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Now Is the Right Time!
Teens age 16 are working on understanding what it means to act responsibly. They are working to understand the rules and apply them in various settings. They are working on their own independence. They are increasingly taking care of their bodies (eating right, getting exercise). They are caring for their relationships (managing their feelings and impulses, empathizing and working through conflict, being dependable and keeping promises). They are managing homework and extracurriculars. They are contributing to the household in which they live (doing chores, cooperating with rules and expectations).
Teens ages 15-19 are working on understanding their own emerging adult identity and what it means to act responsibly. They are also asking questions about their future. Will they go to college? Will they get a job? Will they commit to a relationship? As they develop they will also test boundaries, forget things, and break rules. When they do, they require guidance on how to approach a hurt relationship, revisit missed obligations, and repair harm. This is a normal part of their development and necessary for learning how to take responsibility.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can choose to be purposeful and deliberate in the ways you teach your teen to act responsibly. Making responsible decisions can involve identifying problems, analyzing situations, solving problems, evaluating, reflecting, and considering the ethical implications or consequences of choices.
Acting responsibly is one of the most important skills your teen can learn from you. Research confirms that teens are developing cause and effect thinking.1 This directly impacts their capacity to take responsibility for their actions. Once they understand how their actions and decisions affect not only themselves, but those around them, they will approach even the smallest things they do in their day with a sense of responsibility and pride. Such an important skill takes a lot of planning and practice for a parent to teach and many opportunities for a teen to try out and redo before it is mastered.
Teaching teens to act responsibly takes practice and can be learned over time. This process can engage each one of their social and emotional skills as they learn how to manage their impulses and make healthy choices that have a positive impact on others. As you utilize teachable moments that grow your teen’s skills, your relationship with your teen will be enriched and they’ll advance in their ability to make responsible decisions. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters.
When you are reviewing household chores with your fifteen-year-old, your seventeen-year-old attempts to hide a poor grade, or your nineteen-year-old accidentally breaks something at a part-time job, these situations are all opportunities to teach responsibility.
Today, in the short term, teaching responsibility can create
- a sense of confidence that you can help your teen make healthy, contributing choices, heal hurt relationships, and make up for mistakes made;
- a greater understanding by your teen of the connection between their actions and the impact on themselves and others; and
- trust that your teen is growing their ability to make good choices.
Tomorrow, in the long term, teaching responsibility helps your teen
- build skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- learn independence and self-sufficiency; and
- build assertive communication to express needs and boundaries, critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
This five-step process helps you guide your teen make responsible decisions. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about responsibility by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your teen’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to their daily responsibilities, so that you can address them. In gaining input, your teen
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and a sense of ownership);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their day; and
- will grow problem-solving skills.
Consider the daily responsibilities that may be appropriate for your teen to do to take care of themselves, their possessions, and their relationships at their stage. You could ask them:
- “Tell me about what you are doing (or what needs to be done) to take care of yourself?” (exercise, eat healthy, get enough sleep, time for yourself, manage stress)
- “How’s that going?”
- “What are you doing (or could be done) on your own?”
- “What can I do to help you?”
- “Tell me about what you are doing (or what needs to be done) to take care of your possessions?” (pets, clothes, room)
- “How’s that going?”
- “What are you doing (or could be done) on your own?”
- “What can I do to help you?”
- “Tell me about what you are doing (or what needs to be done) to take care of your relationships?” (spending time with friends, connecting with family)
- “How’s that going?”
- “What are you doing (or could be done) on your own?”
- “What can I do to help you?” (give a ride, reminders)
Use your best listening skills! Listen closely to what is most concerning to your teen without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Avoid letting the question turn into an accusation. Remember to stay calm and that the goal of the question is to help the teen uncover feelings.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
The fundamental purpose of teaching responsibility is to grow the skills of taking responsibility through constructive actions such as making healthy choices, caring for their environment and possessions, caring for their relationships, and repairing harm. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Learning about your teen’s developmental milestones can help you have reasonable expectations for them.
- Fifteen-year-olds may feel sensitive to criticism and preoccupied with peer impressions. In their push for greater independence, they continue to require guidance, rules and boundaries from adults, but may test those rules or intentionally break them as they experiment with their limits and growing identity, which can lead to intentionally or unintentionally causing harm.
- Sixteen-year-olds may feel more confident. They may have new goals outside of school and along with them stress and worries. They might be tempted to stay up late studying or socializing, but that lack of sleep challenges their self-control and ability to manage anger and anxiety in healthy ways.
- Seventeen-year-olds may become highly focused on their academic and life goals and the stress of adult choices ahead. Conflicts may arise with you as they assert independence but also feel fragile, vulnerable, and scared of their future adult lives.
- Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds are considered emerging adults. At times, they may exude confidence while other times, they may feel highly insecure and run to you needing comfort and security. Though they may face conflict with you as you renegotiate your relationship with an adult son or daughter, they’ll also face their own internal conflicts wanting to rely on you while needing their independence.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.2 This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences when expectations are not met.
