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Encouraging Responsibility In Teens

“I can’t decide if my eighth grade son is normal or not,” a mother reported.” At times he acts so irresponsibly. But, then, at other times, he can be so mature. I do want him to assume more responsibility for himself. But he does have to prove to me that he can make right decisions consistently.”

One of our major tasks as parents is to help our teens grow into more responsible, mature thinking and behavior.

One of the problems common to children with ADHD, however, is their apparent lack of responsibility. Their lack of organization and impulsive control often results in behaviors and attitudes that exaggerate the lack of responsibility and maturity.

In order for us who are parents of teens to maintain our own emotional balance, we need to be reminded of some basic facts. The rate at which teens mature varies greatly from person to person and from year to year. One fourteen-year-old may seem vastly more responsible than his peers, another much less so. Typically, a teen may get “hung-up” for a while at some stage and make little progress toward being responsible for chores, school work, or emotional control. As hard as it is for us at such times, we need to be patient, accepting our teen where he or she is emotionally and give him or her time to develop. We should set reasonable rules while not getting overly distraught over these plateaus in our teen’s development.

I remember one fifteen-year-old boy who was notoriously irresponsible about his chores and homework. He was casual about his music lessons and he was not interested in assuming responsibility in the youth group or other activities. His parents were concerned but did not panic. They consistently set rules on his behavior and outlined specifically what chores he was to do and told him exactly what would happen it the chores were not done—and, most importantly, what “good things” would happen if the chores were done without complaint. At the end of his fifteenth year he attended a camping program sponsored by his church. He participated in the activities, listened attentively to the camp leaders. On returning home, his whole attitude changed. He began to do his homework without being pushed and took more responsibility for his chores. Now a college student, his parents are rightly proud of him.

Observing this young man’s progress reminded me that most teens will make it to maturity, albeit at their own pace, if we give them guidelines but also allow room to grow. One way we help our teens learn responsibility is to give them increasing freedom to make decisions for themselves as they show the ability to handle such responsibility.

Some teens will need more supervision and guidance than others and for a longer period of time. It is imperative for parents to continue to be present in their teen’s life, to model appropriate attitudes and actions, and to set appropriate limits. (Yes, limits are still needed during the teen years.)

The teen, however, should be given small doses of freedom which are increased as his actions permit. For example, the teen can, within limits, be allowed to buy his or her own clothes and other basic necessities, to make some choices about friends, entertainment, and what to do with his or her free time.

One father started giving his fifteen-year-old daughter an allowance sufficient for her to buy her clothes and other needs such as make-up and accessories. She was allowed to make her own decisions as to what to buy. If she were imprudent and spent her allowance before the end of the month, she might have to go without something she really wanted for a while. This particular girl handled her responsibility well and is now working to help pay her way through college.

Some teens could not handle this degree of autonomy at 15 or 16 but maybe could respond to a smaller dose of independence. We need to realize that our teens will make mistakes and will make some wrong decisions. But that is not all bad. As it was with us, they will learn some of their best lessons from their mistakes. If we do not give them an opportunity to fail, they will have difficulty learning how to succeed. Periodically, we should re-evaluate the rules that we set for our teen. We should talk with them about their progress, or lack of it. We should praise them when and where we can.

Although we may need to revise the rules from time to time, we should always be firm but gentle. In discussing rules it is helpful to review these points:

1. We should give our teens reasons why a given rule is necessary.

2. We should give them a chance to openly discuss rules that they agree or disagree with.
3. We should discuss which rules should be discarded and why.

4. We should decide what new rules should be made and why.

5. We should discuss which existing rules should be changed and why.

6. Most of all, we parents need to trust our teens. They need to know that we believe in them and that we trust them. We also need to clearly let them know what the rules are and what the consequences of irresponsible behavior will be. But we also let them know that we believe that they are capable of thinking and acting responsibly.

Teens, like everyone else, become what they believe others think of them. We, then, can expect the best.

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