The Central Challenge

The Central Challenge – Parents Letting Go of Control and Teenagers Taking on Responsibility

This is the central challenge for parents and teenagers during the teenage years.  Parents must let go of control and make room for the teenager to take on more responsibility – becoming the author of his or her life.  And teenagers must let go of being a child and being taken care of to take on the responsibility to have that kind of control over their lives.  It’s not easy for either parent or teenager and the relationship competencies noted later will certainly come into play and be tested.

There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.


Note – it’s mostly about safety.  For most parents the need for control is based on the need to keep their child safe – not just a need to control them.  So, for teenagers, the key is to find ways to demonstrate that they can keep themselves safe, which is not an easy trick given all the exploration and new territory that must be explored. 

Making the decision to have a child - it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body.


Characteristics of This Dance

This change in relationships with parents is a difficult and often confusing dance.  Knowing what to expect helps – a lot.

  • Everyone must find his or her own way on the journey – there is no formula
  • The music changes and so must the dance
  • It’s messy
  • It doesn’t go in a straight line
  • There are usually lots of missteps
  • Anxiety is high for everyone
  • There are high points and breakthroughs
  • Forgiveness is required
  • Trust is strained and leaps of faith are required
  • There is no manual for this, but there are some guidelines and tools
  • Everyone must learn the way as the journey progresses
  • The more relationship skills, the better the journey experience
  • It’s worth the struggle as the new relationship evolves – exciting freedom and responsibility for you and confidence in your safety and well-being for your parents

Four Possibilities – From High Risk to Healthy & Connected

There are basically four ways this dance of taking on responsibility and letting go of control can work out.  The challenges for teens and for parents are charted below. As with all dances, this one is fluid, so assume that you will move between the boxes as you and your parents figure out the new relationship.    

Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands.


The Awkward Dance

Teens Take on Responsibility

Ready to move on and manage his or her life

Teens Fail to Take on Responsibility

Not ready to move on – not ready to self-manage

Parents Let Go

Ready for teen to be more independent – ready to take the risk and trust

4.  Healthy & Connected

Occasionally parents and teens get to this state with relative ease, but that is the exception.  It usually takes a good deal of time and experimentation and leaps of faith. It also takes a lot of learning from experience and forgiveness.

  • New relationship matching the stage of maturity
  • Teen proves ability to manage his or her life – readiness for independence
  • Parents able to have confidence in teen
  • Parents maintain credibility with teen
1.Teens Vulnerable

The most dangerous state to be in is when parents let go and the teenager is not willing or able to take on the responsibility.  That leaves the teenager extremely vulnerable to the consequences of bad decisions. This is what keeps parents awake at night.

  • Teen proves not yet ready for independence
  • Parents frustrated & scared
  • Parents likely to return to holding on
  • Teen loses credibility
  • Teen likely angry with return to parents holding on
Parents Fail To Let Go

Not ready to let go – not ready to risk/trust

3. Teen Frustrated/Distanced

There can be some destructive behavior in this state also, but the danger is much lower because the teenager has taken on the responsibility and is, therefore, much less likely to do something reactive.  

There may be a lot of conflict and distance as the teenager moves on and the parents do not, but the teenager is in a much healthier posture than the teenagers in the prior two states.

  • Probable high level of conflict
  • Parents lose credibility
  • Distancing of teenager may be active or passive
  • Teenager may engage in extreme behavior to get free


2. Unhealthy/Connected

This is the other state in which the teenager is highly vulnerable because they are probably falling behind in their development.  Pressure is building to get free of parental control while at the same time there is resistance to taking on complementary responsibility.

As the teen years progress that pressure can result in explosive reactions that can be self-destructive or destructive to others.  It often takes a crisis for progress to happen and that can be painful.

  • Teen stays in child-like state
  • Teen and parents colluding (neither doing what they need to do)
  • Teen falls behind in development
  • Self-reinforcing pattern
  • A crisis may be required to break the unhealthy collusion
  • Particular danger if older teen about to leave home – not prepared


  • Sometimes the process is a smooth one
  • Most often it isn’t – because it’s a tough challenge and takes time and experience
  • It plays out differently for every family
  • Can be lots of stops and starts or progress and then regression
  • Expect mistakes – by parents and teenagers
  • Learn from the mistakes and move on
  • If you screw up, ask for forgiveness
  • Be prepared to forgive
  • Acknowledge and celebrate progress – even small steps