Remember the saying, “Better to ask for forgiveness than permission?” Well, at some point, it will be our kids who decide to do something before asking for our blessing. It’s a subtle milestone in their growth—a gentle reminder that they’re not little kids anymore.
“It really is about kids needing to move from that dependence on parents to the independence of adulthood, and so they begin to start relying on the so-called wisdom of their peers,” says middle school counselor Maria Hurtado.
From a parent’s perspective, that’s scary. Parenting an adolescent isn’t as simple anymore as asking and giving permission. Your adolescent is more concerned with impressing their buddy than you, even that kid who shaved off part of their eyebrow because they saw someone do it on YouTube. “It’s the job of a teenager to make mistakes and try these things, and our responsibility to guide them through it,” says Hurtado.
1. Making Safety the #1 Priority
Educational psychologist Michele Borba, Ph.D., author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, says parents’ first concern should be safety. How to handle a teen’s statement of intent—rather than their request for permission—depends on what they’re planning to do. “It’s almost a green light, yellow light, red light thing.” Borba explains:
GREEN. “If your teenager says, ‘Hey, mom, I’m going next door,’ you can respond with: ‘Great, thanks for telling me.’ Green light.” That works for issues that are not a big deal, says Borba.
YELLOW. If parents feel a gut-level whoa—that wishy-washy feeling of unease—when teens announce their plans, it’s time to stop and talk. “If they say, ‘I’m staying out until midnight,’ Whoa! Yellow light! That needs a little more discussion,” says Borba.
RED. When teens say they’re going somewhere that you know is a bad scene, or they act defiant, or they say they’re doing something whether you like it or not—it’s time to hit the brakes. Says Borba, “You are completely within your rights to say, ‘Nope, not gonna happen.’”
2. Keeping Your Cool
It’s easy to feel that teens are being disrespectful when they stop asking permission. Parenting expert Rosina McAlpine, Ph.D., recommends a three-step approach to staying calm. When a teen says, for example, “I’m going to a party!” and this upsets you, try the following:
- Stop. Take a breath before you react and respond.
- Empathize. Show you understand that your child is growing up. “I know parties are great and you really want to go …”
- Educate. Ask your child important questions. “ But first I need more information. Will a parent be home? Who is the designated driver? What if they drink?” Educate your child on the possible dangers by asking questions and listening to their answers. Make it clear you love your child and just want them safe.
3. Reacting When You Find Out Later
Suppose you’re faced with an after-the-fact situation. Your teen did something without permission, and you’re just now finding out. The same green-yellow-red rules can apply.
When it’s a yellow or red situation you didn’t know about, use this instance to collect information about your teen’s maturity (or lack thereof). Consider how the teen handled this trickier situation on their own and what kind of judgment they showed, and adjust their future freedoms accordingly.
Say, for example, that your kid went to a friend’s house without permission. Before grounding them for weeks, you might ask yourself questions like: Did they have a safe ride there? Was there a parent at the house? Were they drinking beers, or were they just playing board games? Did they forget to call, or were they trying to hide something?
The green-light zone—when teens get to make decisions on their own, without you—should expand gradually as teens demonstrate good judgment. During this process of growth, though, parents still set the parameters.
When your teen does something without your permission, it can be a rude awakening for you as a parent. But it’s a normal developmental step, and it shows that you’re raising an independent child on the way to adulthood.