By Meghan Vivo

Your son wants a pet, but he doesn’t want to take care of it. Your daughter dreams of getting into a prestigious university, but she doesn’t do her homework. Although teenagers crave more privileges, they sometimes fail to follow through on their responsibilities. What’s the secret to raising a responsible teenager?

Lindsey Tischart, a counselor at New Leaf Academy of Oregon therapeutic boarding school for girls, has identified three essential components of cultivating responsibility in adolescents: internal motivation, the teen’s ability to respond and the parent’s ability to hold their child accountable.

Internal Motivation

Responsibility is the ability to act without guidance or superior authority, which means internal motivation is a necessity. Although young children may make good decisions simply because they were told to, older children and teens must eventually learn to make the right choice because they want to. Over time, teens develop a sense of right and wrong and make decisions accordingly.

How can parents help their teens develop internal motivation? By holding them accountable, letting them make their own mistakes, and accepting that they will sometimes be unhappy or uncomfortable, said Tischart. Teens need motivation to change their behaviors, and discomfort can be a powerful motivator.

Every parent knows what it’s like to say no to a teenager who really wants something. But if you say no, hold the boundary and allow your child a few minutes to complain, you may be impressed by their ability to accept your answer.
“No parent wants their child to experience hardship,” said Tischart. “But since discomfort is a reality of life, we have to equip teens with the problem-solving, critical thinking and coping skills to figure out how to get what they want and become functional members of their families and society.”

Parents can offer their teens guidance and validation for their feelings without rescuing them or taking over their responsibilities when life gets tough. As teens face and overcome challenges in their lives, they develop motivation to build on their successes and the self-esteem to set new goals.

“The potential for responsibility and irresponsibility exists in every teen,” counseled Tischart. “The key is to reward responsible behaviors and let teens experience the natural consequences of their irresponsible behaviors.”

Teens learn important life lessons from the natural consequences of their actions. Some examples of natural consequences include:

  • Failing a test at school because the teen didn’t study
  • Not being able to wear a certain outfit to a dance because the teen didn’t do their laundry
  • Having to skip a movie with friends because the teen didn’t do their chores to earn allowance to pay for the movie

Ability to Respond

In order to be responsible, teens need to learn how to respond to challenges. This means taking the time to stop, think and then act, and being responsive in a difficult situation rather than reactive, said Tischart.

“A lot of teens think chaos and dysfunction are normal, and respond emotionally to challenging situations,” she explained. “It’s up to parents to model mindfulness in the way they respond to their teens by staying cool, calm and collected even in tough times.”

When parents argue with their teens, they send the message that adults and children are on a level playing field. Parents eventually get worn down by their teen’s persistence, stop consistently applying the rules and over time, lose their authority.

One strategy parents can use to de-escalate an argument with their child is taking five to 10 seconds before replying to an angry or emotional teen. Some parents also find it helpful to maintain a sense of humor when their teen acts out by redirecting them with alternative suggestions or using light humor that doesn’t belittle them.

Holding Teens Accountable

In order to hold teens accountable, Tischart asks parents to take an honest look at themselves and the things they can do differently. For example, ask yourself, “Are you okay with who you are even if your child fails? Is your identity tied up in having others depend on you?” If these questions raise problems, you may need to focus on building your own sense of self, independent of your child, through therapy, journaling or getting support from other parents.

“One way to build accountability is to allow teens’ failures to be their failures and their successes to be their successes,” said Tischart. “By giving them credit for both, parents create an opportunity to learn and grow.”

Failure is inevitable at times, but it shouldn’t prevent teens from trying. Show your teen how to cope with mistakes in healthy ways by setting a positive example.

“Every child that learns to walk runs into some obstacles at some point,” said Tischart. “With practice and guidance from their parents, they learn to avoid hazards and get around with ease. Although the obstacles are more complex in adolescence, the principles are the same.”

It takes patience and practice to learn to let teens take responsibility for themselves and experience the consequences of their actions. By starting small and granting more responsibilities and privileges as teens prove their ability to handle more, parents help their kids develop self-esteem and a sense of accountability. Although letting go is one of the hardest things parents have to do, these life lessons help build the foundation for a healthy adulthood.