Participation in Youth Programs as a Catalyst for Negotiation of Family Autonomy with Connection

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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For decades, researchers believed that conflict was a necessary ingredient for teens to establish autonomy from their parents.

“There’s this long-time argument that kids need to ‘blast’ their way out of families,” said Reed Larson, the principal investigator of this study, who holds the Pampered Chef Ltd. Endowed Chair in Family Resiliency at the University of Illinois.

“It’s woven into our culture – this unwritten expectation, both among youth and parents, that youth start going separate ways, parents aren’t seen in public with their kids, kids are embarrassed by being with other adults,” Larson said.

“But if you get teens in the right setting, all that stuff doesn’t matter. It can be a win/win situation.”

Indeed, recent studies show that in most families, youth and parents enjoy healthy amounts of open communication and mutual respect, and adolescent independence is best negotiated between youth and parents within the context of family connections.

But what are the catalysts and windows of opportunity for such negotiations?

Youth programs.

“They provide special opportunities where parents and adolescents are on the same page,” Larson said. “They unite parents and teens on a common goal: independence and increased maturity for the youth.”

Using an open-ended “discovery” research design, the researchers analyzed data from their own Youth Development Experience study of 12 high-quality arts, service and leadership programs. The programs served a racially balanced mix of economically disadvantaged and at-risk youth in urban and rural Illinois. The researchers repeatedly interviewed the youth, parents and adult advisers from several of the programs over periods ranging from two to eight months.

The study found that the youth programs provided teens with opportunities for independent decision-making, actions and achievements, and helped them develop such skills as self-reliance, initiative, responsibility and self-control.

When parents see youths demonstrating these qualities, they provide their teens with greater standing in the family and more independence from parental controls, without losing the sense of family connection.

The researchers conclude that their analyses “suggest that program participation provides a pathway of opportunities for youth to exercise individual choice and develop qualities of self-reliance with parental approval.”

That pathway includes:

• The decision to join: Most youth described their decision to join a program as an independent choice they made. Many did not mention their families as part of the decision-making process. Most said they chose to participate because they enjoyed the activities, were interested in learning a skill or thought it would prepare them for a career. Parents tended to express support for the decision in development terms, such as, “it’s a chance for them to develop some confidence.”

• Teen/parent interactions during participation: Parents reported providing “scaffolding” for their children’s participation in the form of transportation, asking how the program was going and attending events when invited. Some parents loosened family rules regarding travel distances and curfews in order for the youths to participate. Both youth and parents recognized the importance of boundaries for parental involvement and the need for parents to respect that leaders sometimes have information about youth that is kept confidential from parents.

• The development of self-reliance: Youth reported acquiring new skills, developing initiative, becoming more responsible and self-reliant, better managing their time and emotions, and meeting parental expectations. Most importantly, parents reported perceiving these effects in their children. Not only did this validate the youth reports, but it indicated a foundation upon which the nature of the parent/youth relationship could change.

• Feedback on parent/youth relationship: Several youth reported coming to realize, “I can do things without my parents.” This led to more mature behavior at home, including taking on more responsibilities, such as chores, and communicating with parents on a more equal level.

The study also discusses parent opposition to program participation, youth who isolate parents from program involvement, parents forcing youth to join and parent over-involvement. Except in some cases of over-involvement, none of those factors diminished the amount of autonomy reportedly gained by youth. Some youths viewed their choice to participate without their parents’ support as an act of independence.

The TYDE study was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation to formulate “grounded theory about developmental processes that occur in youth programs” and about how youth workers support those processes. Read more about TYDE at


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