What Is a ‘Locus of Control’ and How Does it Affect My Teen’s Behavior?

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.”

Parenting Teens

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.

Learn how you can encourage personal responsibility in your teenager >>