It can be easy for parents or those in a parenting role to scold a teen who has made a poor choice inducing a feeling of shame. Instead, you want teens to feel empowered to take steps toward making something better. Remember that they can be their own worst critic and may already have intense messages of failure generated in their self-talk. Use a tone that sends a message of support for guiding them toward a next better decision.
- Model responsibility for your child. Find chances at a store, at the park, or during a regular routine at home where you can model responsibility. You could say, “It is our responsibility to pick up the space so that it is ready for the next person.” Or, “I promised that I would make cookies for the bake sale at school. It is my responsibility to get them there on time.”
- Call out responsibility when you see it — whether it involves an action your teen has taken, another family member, or a neighbor. Teens need lots of opportunities to become aware of how responsibility is demonstrated.
- Brainstorm ways you can take responsibility together. Generating ideas can add to your teen’s confidence to make constructive choices. For example, you could say, “What are some ideas you have that would help to leave this space better than you found it?” “Our neighbor just had surgery, what are some ideas you can think of to help them out?”
- Normalize conversations about feelings in family life. Teens ages 15-19 may not eagerly share their feelings, but they are still learning to identify their more complex and difficult feelings. Notice and name feelings when a family member is showing an expression to offer plenty of practice. Ask, don’t tell. “You look sad. Is that right?” Being able to honestly share feelings is the first step in successfully managing feelings and acting responsibly.
- Model assertive communication through “I-messages.” Here’s an example: “I feel (insert feeling word) when you (name the words or actions that upset you) because (state the impact).” Here’s another example: “I feel sad when you say hurtful things to your brother. It hurts his feelings.” This helps you take responsibility for your feelings while avoiding blaming language like “You did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other). “I-messages” help communicate the problem constructively.
- Teach your teen how to repair harm. When they damage or break an object or hurt a sibling’s feelings, talk to them about what they could do to repair the object and help heal the relationship. This could include apologizing, doing an act of kindness for the other, writing a note, or offering a hug.
When you are reflecting on your teen’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of feelings that need to be examined and understood, not just one. Anger might just be the top layer. After you’ve discovered why your teen was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps they feel embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of feelings will help your teen feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware.
Create a ritual of sharing words of love and care at bedtime. Consider that ending the day reflecting on how much you appreciate one another could just be the best way to send your teen off to sleep. Teens need more sleep, but worries about their social pressures can get in the way. Your love at bedtime will support them through this.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines can be opportunities for your teen to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your teen will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your teen works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a teen’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence and grows their ability to make constructive choices. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Allow your teen opportunities to take responsibility for their own tasks or relationships — even when you know you could do it faster or better.
- Proactively remind. Before going out with friends, you might say, “Remember as you are going out tonight that you need to check in with me and be home by the curfew we agreed upon?”
- Offer limited and authentic choices. Offering them a choice, even if small — “Will you talk to her directly or write her a note?” — can return a sense of control to their lives. It also offers valuable practice in responsible decision making.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you went back to your sister to talk to her after you fought to make things better. That’s how you take responsibility and heal the relationship.”
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your teen has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They may need your constant support through that process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
- Include reflection on the day in your dinnertime routine. You might ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?” You should answer the questions as well. Teens may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts are a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your teen some new strategies. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “I know you have a big day planned, and I noticed you took care of yourself by going to bed at 10, instead of staying up late to finish the movie. How are you feeling?”
- Learn about development. Each new age will present differing challenges. Becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your teen is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Promote an “I can” belief. Teens need to hear that you believe in their ability to take responsibility for their nighttime routine, turning their homework assignment in on time, or working to repair a friend’s hurt feelings. Your comments and reflections will matter greatly in how competent they feel to take responsibility for their actions.
- Foster friendships. Close friends can be an invaluable source of empathy and support for your teen. Reserve judgment and coach toward making amends when conflicts arise. Be sure that all communication with friends is through your teen (not you) since they need to take direct responsibility for their relationships.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different healthy coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your teen.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after an inappropriate behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process and avoiding harm.
- First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check, you are able to think through the situation, examine what might naturally follow, and provide logical consequences that fit the behavior.
- Second, invite your teen into a reflection about the expectations established in Step 2.
- Third, consider a logical consequence of their actions as a teachable moment. Be certain to consider the following questions before making your decision: (1) What will you teach with this consequence? (2) Has a natural consequence already taken place such as a friend turning away, a broken device, or a failed grade? Sometimes the natural consequence is more than enough and you don’t need to impose yet another. (3) Will the logical consequence be obviously connected to the poor choice so that you can teach cause and effect with the action?
Learning to take responsibility after making a poor choice takes time. Teens ages 15-19 may need your ideas, support, and guidance a number of times since each situation will be unique. That’s okay. What’s important is that you work to understand their feelings, teach new behaviors, and practice all the while maintaining a healthy, supportive, loving relationship with them. Your healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your teen is what is most important.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your teen is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your teen is working to grow their skills — even in small ways — it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and helping them manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “I noticed you made up with your sister even before I said anything. That’s the way to be a caring sister.”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you take care of the dog all week without being asked, you’ll get extra game time” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You took care of the dog all week without being asked. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When teens are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you picked up trash on the neighbor’s lawn left by your friends. That’s really taking responsibility.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, high-fiving, and hugging to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.