Giving Teenagers Space—Inside and Out

The New Year brings a cold snap and a chance to evaluate our priorities, set our intentions to change our behaviors, develop healthier habits, and approach our lives with greater mindfulness and grace. With new habits, we create new living spaces for ourselves—both inside and outside.

In our book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives , Dr. William Stixrud and I evaluate the ways in which adolescents connect to their goals and pursue success in their lives. Both science and experience show that fostering greater autonomy in our children enables them to flourish and find meaning in their lives, and to make better decisions about sleep, schoolwork, and technology. Autonomy is the space we want to encourage in our children.

In the midst of ACT or SAT prep, basketball, and community service, a child’s life can become less a discovery of self and more a compulsion to meet the expectations of parents, teachers, and nameless ‘Others’. Creating new possibilities and seeing oneself as a whole person—not as a caricature comprised of the opinions of others—can be extremely challenging for a teenager today.

In order to change this passive posture, teenagers need emotional space. They need to be in a space that is larger than themselves. As a natural consequence of life experiences and the resulting growth, we all need space to be many things: reflective, creative, embarrassed or a whole host of other actions and reactions. Recently, a college freshman told me that, in order to maintain a living space in her dorm room that was a refuge from worldly stresses and a place just “for her,” she took the work out of her sleep space and deemed the library as her place of study. Putting up boundaries and creating this college habit has rewarded her with a great work ethic. Physiologically, it makes sense, too, because a sense of control increased the motivational neurotransmitter, dopamine, and allowed her to maintain peace by decreasing the stress hormone, cortisol.

Both physical space and mental space are important for creating opportunities for ourselves to live and flourish. In my home, there is an ongoing conversation about the tidiness of the rooms we live in, and that includes our kids’ bedrooms. Now I grant you that reasonable people can reasonably disagree. My thirteen year old pressed back against her mom with my favorite insight (so far) of 2018: “Mom, my room’s never going to be perfect: I live in it!” Such wisdom. For that matter, our lives are never going to be perfect, because, despite our designs for “perfect lives,” we have to actually live them. “Space” surely must include the latitude to do things imperfectly, and we all need opportunities to stretch and stumble and make some messes, confident that we can always try tomorrow to clean them up. That “space” is also a source of motivation and peace.

So, as you head into 2018, create your own rules and regulations, create new possibilities for yourself, in which you expand into the horizons. Curate warm spaces for your incubation, growth, and comfort. It’s cold out there.