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My 14 year-old is deep in that phase where it becomes ever more important to do stuff on their own. To get this out first: I am exceedingly happy about that - my goal in life is to make my children as self-sufficient as possible, and I have zero interest in micromanaging them. Also, this is about non-life-critical issues - things like time management, getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, etc. (These are just examples for this question; the question is not about time management, but about the communication issues laid out below.)

Unfortunately she has real problems actually doing many of the things she claims she intends to do. Be it that she forgets it, or simply doesn't watch the time, or just doesn't actually do them - or any one of many age-appropriate reasons.

While I am more than happy to let her figure everything out, there are some things (e.g., going to school...) which are kind of non-optional. And herein lies the crux: whenever I get involved, she hard-blocks me, and always with the argument that she wants to do it on her own; "how am I supposed to learn this if I can't do it on my own" and so on and forth. I found no working way to respond to that so far. What I tried so far:

  • Offering to let her do it on her own, but encourage her to ask me for help.
  • Offering to let her do it on her own, but encourage her to lay out a plan, and tell me about it.
  • Offering to let her do it on her own, but setting a limit at which I would involve myself (e.g., "sure, get up on your own, but if you are not up by XX:YY in the morning, I'll wake you").
  • Trying to make it clear to her that I love it if she does it on her own, and explaining that I am not angry or anything like that; that it's not a relationship issue but that it simply does not seem to work - and trying to reasonably talk about possible solutions. E.g., giving her a chance to rationalize about it, try to figure out what the issue is, and so on and forth.

All of that did not change anything. When I do in fact involve myself (e.g., wake her in the morning when she forgot to set her alarm, or simply switched it off), she is angry or depressed due to that, and nothing good comes of it. All of this has been gone on for years, with varying levels of escalation.

Without being a psychologist, I'd say she's more than intelligent enough to do all of that, just has not developed the kind of discipline or willpower yet to actually do them, and is obviously often overruled by emotions/"hormones" due to her phase in life.

So the question is: if a teen wants to do things without parental involvement, but clearly fails to succeed, what is a good strategy to communicate about this that is not immediately blocked with rhetoric, or makes the teen feel like it is treated like a small child?

EDIT: one answer mentioned that I have not given an example where she was allowed to fail - I didn't want the question to become too long/convoluted, but she did indeed have ample chance for that, including losing a year to school primarily due mostly to breaking her sleeping habits completely when allowed relatively free reign for a long time. Aside from that, for 99% of other decisions, she already enjoys complete freedom.

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    Did she perceive "losing a school year" as a very bad event? I know multiple people that had to repeat and met this with, at best, indifference (they didn't care about school, didn't like their previous classmates, etc.). Autonomy only works if there is a basis of joint goals ...
    – xLeitix
    Aug 24, 2023 at 9:06
  • Also, does she connect failing her class as strongly with being late as you do? It's surprisingly easy to talk yourself into thinking you would have never succeeded anyway ("this year was so hard, I am too stupid for math"), especially if it provides an excuse to not reflect on your own mistakes and changing your own habits. You don't have to be 14 to fall into that trap.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 24, 2023 at 9:10
  • She (and, frankly, the school) certainly sees this quite indifferently. This is clearly (or at least partly) also somewhat post-COVID related (I don't mean that she has long COVID, but that she "survived" the lockdown in those important young adolescent years - the school reports that she is in very good company, and many pupils have severe issues finding back into normal life. But I somewhat tried to keep all of this out of the question; I would like to keep it focused on the "parenting/communicating/stance" behaviour of parents, not so much about the sleeping or school issue.
    – AnoE
    Aug 24, 2023 at 9:48
  • Related to Covid: I get the impression from my own teenager, that these kids have lost at least 2 years in development wrt their biological years, so they are all really young for their age. Maybe you are dealing with someone who is more mentally akin to a 12 year old and needs to be guided as such ? (Also: We did in the end invest in 9 months worth of therapy for our daughter as we felt out of our depth during Covid. It did help.) Aug 24, 2023 at 11:15
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    "intelligent but lack of willpower" + "freewheeling sleeping when permitted" + "inability to do things she says she wants to do" => perhaps consider ADHD?
    – pjc50
    Aug 24, 2023 at 14:53

4 Answers 4

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I'm pretty sure my mother could have written the same question about me when I was your daughter's age (which was quite a while ago).

