One of the most common sentiments parents and caregivers hear from kids is that they cannot wait to be out on their own and making their own rules. It is almost as if they believe that, once they are living by themselves, they will be relieved of all the responsibilities and expectations they had before. Parents who hear this might scoff or offer a humorous “just you wait”, and it is understandable why they would have that reaction.
Caregivers and parents understand that there are always responsibilities. They understand that they have obligations to meet if they want to keep their jobs, pay their bills, and so on. What the caregivers might be missing, however, is why a child would make an assertion about making their own rules or not having to answer to anyone else. It would be easy to dismiss it as defiance or disrespect—an attempt to exert control over a particular situation. And the reason it is so easy is because, in part, it is about control.
All people, children and adults alike, want to have some kind of control over their own life. The concept of autonomy, of independence, is one that is embedded into our society and the idea of taking it away is abhorrent. We use the removal of that autonomy as a punishment all the way from time-outs for toddlers to prison sentences for criminals. Our sense of independence, of agency, of freedom is crucial to our identity. So, when children begin making claims about wanting to be independent it may be that what they are really looking for is a sense of control in their own lives.
In particular, children who have been displaced or who have experienced trauma—children who feel like their lives are out of control—want to know that they have some say in their own lives.
Unfortunately, attempts to have that kind of control often come across as defiance toward authority figures. And, in some cases, the child may not even realize that they appear defiant which can lead to greater frustration and conflict between the child and the caregiver.
One helpful thing for caregivers and parents to remember in these moments is that it is not personal. The statements, the attitude, and the behavior are generally not intentional slights toward them. It is simply an attempt to express frustration over the lack of control that they feel. Calm responses, explanations, and patience are all key factors in helping a child gain that sense of control they are searching for. The responsibilities and expectations may not change but the reaction to them might.