Parents should cultivate adolescent autonomy

Steven Welzer
2 min readJun 16, 2021


There’s a type of parent who focuses on and strives too much for family cohesion and family success.

The mother in “Gypsy” is an example. Evident from that story is how such a parenting orientation, at its psychologically most problematic, is essentially ego-extension.

That type of parent can be very proactive. A common pattern, then, is that a child can thrive during the early parts of childhood. There’s a lot of attention and encouragement. But it’s encouragement to be a successful extension of the parent. The parent invests a lot in the child. The investment and the encouragement are dependent upon the child being “with the program.”

At adolescence the unhealthfulness of this pattern can manifest.

It’s common at adolescence for a person to get inclinations toward independence. Budding sexuality contributes to inclinations of that kind. Sexuality is supposed to be directed exogenously (it’s taboo and it’s felt to be inter-personally problematic, even dangerous, to have sexual feelings directed at other family members.)

So for many related reasons, adolescent inclinations are to “go out,” to gain autonomy. To differentiate, individuate.

The person may feel like rebelling. But their sense of good-ness, right-ness, righteousness, appropriateness — thriving-ness — had been very tied up with being “with the family program,” with positive identity, supportive relations with the family, the parent. So the sudden inclinations toward going out, gaining autonomy, differentiating, rebelling . . . might be alarming, confusing, disorienting. A displeasure of the parent could be sensed.

The person who had been so successful, fine, with-the-program as a child could suddenly flounder. Their basis of positive identity, basis of thriving could suddenly collapse. The threat of such could cause suppression of feelings and inclinations; withdrawal, repression. The person could freeze, even revert.

Going out could be associated with demands, critiques, losing support, losing home, being alone. All of this at the same time as being confronted with heightened performance and behavioral stipulations: “You need to start taking your place, being responsible, being productive, moving toward adulthood.”

Parenting that isn’t proactive about helping cultivate pathways toward independence and autonomy is not supportive of the challenges of adolescence.



Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).