Specifically when it comes to the morning routine, we eventually arrived at a working solution. For various checkpoints (be awake, enter bath, leave bath, leave house) we had agreed times by when they had to be reached. As long as I didn't fall behind the plan, my mother wouldn't bother me. If I was late (by the agreed-upon schedule), I'd (grudgingly) accept a reminder. This not only helped reducing conflict between us, but it actually worked well as motivation (I didn't mind being late to school too much, but getting woken up by my mom? Horror!).

Getting to such a plan wasn't easy. We had (and still have) quite different ideas on how tight a suitable schedule for such things is. To even talk about this calmly, we had to do it when I was in a decent mood (ie not in the morning when it was relevant).

We didn't really do that, but I'd reckon the approach could be applied to more situations. Basically, agree generous parameters such that if your daughter manages to stay inside the "safe zone", you promise her that you won't interfere, and in return, she tries to be more gracious about you taking action if stuff gets out of control. A difference between your third point is that the parameters are agreed between the two of you, not unilaterally set by you.

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    This sounds similar to what we did when my son was able to drive on his own. As he would leave the house, I always asked "when will you be home?" - he always responded at least 1 hour earlier than any curfew I would have set for him. By letting him set the time, I wasn't the bad guy when he missed it (which only happened once).
    – FreeMan
    Aug 24, 2023 at 18:09
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You've clearly put a lot of thought into this and are exploring varied options as to how to support your child through this. Great parenting all around.

However, I'm noticing that all the options you list entail your involvement before it's too late. You've never mentioned even one case of actually not having reached a goal (perfect tense, i.e. it's too late now), only that you feel like a goal won't be met (future tense, i.e. it's still possible to intervene).
Sorry for the grammatical tenses here but it actually hints at an important element in this story.

I also want to point out a very specific quote:

Q Why do we fall?
A To learn to pick ourselves up again.

I suggest watching this 44 second video because it conveys the meaning better.
I want you to notice something in the video. It's very clear that Alfred is a parental figure to Bruce in this scene. But Bruce is already bleeding and hurt. He wasn't just at risk of getting hurt, he's well past that point. I think this is the key part you're missing.

One of the best learning tools available for any human (any creature, really) is to actually fail, because the hard consequences are the most concrete incentive for learning that you're ever going to get.

I get the feeling that you're letting them teeter on the edge, you're not letting them fall. Let them fall. Let them deal with the consequences of failing to meet their goal. Give them a chance to try again. Let them fall again. Be there to pick them up, but don't be there to stop them from falling in the first place.

You're clearly a doting parent. And we try to make our children's lives better in whatever way we can, which includes helping them cross hurdles faster than they would on their own, or preventing them from failing and instead already giving them the solution that we know.
And that's great in general, but it has to be with the child's consent. You can help them across the hurdle, but you shouldn't push them. I think you already know this based on your intention to cater to your child's wishes.

Your child is explicitly telling you that they want full control over the process all the way, and I think you and your child are not in agreement as to where the line of parental involvement should be drawn.
Based on how you describe your child's statements, it seems they want no involvement from you all the way to the point of failure, where future tense turns into past tense.

From your perspective, you're being a caring parent. But from their perspective, you are overriding her agency as an individual. That language may sound very severe to your ears (and mine), but it is how your teenage child experiences it, they are dead set on defining their own identity and life.

I don't think what your child is asking for is a good baseline for the indefinite future, it would effectively remove your parental guidance altogether. At 14, that is not appropriate. However, temporarily allowing this allows them the benefit of a simulated freedom in which they can explore their own abilities, fail at things, suffer the consequences of that failure, and come out the other end realizing that you might have some useful answers for them.

