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Set Teenagers Free: How to Promote Teen Independence

You've got to let them go so they can grow.

Kerry McDonald is a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. She’s also the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom. Here, she shares her thoughts on the importance of teen independence, and how parents can learn to set their teenagers free.

It’s a tough time to be an American teenager. They undeniably live in an era of unprecedented prosperity and technological innovation. Yet today’s teenagers are more confined and controlled than ever before. They spend more time in school and school-like settings, and work less, than any previous adolescent cohort. Even summertime jobs for teens hover near record lows. Academics are taking priority, and rising minimum wage laws limit their access to entry-level jobs.

Teens are suffering.

Excluded from the workplace and larger community, and contained in school for longer portions of their day and year, teens are showing signs of distress. Suicide rates for U.S. teens and young adults are now the highest on record, and Vanderbilt University researchers discovered an alarming correlation between adolescent suicidal tendencies and school attendance. Analyzing data from hospital emergency rooms, the physicians found that adolescent suicidal thoughts and attempts dip in summertime and spike at back-to-school time, which is an opposite pattern to that of adults who experience higher suicide rates during the summer months. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, seven out of 10 teenagers report that anxiety and depression are major problems among their peers, with academic pressure a key driver.

Technology use, and social media in particular, are often blamed for teenage tumult, but these exist year-round while adolescent depression and anxiety seem more closely linked to the academic cycle. Technology and social media may exacerbate the stresses of schooling, but it appears unlikely that they cause it.

Teen independence is the answer.

Rather than more closely monitoring teen technology use or piling additional programming onto their packed schedules, the key to alleviating teen turmoil may be to simply give them more freedom. Welcome teens into the adult world they will soon enter. Grant them authentic opportunities beyond the classroom to interact with a diverse assortment of community members. Support teen jobs and apprenticeship opportunities. Give them a break from schoolwork in favor of real cultural immersion.

Psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein writes in his book, Teen 2.0, that teens need to feel like useful, valuable members of society. “Driven by evolutionary imperatives established thousands of years ago, the main need a teenager has is to become productive and independent,” Epstein writes. “After puberty, if we pretend our teens are still children, we will be unable to meet their most fundamental needs, and we will cause some teens great distress.” (p. 21)

Promote teen independence by encouraging them to:

  • Start a business and develop an entrepreneurial mindset
  • Generate creative content, such as by building a YouTube channel or blog
  • Cultivate relationships with local businesses and organizations
  • Trade structured extracurriculars for after-school and summer jobs
  • Volunteer in a field of interest
  • Create a service project for the community
  • Ask to shadow someone who could be a mentor
  • Consider community college courses as substitutes for high school classes
  • Check out teen travel programs
  • Explore alternatives to school

On the brink of adulthood, teens crave opportunities for autonomy, self-expression, and genuine integration into their wider community. Rather than confining and controlling them, we should set teens free. If we do, we may find that they are happier, healthier, and better able to thrive in the fast-changing, technology-fueled world that will soon be theirs.

Follow Kerry on Twitter @kerry_edu.