When children become teenagers it’s very common for them to begin spending less and less time within the home as they move their focus towards their peers or romantic relationships.2,4 This transition away from the family can sometimes be a challenge as parents often have to lessen a bit of the control that they have had over their kids.4
However, although it’s challenging, most parents also understand the great need for their teenagers to gain independence and more responsibility. When teenagers begin to have more self-direction, self-initiation, and become more reliant on themselves rather than their parents, they are achieving autonomy. Autonomy is important for teens as they begin thinking for themselves and begin making their own decisions. When parents are encouraging their teens to become more self-reliant and independent, they are engaging in what research calls “Autonomy Supportive Parenting.” And, as with many other aspects of life, when children or teenagers feel supported by their parents, they have more confidence and are more successful in what they are doing. Further, The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that successful families are established and maintained on respect, love, and compassion, among other things. This point is also shown in research, which tells us that teens who feel loved by their families and feel supported in their autonomy, typically have better adjustment, better well-being, and academic functioning.1,3,5
Types of Autonomy Supportive Parenting
Research shows that there are 3 types of parenting pertaining to the autonomy of teens.
- Psychological Control
- Promotion of Independence (PI)
- Promotion of Volitional Functioning (PVF).
The first type, Psychological Control, is by far the least effective method of autonomy supportive parenting. In fact, it is the opposite of being supportive. Parents who engage in psychological control are passive-aggressive and dismissive. They often give guilt trips, undermine or invalidate their teen’s experiences or comments, and they often pressure their children to act only in ways they approve of. This type of parenting can be harmful for a teen’s development and can also lead to an increase in depression as well as delinquent behaviors.1,3,5
The other two types of autonomy supportive parenting, Promotion of Independence (PI) and Promotion of Volitional Functioning (PVF), are much better methods. When parents engage in Promotion of Independence (PI) they are much more focused on helping their child embrace new roles and responsibilities as the teen begins to distance themselves from the family. Parents encourage their teen’s individuality and self-expression as they begin to make decisions on their own. Teens tend to have much better outcomes when their parents engage in PI, but the best outcomes come when parents engage in promotion of volitional functioning (PVF). Building upon the positive attributes of PI, parents who use PVF not only encourage their teen’s independence and self-expression, but they help emphasize the teen’s own thoughts, desires, beliefs, and values. Parents provide help and guidance when needed but do their best to validate their teen’s own experiences and thoughts as they begin to become more independent.1,3,5
Therefore, going further than simply encouraging their teen’s independence as with PI, parents who engage in PVF have conversations with their teens to discover why they want to make the decisions they’re making, and then to help their child feel supported as they’re becoming more independent. Autonomy supportive parents are the parents who are encouraging, answering questions, or offering guidance. But in the end, letting the child be the one to make the choices they feel most comfortable with and what is in line with their desires or values.
Teens who are supported in their autonomy through PVF have better adjustment, better well-being, and do better academically. They also have higher levels of self-regulation and social adjustment and have lower levels of depression.1,3,5
Autonomy Supportive Parenting in Action
So, what might autonomy supportive parenting look like in action? Let’s imagine together that your teenager approaches you about wanting to get an after-school job. A parent who parents through psychological control might guilt their child into feeling bad for wanting to spend even more time away from their family. They might tell them that their idea of getting a job is incredibly flawed and shouldn’t be pursued. Or they might completely deny, disregard, or ignore their teenager’s desire of getting a job. In this scenario, the teenager likely would feel unsupported, cast aside, and incredibly discouraged.
However, if you parent through PVF (which is the exact opposite of Psychological Control), you as a parent might engage in a conversation with your teen about why they might want this job. Through this discussion you might seek to understand their deepest desire regarding this job. Then, you might offer advice or guidance as you feel necessary. You might talk about the time constraint this might add and the extra responsibilities your teen would have in addition to their schoolwork or other activities. The end result will be different for each family, but the teenager in this scenario likely feels a lot more fulfilled than the teenager of psychological controlling parents. Through engaging in this conversion with the teen, the parents are showing that they care about the teen’s perspectives, their desires, and what they truly value. Teens may be much more likely to come to their parents about other questions or concerns they may have because they felt supported and validated through this conversation.
There are many scenarios and situations that fall in between the two scenarios talked about above, but in the end, it’s always a good idea for parents to have heartfelt conversations with teens and seek to understand their perspectives and desires. Parent-child relationships are much more successful when parents engage in conversations with their teens, rather than have immediate reactions to information received either directly from their teen or elsewhere. Creating a safe space for your teen to open up to you will greatly benefit your relationship.
Parents, remember what it was like to be a teenager. It was a time of much change, growth, and learning. Keep that in mind as you parent your teenagers through this incredibly challenging time. Parents truly can help their teens thrive by being supportive of their teen’s autonomy rather than trying to maintain control over them.
Promotion of Volitional Functioning (PVF) Parenting Reminders
- Encourage exploration and actions based on your teen’s thoughts, beliefs, values, or true interests
- Acknowledge and be empathetic towards your teen’s perceptions
- Offer choices when possible, or provide explanations when choices are not possible
- Avoid controlling or engaging in power assertions
- Provide input, opinions, and guidance when necessary
- Validate and encourage your teen to have their own sense of choice
Written by Lauren E. Andrus, edited by Stephen F. Duncan, professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. April 20, 2021.
- Benito‐Gomez, M., Williams, K. N., McCurdy, A., & Fletcher, A. C. (2020). Autonomy‐supportive parenting in adolescence: Cultural variability in the contemporary United States. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 12(1), 7-26.
- Brown, B. B., & Larson, J. (2009). Peer relationships in adolescents. In R. M. Lerner, & L. Steinberg (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent psychology: Vol. 2. Contextual influences on adolescent development (3rd ed., pp. 74–103). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- McCurdy, A. L., Williams, K. N., Lee, G. Y., Benito‐Gomez, M., & Fletcher, A. C. (2020). Measurement of Parental Autonomy Support: A Review of Theoretical Concerns and Developmental Considerations. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 12(3), 382-397.
- McElhaney, K. B., Allen, J. P., Stephenson, J. C., & Hare, A. L. (2009). Attachment and autonomy during adolescence. In R. M. Lerner & L. Steinberg (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent psychology (3rd ed.; pp. 358 – 403). New York, NY: Plenum Press.
- Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., Luyckx, K., Goossens, L., Beyers, W., & Ryan, R. M. (2007). Conceptualizing parental autonomy support: Adolescent perceptions of promotion of independence versus promotion of volitional functioning. Developmental Psychology, 43(3), 633.