“I need you to get going!” I told my middle schooler. This reminder came at the end of instructions about what-to-do-next in the unstructured day ahead. My pre-teen, more engaged in a podcast than my game plan, didn’t budge. I considered increasing volume, providing more information, or adding in some exasperated sighs for emphasis. Before I could decide my middle schooler made it clear in both body language and words that my help was not needed.
Meanwhile my eight-year-old overhead my instructions and realized that a couple of them were relevant to him. Without even being asked, he was off looking for his water bottle and backpack. Without even an eye roll.
Respect isn’t just about tone or overtly disrespectful words. Instead, young people yearn to be treated as competent, capable, and valuable members of a group. They are eager for agency and autonomy. This means that our efforts to influence their behavior, even when fairly benign, can be taken as an affront to their independence.
The teen brain: sensitive to respect
Exasperating scenes like this play out in homes everywhere. It would be easy to chalk up my kids’ divergent responses to a bad attitude versus a good attitude. But the latest brain science reminds us that our adolescents’ eye rolls and resistance are driven by more than just mindset. Young people’s resistance to parental direction is actually an important part of growing up.
Due to a combination of psychological and hormonal changes during adolescence, teens are far more sensitive to social feedback and standing than younger children. The teenage brain is sensitively attuned to respect and status. This makes sense. As kids grow up they must figure out who they are and where they belong. It’s easy to empathize with this sensitivity to social evaluation when it comes to their friends. We understand intuitively that feeling excluded, disrespected, or not taken seriously feels awful during adolescence.
Before we pin all the blame on teens, let’s be clear that adults are quite sensitive to these social dynamics as well.
We tend to be less sympathetic when our kids bring this same level of sensitivity into our family interactions. It’s easier to think, “If you could just cheerfully do what I ask like your little brother everything would be so much easier!” It’s especially maddening when we don’t feel like we are being disrespectful – we are just trying to get through the day.
For teens, however, respect isn’t just about tone or overtly disrespectful words. Instead, young people yearn to be treated as competent, capable, and valuable members of a group. They are eager for agency and autonomy. This means that our efforts to influence their behavior, even when fairly benign, can be taken as an affront to their independence.
The challenge is that kids often seek this kind of agency and autonomy before adults think they are ready for it.
Before we pin all the blame on teens, let’s be clear that adults are quite sensitive to these social dynamics as well. A group of researchers recently wanted to see if simple language changes would impact the degree to which adults would do an unpleasant but important task (taking medicine). With one group, they used language that was respectful and honored autonomy and competence (e.g., “you might consider taking the medicine”). With the other group, they used more disrespectful language that threatened autonomy and competence (e.g., “Just take the medicine!”). The respectful language was much more effective in encouraging adults to complete the task – participants consumed 60 percent more medicine.
Navigating the “maturity gap”
The challenge is that kids often seek this kind of agency and autonomy before adults think they are ready for it. Middle adolescence in particular is shaped by a constant push and pull between young people’s desire for independence and respect on one hand, and our beliefs that kids aren’t ready for it on the other. Researchers call this the “maturity gap.” The good news is that the gap tends to peak around eighth grade. The bad news is that if we aren’t careful, this gap can set us up for escalating power struggles.
How we provide guidance matters. And our (sometimes limiting) beliefs about our teens’ capacities and goals matter too.
For example, imagine this scenario:
I approach my middle schooler with language like, “I need you to do this!” My middle schooler, feeling slighted by my parental takeover, rebuffs my directions. Because they are still developing emotional regulation and communication skills, their response isn’t a well-articulated statement of their needs. Instead, many teens externalize their unpleasant feelings. As Dr. Lisa Damour notes, this means that they manage “an unpleasant feeling by getting someone else (often a loving parent) to feel it instead.” Now I, as the parent, feel slighted by my teen’s negativity. Their “bad attitude” further cements my belief that they aren’t ready for independence. I double down on commands. My teen doubles down on hurt-driven reactivity. And we are off to the races.
Teens need structure and freedom
Does all of this mean that we just back out and leave pre-teens and teens in charge? No. Does it mean that rude behaviors are fair game? Also no. Young people may seek autonomy but they still rely on coaching and boundaries as they learn how to set their own goals and move towards them. In other words, it’s our teens’ job to push against the limits and it’s our job to set them.
But how we set those limits matters. How we provide guidance matters. And our (sometimes limiting) beliefs about our teens’ capacities and goals matter too. There is no escaping the push and pull of independence. There is no way to avoid all parent-teen tensions. These dynamics usually indicate that everyone is doing their job. But we can reduce friction and attend to our kids’ developmental needs by approaching them with respect and autonomy at the forefront.
To be clear, this is going to look different for different families. How we negotiate teen autonomy is shaped in significant ways by our cultures, identities, experiences, and values. For some families, nurturing independence is about encouraging teens to increasingly make choices all on their own. For others, it is about helping teens make decisions reflective of their own values and interests while still relying significantly on parental input.
From commands to collaboration
What does this look like? Generally speaking, both young children and adolescents thrive when they have a balance of structure and freedom. Teens are especially hungry for the latter. In other words,
→ We set meaningful boundaries and communicate the purpose of them.
→ Within those boundaries, we give plenty of room for autonomy and respect our teens’ growing capacity to manage their own lives.
While the examples below illustrate attempts to strike this balance, there is no script that we must follow to get it “right.” We each find our own way and words. It’s also helpful to remember that just because we approach our teens with respect for their autonomy doesn’t mean that they will do things the way we want them to. They will make mistakes. They will fail to prioritize the “right” things. They will experience the consequences of their choices. They may externalize their feelings in ways that drive us bananas. These aren’t signs that we should double back on control. It may mean that they need more support or more clear boundaries. But it isn’t evidence that they aren’t capable. It’s evidence that they are still growing and learning. They need us to grow and learn alongside them.
It’s one of the ways that we communicate to each other that we are valued members of our family.
Crossing the Maturity Gap Together
Instead of: I need you to do your chores and get outside today.
Try: We both know that you have chores to do today and you want to get outside. This is how we take care of our bodies and our home. What is your plan for doing both?
* Notice that the example above contains structure (chores aren’t optional today) and freedom (how and when you do chores is up to you).
Instead of: Come over here right now so I can talk to you about this.
Try: Do you want to talk now or after a little break?
Instead of: You need to talk to your teacher about this today.
Try: Your next challenge is to figure out who you are going to talk with at school to figure this out this week.
Instead of: You cannot be rude like that to your sister.
Try: Your choice is to either stay here with your sister and be respectful or take some space if you need it.
Instead of: Here’s what you should do.
Try: What do you think is the best next step? Want to hear some of my ideas or not right now?