Be less controlling now so they can be more independent later.
As nice as it might be to have a perfectly obedient child (albeit rather unusual), you probably also want your child to grow into an independent, autonomous adult who can make decisions for themselves based on their own values.
Autonomy-supportive parenting (ASP)—an antidote to controlling or helicopter parenting—can help you raise self-assured kids while reducing your own parental stress. To learn more about ASP, I talked to clinical psychologist Emily Edlynn, author of Autonomy-Supportive Parenting: Reduce Parental Burnout and Raise Competent, Confident Children.
Why autonomy-supportive parenting is good for families
Edlynn writes that the goal of ASP is to parent your child without oppressing their authentic sense of self. It can help children develop self-respect and self-worth, identify their personal values, learn to self-govern, and feel control over their own choices.
“I see autonomy-supportive parenting as an urgent course-correction to the intensive parenting of the day, which is burning out parents and undermining children’s independence and their very identities,” Edlynn said. “Autonomy-supportive parenting is a flexible, science-based parenting approach that encourages us to step away from doing so much for our children so they can build confidence; promotes prioritizing our own needs to better meet those of our children; and helps parents focus on nurturing their child’s authentic self instead of who we might want them to be.”
How learning autonomy now will help them as adults
The research-demonstrated benefits of ASP read like a parent’s wish list:
- Better mental health
- Higher self-esteem
- More satisfaction with life
- Better academic achievement
- Greater social and emotional functioning
- More internal motivation
- More school engagement
- More empathy and seeing others’ perspectives
- Better attitude toward school
- “All of these experiences set a child up for a healthier adulthood,” Edlynn said.
Supporting autonomy through different ages
Here’s how to help teach autonomy to kids, from the toddler years to adulthood.
Toddler to preschool
Help your littlest kids build skills so they have a growing sense of competence to participate in tasks.
“These youngest children love to help, but we often don’t give them opportunities because their ‘help’ may not feel very helpful,” Edlynn said. “Looking for even the smallest task to give this age group, such as wiping the kitchen counters, communicates that you believe they can be helpful. This show of trust builds their confidence in their own skills, which leads to more independence.”
More tips for supporting autonomy in very small children:
Encourage unstructured play where the child leads with their choice of activity. When it’s appropriate, practice minimal supervision by staying nearby for safety, but being engaged in your own activity.
Practice empathy and perspective-taking by verbalizing how they may feel.
Help them learn to regulate emotions with comforting touch and by practicing calming strategies.
Kindergarten to fifth grade
In elementary school, children are ready for even more independence and skill-building. Support their autonomy by:
Establishing a chore system.
Giving them an allowance.
Setting up a homework routine that requires as little intervention from you as possible.
“Also, in these early years of school and activities, such as sports, encourage exploration and experimentation rather than specialization, which has become the norm,” Edlynn said. “Feeling a sense of choice helps kids feel more motivated for school and activities.”
“This early phase of adolescence is the developmental period of starting to figure out who they are apart from the family. It is key in this separation process for the parent to stay connected with their child through using empathy and perspective-taking to truly understand how the young teen experiences their life,” Edlynn said. “It’s also more important than ever to involve your child in decision-making about family rules, etc., rather than imposing your own rules without their input.”
More tips for tweens and young teens:
Define success as something other than perfect grades, winning, or being the best.
Foster internal motivation, a drive to succeed that is not influenced by outside expectations.
Show “unconditional positive regard”—making the child feel like they are supported and accepted regardless of their choices or performance.
By the time kids reach high school, you can sort of squint your eyes and see them as adults. Hopefully they are gaining more confidence in their own decisions and more independence with their activities.
“These last years before young adulthood are like training grounds for living life without parents. Level up both their freedom and their responsibilities,” Edlynn said. Continue to support your teen’s autonomy in these ways:
Express your trust in their independence and skills.
Cut back supervision and monitoring with each year of high school.
Respond to mistakes with curiosity and open-ended questions rather than lecturing. This will help them think through what happened and what they learned.
Encourage them to use people besides parents as resources for support.
Support time-management skills.
Challenges to expect
ASP is not a magic wand that will wave away all the hard parts of growing up.
“Eliminating contention is not realistic or even healthy, as much as we wish our young children would never throw another tantrum,” Edlynn wrote. “Conflict in all its different forms across the developmental ages and stages is part of healthy development when it occurs in the context of safe and trusting parent-child relationships, which autonomy-supportive strategies promote.”
Here’s how to face challenges at each stage of supporting your child’s autonomy:
Toddler to preschool: In the age of tantrums, remember to practice self compassion. It is hard for anyone to remain patient at this stage of parenting.
“The general stress and high physical demands of raising toddlers and preschoolers make us more controlling, and their quick mood swings and explosive outbursts can be very hard to understand and empathize with,” Edlynn said.
Elementary age: Once children are in school, schedules and activities get more intense, stoking stress for parents and kids. With children in this age group, you may want to rescue them from distress rather than teaching them how to cope with emotions.
“In the elementary years, I think parents have a hard time backing off and acting more as a coach when their children face challenges. Parents have the impulse to solve their children’s problems for them or protect them from stress in the first place rather than supporting them through adversity,” Edlynn said.
Adolescence: Boundaries and family roles evolve through the teen years, setting families up for conflict over rules and preserving both independence and connection.
“The biggest challenge in the teen years is the disruption that comes with teenagers finding themselves by separating from the family. Parents want to keep their child close and see this separation as a threat rather than an opportunity, which leads to conflict and more disconnection,” Edlynn said.
Covering the bases you missed
What if your child is already in the double digits and you haven’t given much thought to supporting their autonomy? Can you catch up?
“I say it’s never too late to shift gears. Parenting is like taking a class that lasts a lifetime—we are always learning, growing, and changing,” Edlynn said. “I was much more controlling with my children in their early years due to my own stress. We started chores and allowance in our family later than I wished we had, but my kids now do their chores without complaining (most of the time) and they have shown some wise spending and saving choices with their money. The brain is much more malleable up to age 25, so any change in their environment can still have a noticeable impact.”
The first, easiest step in autonomy-supportive parenting, Edlynn said, is to look for opportunities to build your child’s independence and sense of agency.
“From pouring the milk themselves even if it splashes a little, to brainstorming together about meal-planning for the week, chances to support our child’s autonomy abound when we know to look for them,” she said.