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granting autonomy

  • What is autonomy
  • The difficulty of knowing when to grant autonomy
  • What parents and teenagers think
  • Where parents and teenagers agree and disagree
  • What you can do with this information


The two Decision making & responsibility sheets in this series were written to give parents some ideas about how to decide what and when their teenager should be able to decide for themselves, and how best to balance teenagers' demands for independence with the need to keep themself as safe as possible. The idea is that teenagers are given greater independence as they demonstrate the ability to be responsible. This happens gradually as the young person's thinking and emotions develop, and they gain practise and experience in decision making.

Grappling with these issues is difficult, and it is common for parents to feel uncertain and unsure about what to do. At times like this, it can sometimes be helpful to know what other parents think about when to give teenagers greater autonomy.

Researchers at Melbourne's RMIT University asked many parents and their teenagers for their views about when teenagers should be able to decide things for themselves. The table below shows the results of their survey.
















Source: Wilks & McPherson (2002)

Parents and teenagers have different views
The survey shows that parents and children had different opinions. In general, teenagers want independence earlier than their parents want to give it.

The biggest differences found were over everyday matters, including choosing television programs, clothes, films to watch, and curfew times.

There was more agreement between parents and teenagers on issues where there is a community standard, such as leaving school, drinking alcohol and smoking. This may be because there are laws in place to regulate these activities. For instance, students are legally obliged to stay at school until they are 16, and smoking and drinking are restricted to people 18 years or older.

The ages shown in the above table are average ages. As you would expect, parents decisions about when to let their teenagers make decisions varied. For example, while some parents believed that 9 years was the right age for their child to choose what food to eat, other parents thought their child shouldn't be allowed to decide this until they were 15-years-old.

This was also true of the teenagers, although always at a lower age than the age chosen by parents. For example, on the issue of food, the teenagers' responses ranged from 8 years to 14 years.

Another thing the research found was that what teenagers say and what they do are quite different. Most teenagers said that they had done most of the things they were asked about at least a year before they said they should be allowed to.

What parents and teenagers agreed on...
The survey asked parents and teenagers to think about ages for boys to make decisions, compared with girls. Parents and teenagers agreed in this one area. Almost everyone who filled in the survey thought that there should be no difference in the ages at which boys and girls make their own decisions.


Given the results of this survey, don't be surprised if you and your teenager disagree about when they should be allowed to decide things for themselves. And, be aware that these disputes are likely to be about common, everyday issues.

Don't despair, research shows that while there is often conflict about these activities, there are usually only two to three disagreements per week on average, and that these are not typically angry exchanges.

Also, conflict is not always a bad thing. When parents and teenagers deal with conflict in a constructive way, teenagers can learn valuable skills for life outside of their family. By learning how to deal effectively with these milder, common issues, you'll also find yourself better prepared if conflicts that are more serious arise. The practice will pay off.

However, if your views are radically different from those in the survey, you may want to ask yourself why? What is so different in your situation? Are you being reasonable? Are there other things that you should take into account?

Try discussing the issues listed in the survey with your teenager. Knowing in advance where you and your teenager disagree might help you to prepare to handle disagreements in a more constructive manner if they should arise.

If nothing else, you now have some idea about what other parents think. This might help when your teenager is complaining that all the other parents are letting their teenagers do something.


Now that you're aware of this information, you can prepare yourself and your child for what may be coming up. You aren't going to agree on some issues so plan ahead, talk to your child about your expectations and give your reasons for them. Be prepared to listen to your teenager's point of view. However, there may be some circumstances where you do not feel that they are ready to make their own decisions. In that case, put some rules in place and be prepared to back up your rules and limits with some effective consequences. The Setting limits and using consequences Skill sheet may be helpful.

If you do have a disagreement about these issues, you might find the Connecting with your teenager and Problem solving Skill sheets of use.

Finally, no matter what other people think, you know your own child best so you are in the best position to decide at what age your teenager should be allowed to make decisions for themselves. Remember that many different factors will influence your decision. Have confidence in your own knowledge and experience and your child's.


Hudson, A., Bell, W., Hudson, T. & Houndoulesi, V. (1986). The views of parents and adolescents on the granting of behavioural autonomy to adolescents: Some normative data. The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 3 (2), 6-11.

Mouradian, W.E. (1999). Making decisions for children. The Angle Othodontist, 69 (4), 300-305.

Noom, M.J., Dekovic, M. & Meeus, W.H.J. (1999). Autonomy, attachment and psychosocial adjustment during adolescence: A double-edged sword? Journal of Adolescence, 22, 771-783.

Riesch, S.K., Bush, L., Nelson, C.J., Ohm, B.J., Portz, P.A., Abell, B., Wightman, M.R., & Jenkins, P. (2000). Topics of conflict between parents and young adolescents. Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing, 5 (1), 27-40.

Wilks, R. & McPherson, M (2002). Parent and adolescent perceptions of the granting of behavioural autonomy: A comparison after twelve years. Unpublished manuscript: Department of Psychology and Intellectual Disability Studies, RMIT University.

Prepared by the Victorian Parenting Centre