WH&Y authors: Professor Philip Hazell
  • Autonomy is the capacity to decide for ourselves what we do and how we do it. It should not be mistaken for simple willfulness or self-centredness.
  • Teenagers develop the capacity for autonomy gradually and at different paces depending on maturity and experience. They may be autonomous in some areas while still requiring the support of adults in others.
  • Achieving autonomy requires some risk-taking.


Being autonomous means being able to decide for ourselves what we do and how we do it. We build our capacity for autonomy slowly, beginning in the toddler years when we try to take control of basic tasks like toileting and feeding, and into childhood as we start to make our own choices about friends and activities.

In the Teenage Decade, the development of autonomy continues, moving at a slow and gradual pace that differs from person to person depending on maturity and experiences. We may be successfully autonomous in some areas while still needing the support of adults in others. 

Over time, our capacity for autonomy becomes more sophisticated as we develop the ability to think in the abstract, to consider short-term and long-term consequences for ourselves and for others, and to assess information and advice coming from the people around us. As autonomous individuals, we can still choose to reference other people’s advice when deciding what we want to do, and how we want to do it. 

Teenagers typically have more confidence in their own competency than their parents do, and are therefore more convinced of their capacity for autonomy. This gap, which tends to be wider in situations where the stakes are higher, can result in disagreements around just how much autonomy a teenager should be exercising in a given situation.

It’s important to recognise that when teenagers exercise their autonomy, they’re not simply being wilful or self-centred, but testing and building their capacity to make their own decisions in response to the challenges of an increasingly adult world. 


  • Teenagers develop their capacity for autonomy by testing their own decision-making skills. It’s a normal part of their development into adults. We stigmatise teenagers when we label them as ‘wilful’ or ‘self-centred’ for practising their autonomy.
  • Risk-taking is part of the process of learning how to be an autonomous adult. By taking risks, teenagers expose themselves to conflict with their parents and other adults; and by permitting those risks, parents and other adults expose teenagers to the potential negative consequences of their actions. However, those risks, and the issues that surround them, are necessary if teenagers are to achieve autonomy.
  • It’s typical for teenagers to be autonomous in some areas while still needing the support of their parents and other adults in other areas. Those variations should not be misinterpreted as inconsistencies or ‘failures’.
  • Teenagers tend to rate their own competency higher than their parents do, and because of that, assess their readiness for autonomy quite differently, too. The gap between adolescent and parent perception on matters concerning autonomy is wider in high-stake situations, and can be the cause of tension and disagreement.



About The Authors


Philip Hazell is Conjoint Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry with the Sydney Medical Schoo...