They might even surprise you and find their own footing without needing your help. And even if they don't, that's okay, you'll still be there to help them, just like Alfred was there for Bruce (in the video I linked).

Your child is wanting to have their hands on the steering wheel. Rather than you involving yourself when you see fit, your child wants you to stand on the sidelines and only get involved when they ask you to. In 4 years time, they're going to be an adult who is expected to be capable of that 100% of the time. Right now would be a good moment to test the water by giving them a subset of life responsibilities and not catching them if they fall.

Obviously, don't do this for life-threatening failures or consequences that they cannot recover from. But being late for school a handful of times isn't a dire consequence. It's not great, and there should be repercussions (if not enforced by the school, then by you), but this should be a good lesson to learn in terms of life management without any long term repercussion if they happen to fail.

Concrete example

I know the answer is long already, but I wanted to add a response to the concrete example you gave:

When I do in fact involve myself (i.e., wake her in the morning when she forgot to set her alarm, or simply switched it off)

You tried to fix the problem before it occurred, which to her feels like you're taking away her agency.

Here's my suggestion: wake her up at the time that her first class starts, i.e. the exact time that she is definitively late. If first class starts at 8:30am, intentionally do not wake her even a minute earlier than that. When you barge into her room, you need to do it when it's already 8:30am or later.

Because now she can't argue with you about having failed at managing the thing she promised she'd manage. She failed to deliver on her promise. Now, you have your foot in the door and can involve yourself.

However, limit your involvement to getting her to school. The next day, let her manage herself again. It's okay for you to talk to her in the evening just to get her to confirm her intention of managing her own time and agreeing that she intends to get to school on time; but don't tell her how to do it. Trust that she has the opportunity to do better than she did the first time.

The point of the exercise is not that she does it right the first time. The point of the exercise is that she learns to improve herself. This requires a repeated process of trial and error.

Repeat this process for as often as you need. This depends on how frequently she's late. If this is only once in a while and she's generally on time, it's not as big of an issue compared to her being late every single day.

Personally, I would say that as long as the days she's late to school are becoming fewer and further between; she's on the right track and you don't have to intervene. An upward curve is exactly what you should expect.

If she brushes being late off as "not a big deal" and takes no action to improve herself, I would hope that her school has some form of punishment for repeated tardiness. If not, you should introduce one yourself, e.g. extra chores, or threatening to stop the experiment of her being allowed to manage her own time.

Let her learn through consequences, rather than through your advice. She's at the age where she's no longer interested in blindly following a parent's advice just because the parent says so. This may be difficult to hear for a loving parent, but it is a necessary part of becoming an adult, and it seems it's your and your daughter's time to shift your relationship based on her becoming a young adult.

Good luck to both of you.


One final thought added: your situation is very similar to workplace considerations on how to get an employee to pick up their responsibilities. While an employee should be handling these responsibilities and your teenage child does not have that kind of final responsibility yet; the process of getting them to do so is virtually the same. This may provide additional resources for you to read up on.

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    Thanks for that impulse. While it does not perfectly fit my case (indeed, there already have been quite heavy results from that particular problem - a lost year at school - which I did not mention) it certainly is a helpful aspect in all of this. What I take from your advice is (together with Arno's) to make the "checkpoints" of when I involve myself severe enough so that it doesn't seem I'm just doting...
    – AnoE
    Aug 24, 2023 at 8:17
  • @AnoE: Pretty much. Just a bit more distance and a bit more consequences will help the feeling of independence.
    – Flater
    Aug 24, 2023 at 9:40
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I was diagnosed with ADHD at 38. My wife and daughter were both diagnosed in elementary school. I sought a diagnosis because of the similarities of behaviors within our family unit, and it explained a lot of my childhood. Part of my childhood behaviors match the dynamic I am reading between you and your child. The desire to be self-sufficient, the minimal follow through, the parental frustration, and the refrain "if only you would just do it, then ...".

