Many of the adolescents who come to see me for counseling have something in common: their parents or other adult authorities are concerned they are not showing strong personal responsibility in their lives. Some are dabbling in drug use (yes, that DOES include weed). Some are not doing well in school, and don’t really seem to care. Others are hurting themselves or someone else by their foolish choices. Whether the problems involve friends, money, sex, cars, curfews, language, drugs, alcohol, or any of a host of other issues, so many of my teenage clients really need to grow in personal responsibility that will lead them to making wiser choices in their lives.
As loving parents, we want our teens to grow up to be personally responsible, morally sound, basically self-sufficient adults who make a positive contribution to society. While there are no guarantees we can make this happen, we do have a great deal of power to lead our teens on this path. If you are frequently frustrated by your teen’s attitudes and actions of disrespect, laziness, sloppiness, disobedience, etc., TAKE HEART! Here are the five basic keys to steering them onto the right path – the path of personal responsibility:
1. EXPECT responsibility in your teens. This is NOT the same as wishing, pleading, or even hoping they will be responsible. Expecting them to be responsible means walking away when it is their time to work, rather than hovering over them to ensure they get it done and get it done right. Expecting responsibility in your teens sends a powerful message of how much you believe in them and their abilities – something they need like air and water. Whether your kids are three, ten, fourteen, or eighteen, this principle will go so far to empower them in personal responsibility!
2. Clearly communicate your expectations to your teens. It is so important to explain your expectations to your teens with authority and specificity. Speaking with authority is tied directly to the previous point. It means expecting them to follow your instruction and leading, because you believe in them. It also means KNOWING you are the primary authority in your teen’s lives. How many times have you engaged your teens in verbal/emotional battles of will, hoping you will emerge victorious, with your kids coming to a greater respect for your authority? How often does it work out the way you were hoping? How drained are you when you finally get there with them? When you speak to your teens from a solid position of authority, not waiting for the results to tell you if you really are the authority, they are far more likely to respect you and follow your leadership.
3. Stop taking responsibility for your teens. OK, I know this one may throw you for a loop at first, but think it through with me. You know your kids are responsible when they take responsibility for their actions – right? And taking responsibility for their actions means taking responsibility for a series of specific tasks – right? So, if your teen has a task to complete, and you are watching over them and immediately intervening to ensure it is done correctly, who does it sound like is taking responsibility for the task? And if you are really the one bearing responsibility for the work, how can they really assume true responsibility for it? So, whether your teen is dealing with caring for a pet, completing household chores, tackling homework, or maintaining that first car – consider the possibility that his/her irresponsibility may be a reflection of your over-responsibility.
4. Allow your teens to suffer the consequences of poor choices. Loving parents don’t like to see their children suffer. It hurts us. But suffering the consequences of poor choices is one of life’s greatest teachers. We must learn to love our kids enough to look at the bigger picture beyond this moment of temporary suffering. Painful lessons typically lead to real learning and changed behavior, sometimes even changed attitudes. “Getting off easy” teaches teens it is ok to keep doing things just the way they are, setting their feet more firmly on the path of irresponsibility and disrespect. How often do you find yourself giving in on a stated consequence, then feeling frustrated and angry at your teens for not respecting you and your rules or for being irresponsible? Some lovingly imposed suffering will go a long way to cure this ill!
5. Be available to help your teens process and learn from their choices and results. When you see or hear your teen expressing their frustration at the suffering that resulted from a poor choice, be ready to genuinely show your compassion for them. This doesn’t mean apologizing for enforcing their suffering, which is a natural result of poor choices, disobedience, and misbehavior. It does mean recognizing their frustration, and letting them know you truly hope they get better results – for their sake. If you communicate this message with sarcasm or judgmental preaching, you will effectively shut down your connection and lose influence and leadership of your teens. If you are able to genuinely connect with them, then lovingly process with them how the situation could have gone better for them, they will be better equipped to take responsibility for themselves and make a better choice next time.
In addition, it is amazing to see how adolescents respond to parents’ stories of the lessons they learned “the hard way” in their own lives. (Notice how many of your best lessons were learned “the hard way,” which simply reflects suffering the consequences of poor choices and taking personal responsibility to face those consequences!) They love to hear about your mistakes, because it communicates: a realistic humility that you aren’t perfect, enough personal strength and courage to expose your mistakes and weaknesses without shame, and a reason to hear and respect your wisdom and leadership besides the simple “I told you so.”