You make a meal and your adolescent begins to complain. You ask him to help the next time you meal plan and he goes straight into how he doesn’t have time for that.
In other words, he wants more say but isn’t willing to do the work.
Independence is one of the essential tasks of adolescence. Yet in the real world, it can seem impossible to get kids to step in the responsibility department. I understand how frustrating it can all be. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it simply means is it’s time for yet another change– to radically step up healthy independence.
I define “healthy independence” as the boost in independence kids need beginning at early adolescence. It’s taking on more responsibility without constant surveillance from parents. That is means making more decisions, taking reasonable risks, and proactively helping out around the house (keeping room clean, participating in meal planning/cooking, doing laundry and other household activities).
Yes, you’d heard me right….proactively!
Before we get into the barriers to this healthy independence, let’s examine why it’s good for adolescents’ health and well being.
Self-determination theory states that there are three ingredients for healthy development: competence, connectedness, and autonomy. When one or more of these needs aren’t met, humans may seek external substitutes like looking good, having material goods, status, getting good grades, and being popular. Or they may compensate for these needs not getting met using food, acting out, screen time or as they get older, drugs and alcohol.
When these needs are met people feel in control of their lives. They don’t have to wait around to be externally validated and because they are satisfied with life, there’s no need to escape it.
The need for independence (or autonomy) also comes at a time adolescents begin to develop their own identity. Feeling capable (or not) colors the way adolescents see themselves. This may be why chores are good for kids. Studies also suggest that autonomy and a stronger sense of self predicts a more positive body image. And study after study reveals that a positive body image predicts healthier habits, better emotional health, and less drug and alcohol abuse.
In My Body’s Superpower I explain it this way:
Here’s the thing about being more independent with tasks around the house and in school. You’ll take pride in yourself. Being independent feels great! Yeah, it takes work, but you’ll feel a new level of confidence and control in your life.
Healthy independence is good for kids, it’s good for parents, and it’s good for society.
Barrier 1: School Work
That being said, the barriers to healthy independence are many, and only add up as kids get older. Adolescents typically have more work to do in school and are more sensitive to stress. That means that even when the workload seems doable, it can feel like the weight of the world to a tween or teen.
This can lead parents to put aside plans to give kids more responsibilities as long as they study, participate in activities, and get good grades. Then when vacation time comes around, kids aren’t used to doing these tasks and can become resistant to pitching in.
See: 7 Shifts in Tweens Behavior Every Parent Should Know About
Barrier 2: Resistance
Speaking of resistance. Have you ever asked a child to do something and she acts like you asked her to run 10 miles? The sheer resistance parents get from kids can keep them from asking them to chip in. They ask you where that important sheet of paper is they left in the office, but completely freak out when you ask them to organize their stuff.
Resistance is simply a part of life and the brain’s way of communicating overwhelm. We’ll talk more about how to handle this obstacle we all have in life.
Barrier 3: Activities
In addition to school, there are activities such as sports, after-school meetings, and time with friends. Again, it’s easy to forgo tasks around the house so children can socialize and participate in activities they enjoy. Many of these activities go late making getting things done at home even more challenging.
We can’t forget about the time driving to these activities (my personal pet peeve).
Barrier 4: Parental Ambivalence
Parents may feel conflicted about stepping up independence. For example, it’s often more work at first until kids improve. Some may just want peace at home, so avoid asking more from their kids. And other times, parents may have a hard time seeing their kids make mistakes.
It can also be hard to give up control. Consider the reluctance to let a child load the dishwasher when you can do it so much better. Or allowing them more freedom often takes doing things differently like having food readily available in the fridge so kids can easily assemble snacks and lunches.
Whatever it is, it’s important to be honest with yourself about what may be holding you back. For me, life with kids can feel like a rollercoaster ride that is hard to get off. It’s taking the time — knowing there is never a perfect time — and just tackling things one small step at a time.
Barrier 5: Dependence on Rewards
Over-rewarding kids for chipping in can work to decrease motivation. They can drown out the internal rewards they get that make the behavior consistent, even meaningful.
“When we pay [kids] to do things that humans have always had to do as participants of communities and families, it sends them some sort of a message that they are entitled to [an] exchange for these things,” said Heather Beth Johnson, a sociologist at Lehigh University in an article in The Atlantic about allowances.
We want kids to develop intrinsic motivation, an internal drive to engage in a behavior over external motivation, behaving a certain way to get that outside stamp of approval.
See: Does Rewarding Kids to Eat Healthy Backfire?
A New Approach
Maybe that tension between parents and adolescents is trying to tell us that something needs to change and that change can lead to an unexpectedly great place. I believe if we are to help kids develop healthy independence, we need a completely different approach.
Next up, is how to tackle these very real barriers. I’ll be showcasing some strategies I’m using at my home.
If you’ve had success in this area, let us know about it in the comments.
Checkout Maryann’s book on helping girls choose healthy habits, which includes feel-good indepdence: My Body’s Superpower: The Girls’ Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty.
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