The Path to Independence

Adolescence is about becoming adult. Being an adult is about taking responsibility for your self and for your actions.  Easier said than done and there are many adults who are not in such a solid place of self-reliance.  Sadly, these adults – parents, teachers, employers – are not in a mature place to guide young people towards establishing independence and responsibility.  When teenagers do not have adults in their lives who model self-reliance, it is difficult for them to make progress towards independence.  The reality is that the very people they need to support and aid them in their pursuit of independence are often struggling for independence themselves.  It is unlikely that the young person will find a model of independence among his or her peer group.  The result is that the lean-to-relationships that have been part and parcel of family and school life are repeated with peers.

Young people have a dawning consciousness of the challenges that face them as they trek the terrain of their teenage years.  The challenges are primarily emotional, physical, behavioural and sexual – facts often missed by parents and teachers who overemphasise academic and career progress and miss the emotional turmoil experienced by a high proportion of adolescents.

In order to meet the challenges of the wider world of becoming adult, the young person unconsciously attempts to create opportunities to establish his independence.  There is a realisation that supports beyond the family are required.  Many parents are threatened by this development, but let me reassure them that their influence remains large in the lives of their teenage sons and daughters.  Of course, the nature of that influence is determined by the individual present level of maturity.  Parents can only be effective in realising their realistic expectations of their offspring when they practise what they request.  When the road to independence has been paved from the early years of childhood, adolescents take on the extra responsibilities of becoming adult with relative ease.  However, when they have not been given the age-appropriate opportunities to become self-reliant – due to being over-protected or over-controlled – then the path to independence will be a difficult journey.

The early stage of adolescence is marked by the young person’s need to belong to his own gender group.  This homogeneous group excludes members of the opposite gender and also those of the same gender who are not part of the group.  There is a wonderful creativity in this development as the young person is striving to find support among his or her own gender in order to face the wider world.  The very important qualities of loyalty and cooperativeness are learned in this phase of adolescence.  What is critical is that the young person establishes a group of peers who will support him in times of crises.  Later on, the teenager finds a bosom pal, normally from the group.  What is emerging here is that ‘there is one person of my own gender that I can rely upon and discuss everything’.  This relationship provides a very important support person outside the family and it is often the case that a bosom pal becomes a life-time relationship.  However, there is more work to be done, because there is the other half of the population to be conquered!  This is a transitional time because up to now the opposite gender were not seen as ‘cool’ to be with, but wisdom dictates otherwise.  In a similar way to attaining support from one’s own gender group, the young person will find themselves attracted to several members of the opposite sex, often known as the dating phase.  The aim here is to discover how many of the opposite gender will be responsive and supportive.  The quest here is not sexual, but, emotional.  Later on, the drive for an intimate relationship with the opposite sex will emerge and this quest is for a soul mate, somewhat akin to the bosom pal, but involves sexual attraction as well.  When a young person has low self-esteem, such a relationship, if it happens, is clung onto for dear life.  If the relationship ends, suicide is not an unlikely outcome, not uncommon among young men.  Because the adolescent has not experienced strong and supportive relationships within the family and not likely to have developed a bosom pal, the intimate relationship with the opposite sex appears to be ‘a life saver.’  The reality is that a person can only save their own lives and dependence on another puts the young person at high risk.

There are practical ways that parents can create support and independence in adolescents, always being mindful that they are modelling self-reliance themselves:

  • provide opportunities outside and inside the home to practice independence – in small steps
  • show belief in their undoubted capacity to take on responsibilities
  • encourage responsible use of pocket money – budgeting, saving etc
  • allow them to express their own opinions and discuss differences that will inevitably arise
  • encourage and support their own decision-making
  • give responsibility for particular domestic tasks (do not reward chores; chores are an intrinsic aspect of family life)
  • ask their advice on challenges you are facing yourself

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of practical books on psychology, including Leaving the Nest.