Autonomy: Building a Child or Adolescents Independence and Self-Esteem

Autonomy refers to self-government and being responsible for control of one’s life. As we progress into adulthood autonomy becomes a more relevant fact of our lives because we naturally have more independence, more responsibilities, and subsequently more choices to make. In psychology the self-determination theory explains the three basic psychological needs that people require to have fulfilled. Feeling capable and feeling close and meaningfully connected to others are important, but number one is autonomy, the need to feel free to choose one’s own behavior. Helping children meet these needs is important to their development. A positive environment can help promote and support meeting a child’s basic psychological needs.

Autonomy is a normal internal drive for kids. Even as early as ages one to three children experience growth in the area of cognitive development or thinking skills as they experiment with how their actions impact their environment. Refining motor skills means increasing their control of their bodies. Coupling cognitive and motor development with the natural curiosity and the energy of a toddler, they often express a desire to control. Fostering autonomy tends to this need of control in a healthy way that leads to more positive mental health outcomes in adulthood.

When children are allowed to choose for themselves, they build trust in their own decisions which subsequently builds their self-esteem. They are forced when confronted with the choice to take personal inventory of what they want in that moment, the consequences and rewards of their different choices, and make a decision whether or not it’s the best option from the adult perspective, they learn through experience. Of course, there are limits to how much autonomy we can give a child because we want to prioritize their safety, when children are more autonomous they feel more capable of making their own healthy choices. Age appropriate autonomy is important and this can help them develop at an appropriate level which can positively impact their emotional well-being. An environment that supports a child’s autonomy, encourages independence and problem-solving skills is important. Autonomy can help teach a child about family values, social norms, and essential rules.

Practically supporting the development of autonomy can be done in several ways:

  1. Setting clear expectations for behavior and rules is important. When children or adolescents comprehend why the rules are in place and the context behind them they are more likely to follow and support the rules set for them.
  2. Normalizing emotions by labeling and validating a child or adolescence feelings and perspective is an essential part of mental health and developmental growth. It helps destigmatize strong feelings, decrease the shame around them, and parents can help normalize the fact that everyone has difficult moments.
  3. Utilizing a more collaborative parenting style makes room for children to develop more autonomy which helps them develop skills that they can utilize to be independent adults. Focusing on influencing a child or adolescent versus trying to control them can help foster autonomy. Focusing on control can lead one to be dependent on power-oriented strategies and minimizing this judgment and control can help build the skills children or adolescents need to be independent adults.
  4. Giving kids a healthy and appropriate sense of agency and control by allowing them to make independent choices and decisions greatly assist them building autonomy. For a toddler that might mean picking their snack, and for an adolescent it might mean allowing them to choose their own clothes for different occasions.
  5. Utilizing scaffolding. Scaffolding skills incorporate information and skills children already have with ones that they are trying to learn, think of it as extra support for them just like in construction where scaffolding helps supply extra support to the building and when it’s done it can be removed and the building is able to stand independently. Practicing challenging new skills with children through scaffolding helps support growth and foster greater autonomy and independence.
  6. Allow children and adolescents to solve problems on their own. Adults often feel a pressure to rescue their child when they see them struggling or when they encounter something challenging but it’s often better to brainstorm together and collaboratively discuss possible solutions to the problem they’re having. Offering guidance when needed is important but encouraging youngsters to problem solve independently truly helps autonomy grow.
  7. Safely, let children and adolescents struggle. Everyone encounters failure in their lifetime, especially children and adolescents. Trying, failing, and making mistakes is part of growth and if youngsters don’t develop ways to cope with their failure they are more prone to anxiousness. For parents, that means modeling failure and mistakes as essential parts of the learning process versus things that are full of shame or loss. Letting a child learn from mistakes allows them to build confidence resilience and coping skills that they can utilize throughout their lifetime.

It is important to look for opportunities for autonomy to help practice independence and experience mastery over one’s body, one’s mind and one’s environment. It supports critical thinking, intrinsic motivation, and confidence. When we foster these skills of independence versus swooping in to save them when we see them struggle we are communicating “I know you can. I know you can!”. That is something empowering for a kid to see.

If this blog resonated with you and you would like to speak more about building autonomy in a youngster in your life or even yourself, please reach out to Life Enhancement Counseling Services by calling us at 407-443-8862.



Arielle Teets