a Judgement Free Zone

You always want your child to feel that they can come to you with any issue they may be concerned about. Let them know that you’re there to guide them as they walk their own path. Let them know that you are there to try to understand them, and not to judge or give unsolicited advice. You role is to walk next to them and support them, and make it known that they are in the driver’s seat.

3. Learn with Them

As you walk alongside your teen on the path of individuation, encourage their curiosity about what’s fair and right and what’s unfair and wrong. Share your values regarding systemic racism, income inequality, and gender issues. These are substantial concepts that affect our society at large, but they get demonstrated in smaller settings such as work, school, peer relationships, and even in the home.

4. Love Them

The path to autonomy will be filled with bumps, pitfalls, and challenges, as well as successes, insights, and independence. All along the way, show your emerging young adult that you love and support them, even when they fall.

As a parent of a teen, it can be difficult to approach conversations like sex, drugs, religion, politics, and identity. As uncomfortable as these conversations and topics may be, they are also the pertinent issues that your teen is faced with on a daily basis. They need your help to talk through these complex issues and clarify what is important to them. Your task as a parent of a teen is to manage your own discomfort and put these topics on the table for open discussions. Let your teen know that you are a safe space for addressing challenging topics head on. This helps the teen develop their own decision-making skills.

In the same way you walk alongside your teen, a therapist can walk alongside the parents. Teenagers can be a real handful! Don’t think you have to navigate through this developmental stage alone. Working with a San Diego Psychologist at Therapy Changes can provide support, a sounding board, and safe place to express yourself.



Photo by TI NGUYEN on Unsplash

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