What Is Autonomy-Supportive Parenting?

Balanced between the extremes of authoritarian and permissive parenting, autonomy-supportive parenting is an “expert approved” style of raising independent, self-aware kids and teens. In fact, a study published in the February 18, 2022 edition of the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that “students living in an autonomy-supportive familial environment tend to have satisfied psychological needs as well as autonomous learning behavior.” But just what is autonomy-supportive parenting?

The short version is that it’s a way of parenting with the right amount of structure to make a child or teen feel secure, independent, and confident without so much structure that they feel controlled, stifled, or incapable of making decisions for themselves. 

Specifically, it’s a form of parenting that:

  • Involves kids and teens in decision-making (in age-appropriate ways)
  • Boosts self-awareness and self-control (rather than constantly being under the control of parents)
  • And allows them to feel competent, curious, valued, and supported as they explore their place in the world (e.g., school, friendships, jobs, sports, interests, etc.)

How do you parent in a way that supports your child or teen as a unique individual without completely letting go of the reins or controlling their every move? Here are four tips:

1. Provide opportunities for them to make choices—at any age.

The key phrase here is “age appropriate.” Toddlers can choose between a green outfit and a red one. Elementary-aged kids can decide whether they want to play soccer or basketball. Middle schoolers are old enough to be in charge of weekly vacuuming or cleaning the bathroom. High school students may want to choose what family meal to prepare on their night to cook. Kids of any age may benefit from helping to establish the family’s rules, boundaries, and routines. In fact, they may feel more invested in sticking to limits and household chores that they’ve had a hand in creating. 

Regardless of the choices offered, giving children and teens some agency over their decisions can help build self-confidence, enable them to feel like part of the family, and/or prepare for more independence when they’re not flanked by a parent. 

2. Demonstrate active listening to help them feel heard.

Empathy is a vital component of autonomy-supportive parenting, but it will require you to truly hear what your child or teen is experiencing. Remember that not everyone is good at expressing—or even recognizing—what they’re feeling, so be prepared to ask some open-ended questions to get them to open up. Be sure to validate their feelings before reminding them of any rules they’ve broken, then work together to explore solutions or appropriate consequences. 

3. Boost competency and independence.

It’s tempting to rush in and do something for our kids to be helpful, to expedite the task, or to reduce the consequences (guess who has to clean up all that milk that spilled when your 6-year-old tried to pour it). But allowing kids and teens to try something themselves can provide a boost to their sense of competence and autonomy. 

Sure, there are times where you just need to get out the door on time and your 4-year-old hasn’t put on her shoes or you have safety concerns about letting a 7-year-old cook on an open flame. However, choosing the right opportunities at the right time will not only foster a sense of independence and self-confidence down the road, but it may also free up some time for you as they master new skills.

4. Allow them to fail—then be there to provide support.

If we’re honest, we’ve all probably stepped in to help our child or teen with something for which the consequences of not doing it (or not doing it properly) could create major long-term consequences. But there’s something to be said about allowing your kids and teens to make their own mistakes. 

A teen who doesn’t brush and floss regularly, for example, will probably get a lecture (and possibly, a filling) at their next dental appointment. Is it embarrassing for them? Of course. Will they start brushing and flossing to avoid a repeat performance? Maybe. Maybe not. But at some point, the lesson will kick in and your teen will learn that their choice of actions (or inaction) will affect them. 

Rather than taking an “I-told-you-so” approach, you can lean into autonomy-supportive parenting by listening to them share what the experience felt like and what plan of action they’ve come up with to avoid feeling discomfort/embarrassment again. 

It may not happen the first, second, or even third time, but by simply putting the responsibility of a situation on your child or teen, you’re empowering them to learn that their behavior affects their outcome—which actually benefits them over the long run by giving them agency and control over more of their own life.

Want to learn more about Autonomy Supportive Parenting? 

Listen to our Brainy Moms podcast episode featuring Dr. Emily Edlynn, author of Autonomy-Supportive Parenting; Reduce Parental Burnout and Raise Competent, Confident Children or click here to check out Dr. Emily’s book!