The gaining of independence: Adolescent development

Some notes for parents, teachers and mentors as they guide their ward's move from dependence to autonomy.

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Life is a process of moving from dependence to autonomy and possibly then to reluctant dependence. Be it in guiding the growth of the self, children, careers or communities, the overarching goal of autonomy calls to each of us over time. Agency and empowerment, arising from self-understanding characterise the movement towards autonomy. This is an essential step that all people must negotiate if they are to have a fulfilling life.

There are a series of steps that need to be accomplished for independence to be achieved. Planning in this regard is essential to success.

Modelling tasks

One of the first steps that adults can take to help young people move towards greater autonomy is the modelling of tasks. This requires the guide to breakdown a complex task into a series of achievable steps. This might mean, in the first instance, that only the first step is modelled. That is, if there are a series of steps which make an activity or task quite complicated, a considered approach to what can reasonably be mastered must be taken. Once the first step has been achieved then additional steps become easier to master.

Modelling tasks requires patience. A person moving from dependence to independence is initially likely to do tasks in a way that is incomplete, unsuccessful or partially successful. This can frustrate the young person – however, it should not frustrate the guide who is managing the process. That is, mistakes or incompletions will occur in moving from dependence to greater independence and these should be expected and even welcomed.

Sometimes in frustration a parent or adult might do a task for a child that they can do themselves. When teaching young people how to gain greater autonomy, time should not be a pressure. When time takes priority the frustration used to manage the process can undermine the confidence of a child on their journey to greater autonomy.

In essence this means that the process is proactive rather than reactive. It is planned and considered rather than reflexive and brutal.

Graduated risk taking

As young people gain some agency, their capacity to undertake more and more complex tasks should mean that they are given greater and greater autonomy. This autonomy will happen in several different domains in their life. For example, there may be greater cognitive autonomy to manage school-based tasks and assessments. There will be greater social autonomy to initiate and negotiate friendships and personal relationships. They may also display greater physical autonomy in the choice of leisure activities that they would like to pursue.

In each case, experimentation by the youngster can make parents feel guarded, powerless and anxious. If the young person is successful, the relief is palpable!

Young people will meet boundaries and will seek to push those boundaries further. In doing so, their sense of self becomes larger. A sense of self that crosses different domains in life leads to more robust self-esteem. A child isn’t defined by only one aspect of themselves because they know they are multifaceted and draw esteem from various aspects.

Graduated risk-taking can feel scary for young people. In an academic context, this takes the form of allowing students to make mistakes or “fail”. The purpose is to allow the young person to separate their self-esteem from the outcome. This means that the focus is on the process and trying, rather than defining success only by achievement or what has been completed successfully.

Safety net

Even though the ideal for all young people as they grow is to achieve the greatest level of autonomy and independence, responsible adults need to be ready and available as a safety net. This way, the adult will know when a child feels abandoned, and when it is appropriate to step in and take greater control and give greater direction.

This is no simple process.

Sometimes young people, adolescents and even adults resist help even when they need it. The confidence gained from independence and autonomy can be the very same confidence that pushes away much needed support. Our mental health and suicide statistics attest to this.

Mentors must learn to distinguish between hearing and listening. Hearing is a physical process by which sound is acknowledged. Active listening requires a person to understand how words convey feelings beyond those that are uttered.

Life is a journey from total dependence to agency and autonomy. There are times when all people, regardless of personal strength, need to rely on others. The true maturity of independence is doing as much as one can for oneself, and also knowing when to ask for support.

READ ALSO: Those who “dumb it down” need to smarten up





Mohan Dhall
Mohan Dhall
Academic leader, M2K Education and Advisory and CEO of Australian Tutoring Association and Global Tutoring Association.

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