Supporting Your Teen in Developing Their Sense of Purpose-Five Parenting Tips to Foster Independence

Tiziana DiFabio Tweens & Teens

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In my 12 years of experience working with adolescents, I’ve found five teen-approved parenting strategies that are effective in facilitating a healthy transition into adulthood.

As a therapist with a focus on working with teenagers of various ethnic, racial and social backgrounds, I have come to find that most teens want the same thing: to feel their parents are supporting them during their journey of self-exploration (no matter what your teen might tell you). Parenting a teen is challenging because it is delicate balance between giving them freedom and holding them accountable. Here are the five parenting tips that will support your teen in developing their independence.

1. Focus on relationship building, not just communication

Parents and teens usually come to my first therapy session trying to fix communication when the problem is disconnect in the relationship. A relationship is a bond that needs to be created and nourished while communication is a set of skills that can be taught. I tell parents to create opportunities for quality time doing activities with their teen. Having fun together creates as space for bonding which generates positive emotions and psychological well being. When your teen feels good, they are more likely to open up. Focus on the relationship and communication will naturally follow.

2. Listen, don’t problem solve

Active listening is a skill that is not properly taught or valued in our fast-paced society. Active listening requires time, patience, and being in the moment with the person. Parents inadvertently break their teens trust by jumping to problem-solve instead of taking the time to listen. Teens often approach parents with problems seeking empathy and validation of their feelings, not solutions. Adolescence is a time where critical thinking and problem solving skills are being developed. Let your child use and refine these skills. Be your teens sounding board before you go into problem solving mode.  

3. Validate their interests

Adolescence is the time to develop a sense of identity and independence through the exploration of various interests. I encourage parents to validate healthy interests by investing in two things: time in learning about the interest and energy into helping your teen develop their interest. Research school and community resources that provide classes, equipment or supplies. There are various free or low cost ways to support your teen if money is a concern. Conversely, judgement and dismissing a teens interest might generate feelings of rejection and could interfere with their development of a healthy sense of self. If it seems your teen has no interests, lacks motivation, and chooses extended periods of isolation, please reach out to a mental health professional to assess for possible depression.

4. Develop age appropriate rules and expectations

Rules and expectations provide structure and guidance for acceptable behavior. When a teen breaks a rule, express disappointment calmly and provide rationale for the consequence.  For older teens, ask them what they think their consequences should be. Many teens are self-aware and know when they have not complied with a rule or expectation. They don’t need a lecture; they need space to think through their actions and speak with their parent as to why they made that specific decision. Make the commitment to stay open-minded with your teen. Decide before an argument that you will not succumb to a power struggle. Accept and embrace that your teen will try and negotiate your rules; reframe the negative interactions as not only being developmentally appropriate but also necessary to achieve independence. Any forms of abuse (aside from being illegal) can be traumatizing and will ultimately generate resentment in your teen.

5. Practice self-care

Taking care of your mind, body and souls is essential for the successful application of the strategies above.  Parenting a teen combined with daily life stressors can exacerbate stress increasing irritability and impatience. Many parents feel guilty about taking time to themselves but it is essential for mental and physical rejuvenation. Take a break to go to the gym, take a class, or spend time with friends. You will feel better and you will be modeling healthy coping strategies for your teen.

Works Cited:

Fredrickson B.L., Joiner T. (2002) Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science 13:172–175

About the Author

Tiziana DiFabio

Tiziana DiFabio, LCSW-C, MPH is a bilingual (English and Spanish) therapist in Rockville, Maryland. She has experience working in schools, outpatient substance abuse, and in the community with out-of-school youth seeking to re-engage in education and/or workforce. She has had the privilege of serving adolescents as an educator, positive youth development facilitator and a therapist in Montgomery and Prince George's County. Therapeutically, she addresses: trauma and stress-related disorders such as adjustment disorders and PTSD, grief, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact:

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