By Hugh C. McBride

It’s the ultimate million-dollar question – one that parents and other caregivers have been asking themselves for centuries, and one that could bring fame and fortune to the person who answers it: Why do teens act the way they do?

Who’s In Charge Around Here?
Discussions about a teen’s behavior often center upon the classic nature/nurture debate; that is, was the young person “born that way,” or did environmental influences (including parents, peers, and personal experiences) cause him to adopt the attitudes and beliefs that are indicated by his actions? And while this certainly leads to questions that are worth asking, it is also true that the belief of the individual regarding how the world has influenced and impacted her may be just as important (or perhaps more so) than the actual source of the impact itself. This leads us to “locus of control.”

In psychological terms, peoples’ locus of control refers to their perceptions about who or what is ultimately responsible for the course of their lives and the positive and negative experiences they have. Locus of control can be broken down into two distinct subdivisions, though most individuals fall somewhere along the continuum between the two extremes described here:

  • Internal Locus of Control – Individuals who have an internal locus of control believe that they are responsible for their own successes and failures.
  • External Locus of Control – People with a strictly external locus of control see themselves akin to pawns on a chessboard, with their progress and setbacks determined by a power beyond their control (for example, fate, luck, or other external factors).

The concept of locus of control was developed by American psychologist Julian B. Rotter in the middle 1950s, and has been expanded upon and clarified by dozens of others during the intervening fifty-plus years.

What Does Your Locus Say About You?
In most cases, it is believed that individuals who tend toward an internal locus of control are healthier and better adjusted.

In an online document titled “What is Locus of Control,” James Neill of the University of Canberra (Australia) Centre for Applied Psychology notes that having an internal locus of control is usually seen as the more desirable state, as it implies a sense of self-control and self-governance.

However, Neill emphasizes that an extreme internal locus of control can be just as detrimental as an extreme external orientation can be:

Internals can be psychologically unhealthy and unstable. An internal orientation usually needs to be matched by competence, self-efficacy and opportunity so that the person is able to successfully experience the sense of personal control and responsibility.

Overly internal people who lack competence, efficacy and opportunity can become neurotic, anxious and depressed. In other words, internals need to have a realistic sense of their circle of influence in order to experience “success.”

What’s Best for My Teen?
If your teen refuses to take responsibility for her actions, and continues to insist that the blame lies with others (“my teachers don’t like me,” “the test wasn’t fair,” “trouble just follows me”), then their locus of control may need a good nudge in the direction of the internal. But, as with many aspects of youth mental health, attention needs to be focused on finding a healthy balance that will allow the child to take responsibility when called for, but also acknowledge that no one is in a position to exercise complete control.

In her article “A Primer on Promoting Resiliency in Adolescents,” Sharyn J. Zunz, Ph.D., of the University of New Hampshire Center on Adolescence, notes that pushing a child toward either extreme in terms of their locus of control is both unrealistic and potentially unhealthy.

For a while, those in the helping professions thought it was better to encourage an internal locus of control – the idea that it was within one’s power to control his/her life and to alter his/her environment. However, not everything is realistically in the control of a 14-year-old, and this is especially true for teens in high-risk environments.

Therefore, you can help teens to cope by teaching them to make a realistic appraisal of their circumstances and to work on the things that are in their power to change.

Help them use the serenity prayer from 12 step programs – Accept the things they cannot change (at least for now), change the things they can, and have the wisdom to know the differences.

Promoting Personal Responsibility
Young people who exhibit a chronic unwillingness to accept responsibility for their behaviors, or who refuse to be accountable for the ramifications of their actions, may benefit from professional interventions such as the services that are available at a therapeutic boarding school or wilderness program.

In highly structured and nurturing environments such as these, previously struggling students learn to discern between the aspects of their lives for which they must take responsibility and issues that are beyond their control.

By modeling positive behaviors, guiding teens through continued introspection, and providing essential counseling services when necessary, these types of intensive therapeutic learning environments can help young people establish a balanced locus of control, bring their behaviors within acceptable limits, and prepare them to become healthy, contributing members of their families, schools, and communities.