Folks with ADHD do not lack willpower and we aren't lazy. Rather, our brains work differently than folks without ADHD. Specifically, we have challenges with control of executive functions. To summarize, executive functions are the circuits in the brain that enable self-control, self-management, and self-sufficiency. Executive functions are necessary for control of emotion, our internal sense of time, memory and recall, attention and focus, self-awareness, and task management.

Related to the challenges you and your child are facing together, Task Initiation is an important skill that many people with ADHD struggle with. Initiation of tasks, and switching tasks, requires executive functions responsible for:

  • controlling working memory (what was I supposed to be doing?)
  • internal clock (oh no, where did my day go?)
  • regulating emotional state (it can wait, my phone/tablet/gaming console is more engaging!)

Task Initiation is on a list of key life skills impaired by ADHD and other executive function disorders. Please consider reading this article for more detailed information. Behaviors associated with ADHD can be improved with treatment. The article discusses ADHD symptoms in teens and, to summarize:

  • General symptoms and confusion around apparent inconsistencies in behavior
  • Key life skills potentially impaired by ADHD
  • How a diagnosis is made
  • Greatest risks for teens with ADHD including increased incidence of car accidents, substance abuse, unplanned pregnancy, STDs
  • Comorbidities including depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders
  • Treatment options

If at any point you consider having your child tested for ADHD, please seek out an ADHD specialist. General medical doctors and general psychologists lack sufficient training to understand, appreciate, and accept what you might have read in the articles I linked. As a result, they won't know what to look for or know about the latest tools and strategies. The ADHD internet community is rife with stories of confusing and negative experiences with non-specialists.

Even if you don't consider evaluation, there are many resources on effective communication with the goal of improving behaviors, household harmony, and your child's sense of self-worth and contentment. I discuss a bit about that from the perspective of my own parenting experience in the next section.

Edit:

My wife suggested I clarify a key point. Different folks with ADHD experience and perceive their challenges with executive functions in different ways. Many folks identify with the following sentiment.

Having ADHD is like watching television, except the channel changes on its own, and you don't have or can't find the remote control.

For me, the channel often gets stuck, even when I really, really want to change it. Less often it flips around randomly at a decent pace. For my wife, the channel changes frequently and randomly, and gets stuck indefinitely on anything she enjoys.

Communication

We're struggling with this with our almost-teen child and haven't found much that works for complex or multi-part tasks. For her, breaking it down into chunks she can easily "model" as a single part, and listing all of the expectations in a central location she can refer to, helps. We have to prompt her to refer to the list ("I'm sure I did it all. Did you check the list? No... oh I guess there is more"). Things like "neaten your room", "take a shower", "check what homework you have", "do any homework that isn't finished", "read for 30-60 minutes", etc.

As she masters related tasks, we've been grouping them under a new label. For example, soon we'll be rolling "check homework" and "do homework" into just "do homework". But I want her to co-locate them in her mind as two highly-related, but separate, tasks first.

As far as the actual initiation, we've had mostly-success making favorite free time activities contingent on doing all "responsibilities" (from the list) first, or as a managed break of pre-determined length. For example, having a video game break by setting a timer for one hour. We've also taught her that when the timer goes off to circle back to us to check in and figure out next steps.

There are consequences for attempting to circumvent the timer, failing to set it, not checking in, etc. Generally the consequences are "no more for the day and/or tomorrow" or "I'm going to increase the level of managing your tasks for today and/or tomorrow". We modify the intensity depending on overall behavior and attitude. We always use a timer for video games and internet usage like YouTube, because she has near-zero self regulation without them, mostly due to a fuzzy sense of time. The hope is that the timer will help her improve her sense of time (oh, an hour feels like it is about this long).

To tie this back to task initiation, she is learning time management and accountability for completing some/all of her daily/weekly tasks before engaging with free-time activities. This along has given partial success with initiation. For our child, the other half of initiation will be remembering there is anything at all today. We're working on that now with the formation of a list. We've tried these in the past with little success, but we've just now gotten to the point where she is starting to use the list as a reminder when prompted. The next step for us is getting her to use the list with less or zero prompting.

