British Columbia·Point of View

Learning to let go of your teen, so they can learn themselves

It's important for teenagers to gain independence. But how can parents make sure they spread their wings safely?

How can parents make sure their teenage kids spread their wings safely?

The teenage years can be times of tough transition, in which kids and their parents need to negotiate new rules for independence. (Ed Yourdon, Flickr cc)

This story is part of Amy Bell's Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition


While I've become quite adept at deciphering the eye rolls and sighs of displeasure my 13-year-old communicates with some days, I am keenly aware that I haven't quite figured out how to give her the independence she so desperately craves. 

But I do have one secret weapon to unraveling the mysteries of teenage girls — I used to be one! 

While I may not remember what it was like to have a face without wrinkles, I remember the desire to spread my wings very well.  But is there a magic age or point where kids can go their own way a bit? And how much freedom should they get? 

Teenage brains need to learn how to think for themselves

I reached out to Chris Burt, who's the clinical director at HollyBurn Family Services in North Vancouver, B.C. Hollyburn offers counselling and workshops for teens and their parents as they transition through the sometimes tumultuous years.

Burt says that while research has shown certain areas of the teen brain develop at certain ages, other areas only start to percolate once they are kicked into action.

"If you're not asking that brain to work and function, i.e.. forecast for the future, try something ... if you're taking that away from that young person, then that part of the brain isn't going to develop because you're doing all of the thinking for them," Burt says. 

They wouldn't have learned to walk as toddlers if we kept carrying them around — so, it's the same basic principle. 

Don't let your fear guide you

Even if you have a great and trusting bond with your kids, they are still going to face peer pressure and some potentially scary situations when you aren't around. So when does a parent know to step in and take the reins?

Unless you have firm proof that the worst case scenario is about to unfold, you need to step back. 

"If we can get in the way of them having a true, traumatic experience, then of course we're going to step in," says Burt. "But my experience tells me that parents forecast that way, way too soon and without the evidence that it's going to happen."

These teen years are tricky. I haven't doubted my decisions and my fundamental role as a mom this much since I had a newborn.

I may not agree with all my daughter's decisions — I still think wearing a crop top in sub-zero temperatures is ridiculous and I will die on that hill — but I agree with her desire to make them, and I trust her ability to solve most of the problems that might arise as a result. 

If she needs me, I'll be there and we can work through her problem together. But then I'll send her right back out on her own again.

About the Author

Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.

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