Reaching for Freedom: Teens and Independence

Reaching for Freedom: Teens and Independence

by Sara L. Manewith, AM, Director of Response for Teens

A teenager balks when his mom asks what time he’ll be home. Another groans when asked about their homework status. Another teen puts on make-up at school, out of their parents’ sight and judgement.  And another stays in his room, a lot.

These youth are negotiating one of the most common developmental concerns for teenagers: Gaining a sense of independence as they move slowly toward adulthood.  


For teenagers, acquiring autonomy means having opportunities to experience and manage ever-increasing amounts of freedom. Parents and caregivers of course, see freedom as full of risks, and rightfully, try to help manage their growing child’s independence by keeping them safe, helping them stay on track. Most kids will one day launch into a fully independent adulthood when they’ll be required to make all kinds of decisions for themselves. Adolescence is the time for them to practice taking on ever-greater responsibility for themselves, hopefully within a context of family support that can protect them when their under-developed judgement fails. 


Independence has another layer of meaning for teenagers; it’s also the freedom to be who they think they are becoming. Teens very typically are trying to forge an identity that separates them from their family of origin – again, preparing for what one day will be the reality. They may sometimes reject seemingly everything that their family values as they struggle with determining what parts they want to keep, and what parts really might not fit them in adulthood. They may “try on” different activities, interests, fashions, friendships, and styles of communicating as they slowly, slowly settle on what suits them.  There are risks inherent in these expressions of independence, too: Will they be accepted, or rejected for their choices? Will their developing values gel with those of their family and peers?  Will their choices bring them into community with others, or set them apart?


There’s one more piece of the freedom puzzle when traversing adolescence and that is freedom from. Freedom from violence, from harm, from emotional injury, agonizing self-doubt, or paralyzing fears. The road to adult independence is a rocky one; today it is additionally burdened by very real fears of community violence, heightened anxieties over academics, increased loneliness in a world of social media, and existential worries about the future of the world left for them. Sometimes, we adults can’t protect them.

For nearly 40 years, Response for Teens has worked with teenagers to help them develop the skills and strengths they need to advocate for themselves, make good decisions, and deal with life’s challenges. Through counseling, prevention education and leadership programming, and health care, Response helps teenagers and young adults (ages 12 – 24) be empowered to make healthy life choices. For more information call, 847.676.0078 or visit