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Close relationships with trusted adults during adolescence provide the stability we need to be autonomous and connected to others.

Increasing agency over our own lives is an important part of growing up. During adolescence, we learn to regulate our emotions, form and express our own opinions, and manage our own health, finances, and careers. But this increasing autonomy doesn’t mean going it alone. In fact, to thrive as adults, we need autonomy and connectedness, both of which grow out of close, supportive relationships with others.

The drive for increased agency is part of healthy development in adolescence. As we mature, we increasingly view personal matters—such as decisions about our appearance and friendships—as areas that should be under our own control. This blooming desire for self-determination can make parents and other caregivers feel pushed away and even increase conflict in some families, particularly during early- to mid-adolescence. In fact, we still need responsive and supportive relationships with our families to navigate this time successfully.

Close connections with trusted adults are the roots for a successful transition through adolescence, providing the stability we need as we form new relationships, learn new things, and tackle new challenges. Connection actually helps us develop autonomy and take on other important developmental tasks like forming relationships with peers and regulating tour own behavior and emotions. With emotionally supportive families as a safety net, we’re better off when we leave the nest: college students feel more academically competent and more positive about exploring new and challenging experiences when they feel they can turn to family for comfort. A secure base of warmth, guidance, and structure gives us the freedom to explore and discover the world.

And most of us still want our parents’ support as we transition to adulthood. In a text-message survey, 1,400 14- to 24-year-olds revealed that they want adult help around decision making, financial skills, and guidance regarding life paths. This kind of support from mentors or other non-family adults can be especially important for youth in the foster care system, who may not be able to learn these skills from their own families.

One other perspective to keep in mind is that maturity isn’t just about what we can do for ourselves—as our abilities to solve problems and accomplish tasks on our own increase throughout our adolescent years, we can contribute to others in more meaningful ways, further building connections with others.

Agency and autonomy are essential to successful adulthood, but that doesn’t mean we detach from the important adults in our lives. Healthy independence is rooted in strong, supportive relationships with caring adults.

Actionable Insights from the Science of Adolescent Development

Research shows that we continue to need close relationships with caring adults during adolescence in order to develop a healthy sense of agency over our lives.

Here are a few ways adults can support adolescents’ growing autonomy:

  • Creating opportunities for joint decision making
  • Respecting an adolescent’s unique ideas, perspectives, and feelings
  • Allowing more freedom in personal domains such as clothing and hair
  • Providing warmth, guidance, and reasonable boundaries
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