Updated: Apr 1, 2020
Autonomy is a key issue in parent-child relationships. Our children start out reliant on us for their safety and survival, but as they grow and recognise that their behaviours impact their environment, they continue to demand increasing levels of autonomy.
However, some children are not provided with the opportunity of age-appropriate autonomy as they develop. This may be a result of over-protective or strict caregivers or authority figures, or restrictive external circumstances that require limits on autonomy to stay safe (e.g. conflict zones, tyrannical regimes). These children may develop anxiety or dependence, some may struggle to disentangle themselves from their parents or fail to develop their own identities. Alternatively, rebellion may become a way of trying to break free from restrictive limits.
So what can we do as adults to help to fulfill the need for autonomy in our children? Here are a few ideas:
· Encourage decision-making by giving children age-appropriate choices
· Allow children to participate in age-appropriate tasks according to their abilities, e.g. helping adults with small manageable tasks in the household
· Permit children to try different interests and identify their preferences
· Praise autonomy in day to day exploration
· Encourage children to initiate tasks and face challenges independently as their age permits
· Allow children to fail and encourage them to learn more skills and try again
· Discuss the meaning of failure, independence and autonomy with children
· Model autonomy, independence and boundary setting while maintaining a balance of interdependence and social support. In other words: it’s okay to be independent and have your own friends and hobbies, while also having a mutual unit and life as a family that you are working on together.
Children who have experienced age-appropriate advances in their autonomy are shown to have improved decision-making skills, confidence to voice their needs and opinions, ability to initiate tasks and take risks, belief in their own abilities to address challenges and progress, and a stable sense of identity.
The need for autonomy remains relevant for us as adults. Often relationship issues arise when partners are co-dependent whereby they have given up a large extent of their own independence (e.g. friends, extended family, hobbies, career, culture, location…) within the relationship. This can lead to a sense of dependence, confusion, loss of identity, depression, anxiety and helplessness. Such lack of autonomy can also be seen in people who are over-reliant on their parents in adulthood, often also causing tension in couples. Vice versa, some people who were denied autonomy as children go the other way as adults and struggle with the idea of compromising any of their independence and autonomy in relationships.
Regardless of our childhood, with the right tools, we are able to meet our need for autonomy in adulthood in a healthy balanced way, without letting the past control us. The way we would treat children now, is the way we can also nurture our own inner child.
To find out more about how to help your children experience spontaneity and play or to successfully meet your own need, book a consultation with psychologist in Hong Kong Dr. Terrighena on (852) 2715 4577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.