Through all of this, we clearly and calmly communicate expectations and have regular check-ins to figure out where we are and where we still need to go for that day and week. I prompt for questions about expectations, probe for understanding ("what order works best for changing sheets and taking a shower?"), fill in gaps, correct misconceptions. I'm not the best at the execution of communication, I tend to be blunt and she is highly empathic and tends to take things personally. So I make it clear I'm not upset, she's not in trouble (assuming that's true), and that I will always love her.

If, when I make a mistake or an error in judgment, or if I unfairly accuse her of failing to complete a responsibility, or project negative emotions from another issue onto her, I apologize, make a correction, ask for forgiveness, and explain my understanding of what happened. This will happen because we're human, so it's important not to leave things in the dark for our children to guess at. Be clear about why you sound upset, or why you thought she hadn't brushed her teeth when she definitely had.

The book The Explosive Child was very helpful for understanding how virtually all children operate, both mentally and emotionally. Don't let the name fool you, even if your child never throws tantrum or has angry outbursts, the book helps lay a foundation for how to understand and communicate with children (and some adults, frankly).

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  • Aside of having her checked by a specialist; do you have advice on how to communicate with her - in case she does indeed fall into this category - to help her with task initiation without her blocking me out completely?
    – AnoE
    Aug 24, 2023 at 21:43
  • Arno's answer would probably help a lot, since tasks are easier to initiate when there are hard deadlines. It may be worth observing your daughter's readiness habbits. If you notice specific chokepoints when she gets ready, you can limit your checkpoints to those specific tasks.
    – Brian
    Aug 25, 2023 at 13:20
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    We're struggling with this with our child and haven't found much that works for complex or multi-part tasks. For her, breaking it down into chunks she can easily "model" as a single part, and listing all of the expectations in a central location she can refer to helps. We have to prompt her to refer to the list ("I'm sure I did it all. Did you check the list? No... oh I guess there is more"). Things like "neaten your room", "take a shower", "check what homework you have", "do any homework that isn't finished", "read for 30-60 minutes", etc. Aug 25, 2023 at 15:18
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    As she masters related tasks, we've been grouping them under a new label. For example, soon we'll be rolling "check homework" and "do homework" into just "do homework". But I want her to co-locate them in her mind as two highly-related, but separate, tasks first. Aug 25, 2023 at 15:19
  • As far as the actual initiation, we've had mostly-success making favorite free time activities contingent on doing all "responsibilities" (from the list) first, or as a managed break of pre-determined length. For example, having a video game break by setting a timer for one hour. We've also taught her that when the timer goes off to circle back to us to check in and figure out next steps. Aug 25, 2023 at 15:21
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I see no evidence you’re a terrible parent but it could easily be that you’re overwhelmed… and wouldn’t realising that and adapting your parenting strategies to account for it be a good thing to come out of following Comments?

Teenagers have their own rules and even their own language, and even with a single child, keeping up with whether ‘I want to do that on my own’ is sincere, only half-hearted or merely a cynical attempt to make use of a statement which in the past seems to have got her off the hook could be vexing, at best.

Can you take a step or three back, set aside your particular relationship and whatever specifically she ‘wants to do on her own’ and compose a set of rules that might usually work for most parents?

There is no compulsion to share those rules with your daughter, with any of us here or anyone else. The point is, writing the rules will clarify your aims and also help you to decide which feelings might help, and which might be a hindrance.

If you can create rules for dealing with ‘I want to do that on my own’ that might cover sincerity, half-heartedness and cynicism in a single swipe, you’re nearly there!

My suggestion would be rules including the teen answering ‘What exactly do you want? How do you plan to do it? Do you really need no help? How will we measure whether you’ve achieved it?’

Exactly which nut needs what sledge-hammer is another Question.

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