Dear Dr Justin,
My daughter started high school and already there are parties and outings organised where no parents are allowed. She’s only 12 and I think too young to go unsupervised. Am I being unfair?
The teen years are a glorious time for our kids. It is a time of freedom; our kids are doing things for themselves and by themselves, figuring themselves out, and experiencing life like never before. And, of course, it’s a time when parties, outings and other social events are on the rise.
For many parents, our teen’s time of excitement is our time of fear! We want to know our children are safe, and making healthy, wise decisions.
So, how much independence is the right amount?
Unfortunately, the answer is… it depends. At 12 perhaps going to the local pool in the afternoon with a group of friends might feel okay, but going to a party on a Saturday night may not. Perhaps meeting up in the city for a movie with some girlfriends might also be okay, but going with just one boy might not be something you feel so good about.
It is up to each family to find the ‘right’ amount of independence for their child. However, it’s vital that our teens participate in determining where that line is, with us.
Having control in their lives is important for our teens. Research shows that autonomy is one of the most important contributors to success and happiness. It is a predictor for almost all the positive outcomes that we want for our kids – better wellbeing, lower stress, better health, increased longevity, greater career success and even lower use of drugs and alcohol. Kids with parents who encourage autonomy do better at school, have better friends, and are generally happier.
Handing over the decision-making power (within limits!)
So, the best thing we can do for our teens is to give them some decision making power in their own lives. This doesn’t mean becoming permissive or disengaged. Instead, we should involve our teens in establishing the family rules, and negotiate individual circumstances with them as necessary.
If this seems like a lot of work, you’re right, it is! But it is also do-able by utilising the three Es of Effective Discipline – explain, explore and empower.
First, explore the issue with your child. If she feels strongly that she is ready for something, listen as she explains her reasons. Try to understand her feelings. This is the time for empathy and perspective.
Second, explain the risks and consequences of the choices, such as unsupervised parties, to your teen. Discuss some of the things you feel she is ready for, such as going alone to a café with a friend, and some of the things she is not. Let her tell you how she feels as well. The more clearly you explain, and the more input you receive, the more chance that you will get understanding and cooperation from your teen.
Third, empower her by working together to find solutions. What should the family rules be when it comes to parties? What about outings? If there is a party she can’t attend, can she organise another outing that is acceptable? Brainstorm solutions that don’t put her at risk, feel age-appropriate and work within the rules your family has set.
A note about parties
When it comes to teens’ parties, there are some very important considerations you might discuss. For example, parties where no parent is present are, in my mind, a no-go. If, during a party, there is underage drinking, or illegal drug use, or sexual activities, or if one of the kids is hurt, the parent could be at risk for legal action. And if a minor teen gives another minor alcohol, they are breaking the law. Remember, too, that sex is more likely when there’s alcohol.
These risks are serious. Various states even have laws about parties.
If there’s a law, it becomes a non-negotiable rule. Otherwise, it is up to us to use our most powerful parenting tool – communication – to navigate our teen’s growing need for social independence. But by explaining, exploring and empowering we can work together to establish appropriate guidelines for social outings and help our teens make well-informed, age-appropriate choices, to ensure they have a great future.