Supporting Your Children’s Autonomy and Independence

Without the Power Struggles

As a parent, you’ve probably had to navigate how to support your child’s autonomy and independence, while also providing more control and structure when necessary. Sure, you want your three year old to learn how to tie her shoes, but maybe not on a morning when you’re running late for school drop off. You may find yourself wondering where the balance is between support and control. And while we’re at it, you’d probably love to avoid those exhausting power struggles, too. Something that could help is autonomy supportive parenting – an effective, empowering, and research-based parenting approach that focuses on nurturing a child’s sense of independence, promoting self-motivation, and fostering confidence. It can be a helpful approach for children of all ages. Let’s delve into the principles, benefits, and practical strategies of autonomy supportive parenting.

boy playing independently in sand on beach

What is Autonomy Supportive Parenting?

Autonomy supportive parenting is a parenting approach that emphasizes the importance of supporting a child’s sense of choice and volition. Instead of controlling actions, this framework empowers parents to guide, encourage self-initiation, and respect their child’s perspective. Autonomy supportive parenting is grounded in the self-determination theory, which posits that humans have three innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When these needs are met, individuals are more likely to thrive and achieve their full potential. Autonomy supportive parenting provides a set of strategies that has been shown by researchers to help parents meet those fundamental needs.

Key Principles of Autonomy Supportive Parenting

  • Encouraging Exploration and Choice: Allowing children to explore their interests and make choices helps them foster a sense of control over their lives. This doesn’t mean just letting them do whatever they want, but instead providing age-appropriate options that empower them to practice making choices.
  • Understanding and Validating Emotions: Recognizing and validating a child’s feelings helps them understand and manage their emotions. It shows that their feelings are important and respected, which in turn promotes emotional intelligence.
  • Providing Rationale for Rules and Expectations: Explaining the reasons behind rules and expectations helps children understand the importance of certain behaviors. This approach encourages internalization of values rather than mere compliance.
  • Supporting Problem-Solving Skills: Instead of solving problems for them, parents can guide children through the process of finding solutions. This builds their confidence and competence in handling challenges.
  • Encouraging Intrinsic Motivation: When parents focus on activities that promote internal satisfaction rather than external rewards, and praise effort and progress rather than just outcomes, this helps to foster a growth mindset in children, which then further bolsters their autonomy and independence.
girl resting head on hand looking out window

What are the Benefits of Autonomy Supportive Parenting?

1. Enhanced Self-Esteem and Confidence: Children raised with autonomy supportive parenting tend to have higher self-esteem and confidence. They feel valued and capable, which translates into a positive self-image.

2. Better Academic and Social Outcomes: Research shows that children with supportive, autonomy-promoting parents perform better academically and socially. They are more engaged in learning and exhibit more robust social skills, including empathy and cooperation.

3. Increased Motivation and Persistence: Intrinsic motivation leads to a greater sense of enjoyment and interest in activities. Children are more likely to pursue their passions and persist in the face of challenges.

How Can Supporting Your Child’s Autonomy Help With Their Anxiety?

In addition to the general benefits mentioned above, using autonomy supportive parenting strategies can also help you more effectively support your child’s anxiety. Autonomy supportive parenting is all about expressing trust in your child and expecting them to be capable of independence. However, being given the opportunity to act independently can sometimes trigger a child’s anxiety. As an example, let’s say your four year old is anxious about going to a birthday party. You know once they get there, they’re probably going to have so much fun. But your child is full of worries and it’s hard to get them out the door. 

In this situation, you can use empathy to show your child that you understand their experience, help them label their feelings, and engage in co-regulation. You could also help them devise a plan to make the birthday party less scary. Your plan could involve an exit strategy if things don’t go as planned, and maybe a reward afterwards that helps to acknowledge that they did a hard thing. 

With childhood anxiety, part of the anxiety stems from not feeling confident or competent. And so if we as parents keep rescuing our children from those feelings, and help them avoid what’s triggering their anxiety, we aren’t giving them the opportunity to develop autonomy, independence, and self-belief. With the birthday party example, one final helpful step would be talking it through with your child afterwards. You could say something like, wow, you went to the birthday party even though you were so nervous. You did something hard and now you know you can do that next time you get those nervous feelings. Putting words to that experience and expressing belief in your child is important for all kids, but especially kids who experience anxiety, because then that parental belief becomes a part of their own internal dialogue.

mother hugging son and smiling

How Can Supporting Your Child’s Independence Help Them With Tolerating Boredom?

Just like we are often spurred by the best of intentions to help our child avoid anxiety, we might also be tempted to help our child avoid boredom. In the long-term, that probably won’t serve our kids very well. Valuing rest and downtime, and helping our children tolerate boredom are ideas that are embedded in the autonomy supportive parenting framework. Supporting our child’s autonomy can involve backing up a bit. Provide them with some blank space in their schedule, so that they then have the autonomy to fill that time with activities that are based on their personal interests. 

Furthermore, supporting your child’s autonomy and independence can significantly enhance their ability to manage boredom effectively. Encouraging children to choose and pursue their interests fosters agency and self-efficacy. This empowerment enables them to explore creatively and engage independently, rather than relying on external entertainment or guidance. This approach fosters resilience, problem-solving skills, and a love for learning in children.

