How Do Children Develop Autonomy in the Tween and Teen Years?

Children fight for their independence when puberty hits

An adolescent girl playing on a computer.
An adolescent girl playing on a computer. Zak Kendal/Getty Images

Children express a desire for autonomy at two stages--the toddler years and in early adolescence, also known as the tween and teen years. Learn what autonomy looks like during the tweens and teens, and why this stage is a healthy phase of development rather than a period that parents should fear.

Children who learn to be autonomous during appropriate stages in life can go on to be autonomous and productive adults.

Defining What Autonomy Is

Simply put, autonomy means behaving and thinking independently of others. Autonomous people aren't controlled by other people or external forces. Instead, they self-govern, if you will. Children develop autonomy gradually over the course of development.

In the toddler years, they begin to develop autonomy by exploring their environment and starting to do things for themselves. Learning to use the potty, feed themselves, talk, walk and run are all skills that help two year olds develop autonomy. At this age, children are known to tell their parents, "No!" This is a clear sign of toddler independence.

Some parents may struggle to witness their children leave the infant stage. It becomes more difficult for parents to project their hopes and dreams onto toddlers, who are increasingly developing their own personas and fighting for independence. The amount of temper tantrums parents must face at this stage doesn't help matters.

What Autonomy Looks Like in Tweens and Teens

The next major struggle with autonomy occurs during the tween and teen years. During that time, children fight to become autonomous, but simultaneously feel pulled back toward childhood by their own longings and by the boundaries parents and society places on them.

While parents of toddlers may struggle to watch their babies become full-fledged children, parents of teens and tweens must reckon with the fact that adolescence marks the final stage of childhood. When adolescents fight for their independence, it is because they will soon become adults with their lives in their own hands rather than in their parents'.

Tweens and teens may demonstrate their autonomy by questioning the rules their parents give them or even violating them. They'll also start to express strong preferences in clothing, music or maybe even social or political beliefs. They'll look forward to earning more autonomy, such as getting a learner's permit to drive and later a driver's license. Rites of passage, such as bar mitzvahs or school dances also signal that a child is growing up.

Autonomy in Late Adolescence

As teens age, they'll look forward to being able to vote or legally drink or gamble. In contemporary American culture, individuals may not become fully autonomous until sometime during emerging adulthood (between 18 and 25 years of age).

The age of full autonomy may vary.

One 22-year-old may be a married college graduate who works full time and pays her own bills. Another 22-year-old may have never had a serious relationship, live at home with his parents and attend community college.

Ideally, young adults should become autonomous as soon as possible, giving them the self-confidence that they can take care of themselves and make their way in the world without their parents' help. Some children who've grown up in difficult circumstances, such as the foster care system or in impoverished families, may seek independence at early ages.

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