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How much independence should you give your teen?

It’s hard to believe you have a teenager. Wasn’t it yesterday that your little one clung to your knee, reluctant to enter the kindergarten classroom? And now this child doesn’t seem to want to include you in his or her life at all.

What happened?

Throughout childhood, kids declare their independence every step of the way. Until now, the power grabs seemed minor like demanding to wear sandals in the winter. The teenage years are an important transition time when kids struggle between depending on their parents and feeling a strong desire to be independent. Experimenting with their emerging sense of identity, teens test out new values, ideas, opinions, hairstyles, clothing and friends. Some of their new choices may run counter to your own and can be a source of friction.

What to do?

Insist on honesty, self-control and respect for others while allowing them some space. The following tips may help you loosen the reins without abdicating your parental responsibility:

Pick your battles. Don’t sweat the small stuff like fashion choices. Save your energy for issues that affect your teen’s health or safety.

Set clear limits, expectations and consequences and write them down. Draw up a contract that states rules and responsibilities. If you expect your teen to assume yard chores and kitchen cleanup, put it in writing. Be direct when you discuss drinking, smoking or drug use and spell out the consequences for breaking your rules.

Be consistent. On-again, off-again rules quickly lose their effectiveness. Expect to be tested. Kids may intentionally break a rule to see how serious you are.

Stay positive. Don’t let nagging and disagreements become your only conversations. Kids need to know—and hear—that they’re loved no matter what their age. Let them know you value them and their successes.

Stay involved in your teen’s life. He or she may act as if you’re not wanted at the soccer game, but you really are. Spending time together makes it easier to discuss your values and learn about his or her opinions or dilemmas.

Gathering the family together for meals provides an ideal chance to stay in the loop. One study found that teens who ate dinner with their families an average of five times a week were better adjusted—less likely to abuse drugs or suffer depression, more motivated at school and able to enjoy better friendships—than those who ate with their families three times a week.

Warning signs

Teens are at risk for depression and eating disorders and a number of self-destructive behaviors such as using drugs or alcohol. These red flags may signal that your teen is struggling with a problem:

  • agitated or restless behavior
  • weight loss or weight gain
  • falling grades
  • trouble concentrating
  • persistent sadness
  • not caring about people or things
  • lack of motivation or interest in activities
  • fatigue
  • difficulty sleeping

If you notice any of these signs, talk with your child and perhaps suggest meeting with another trusted adult or professional.