How Can I Support My Child’s Autonomy and Independence in Practical Ways?

1. Offer Choices

Offering choices to your child is a powerful way to foster their autonomy and independence. For instance, during meal times, you might ask, “Would you like apple slices or carrot sticks with your lunch?”. This simple choice gives them a sense of control over their eating habits. Similarly, when it comes to dressing, you can present two weather-appropriate outfits and let them decide which one to wear. Say, “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt today?”. By providing options, you respect their preferences and encourage them to make decisions. This boosts their confidence and decision-making skills, laying the foundation for greater independence.

2. Practice Empathy & Perspective Taking

Parents can show empathy and understanding to build a strong emotional connection. For instance, if your child is anxious about an upcoming school project, you could say, “I can see that you’re feeling really worried about this project. It’s completely normal to feel that way when something seems challenging.” By acknowledging their feelings, you create a supportive atmosphere. Then, guide them towards independence by asking, “What do you think might help you feel more prepared? Would it be helpful to break the project into smaller steps, or maybe make a plan together?”. This not only validates their emotions but also encourages them to take ownership of the situation, building their confidence and problem-solving abilities.

3. Encourage Problem-Solving

When your child faces a problem, resist the urge to provide immediate solutions. Instead, ask guiding questions that help them think through the situation and come up with their own solutions. For example, when a child gets a stomach ache from eating too many cookies, they can learn to make a mental note to only eat two cookies next time. Or, when they get cold from going outside with just a t-shirt, they can make plans to take a sweatshirt with them to the park next time, in case they need it. When a child gets a chance to independently come up with a solution, that can be more impactful than a parent just taking the cookies away, or insisting that they put on a jacket. This is, essentially, a part of our stubborn human nature. When we realize a solution to a problem on our own, we are much more likely to return to that solution in the future, rather than when a solution is imposed on us from someone else. 

4. Explain the Why

When setting rules or making requests, explain the reasons behind them. Understanding the rationale helps children see the bigger picture and the value of following guidelines. Instead of simply enforcing a bedtime of 8 PM, you might explain, “We have a bedtime of 8 PM because getting enough sleep is important for your health. When you sleep well, you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to learn and play the next day. Sleep helps your body grow and your brain to process everything you learned during the day.” By providing this context, you help your child understand the purpose behind the rule. This makes it more likely they will follow it willingly and appreciate its importance.

5. Praise Effort, Not Just Results

Focus on the effort your child puts into their activities rather than just the outcomes. For example, if your child spends weeks practicing for a piano recital and performs well, but doesn’t win any awards, you could say, “I am incredibly proud of how much effort and dedication you put into your practice. I noticed how you managed your practice time, sought feedback, and worked on improving each piece. Your commitment and self-discipline are really impressive.” By highlighting their process and the strategies they used, you emphasize their control over their own learning and development. This approach encourages them to take ownership of their efforts and understand that their hard work and persistence are the keys to success, promoting their independence and self-confidence.

6. Model Independence

Be a role model for independence and self-motivation. Demonstrate how you handle challenges, make decisions, and manage your emotions. For example, you might involve your child in a project such as planning and cooking a meal together. You can show them how you decide on a recipe, make a shopping list, and follow through with the cooking process. If you can’t find an ingredient you need in the store, or if something doesn’t go as planned while cooking in the kitchen, you can demonstrate independent ways to deal with those issues. By explaining your thought process and demonstrating each step, you highlight problem-solving skills, planning, and execution. 

7. Create a Supportive Environment

Ensure that your home environment is conducive to exploration and learning. Provide resources, set up spaces for creative activities, and encourage curiosity. Creating an environment to support your child’s autonomy and independence can be as simple as setting up a dedicated space for their activities and interests. For instance, if your child enjoys art, you could designate a corner of a room with an easel, a variety of paints, brushes, and canvases. Give your child the opportunity to arrange their supplies however they’d like to and choose what projects to work on. Additionally, display their artwork around the house to show appreciation for their efforts. This approach nurtures artistic skills and enhances their ability to manage their space and time effectively.

child resting head on hands bored

All that said, you won’t always be able to engage in autonomy supportive parenting strategies all the time, and that’s okay! Sometimes your toddler doesn’t want to hold your hand while crossing a busy intersection. You’ll have to make them do it anyway. Parenting is what happens in the aggregate. What’s most important is to continue making efforts to support your child’s autonomy and independence.

In conclusion, autonomy supportive parenting is a powerful approach that nurtures a child’s independence, confidence, and intrinsic motivation. By adopting its principles and strategies, parents can foster a positive and empowering environment for their child’s growth and development. Ultimately, this parenting style not only benefits the child but also fosters a stronger and more fulfilling parent-child relationship. 

At Upshur Bren Psychology Group, our dedicated team of therapists understands the importance of helping parents develop strategies and techniques that help them support their children’s autonomy and independence, without all the power struggles. We’re here to provide compassionate support and guidance tailored to your unique needs.

Click here to schedule a free consultation call if you’re interested in learning more about how to support your child’s autonomy and independence, in a way that fosters more harmony within your family and home.

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