Adolescence and the Challenge of Self-Management

Parents can encourage growth of responsibility on which self-management depends

Posted Dec 23, 2013

Recently giving a talk to parents at a Montessori middle school, I was struck by the emphasis on student self-management. Assuming personal responsibility is one operating principle in this approach to education. Perhaps I was impressed because I believe this is such an important objective in parenting adolescents who, when they finally step off into independence, must now become their own guiding and governing authority, dependent on their own self-discipline to make themselves make their way. How are they to learn?

Any self-management system children and adolescents develop partly depends on what parents offer by example and instruction, partly on lessons that good and hard experience have taught, and partly on the “Hand of Self” – the human strengths, individuality, and challenges -- one has by inheritance been dealt.

Continuing the hand of cards metaphor, I believe there are two basic charges parents have with their child. First, they must get to know the stranger born into their care so they can help the young person understand the human “hand” she or he has been dealt. And second, they need to coach the young person in how to play this hand as well as possible. Since no one hand holds all the strong cards, every hand is pretty limited, and that has to be okay. And since no two hands are the same, even in the same family, with each child there is a different parenting hand to play – guiding a strong willed or a compliant child, a slow or fast maturing child, a specially gifted or a specially challenged child, for example. Physically, psychologically, socially, circumstantially, some hands come with more hardships to contend with than others. 

Of course, the hand one is dealt in childhood is played within the simpler context of dependence on parents and is mostly contained within the shelter of the family circle. Adolescence, however, is played out in a more complicated context, unfolding in a larger and riskier world arena where Achieving Independence becomes the name of the new game. The hand is the same, but the stakes are higher. In this sense, when the child enters adolescence and heads toward young adulthood, now mothers and fathers on their part have a different, and what feels like a more serious, parenting hand to play.

So how can parents nurture responsible self-management in their adolescent? Four strategies come to mind.

TEACHING THE CHOICE/CONSEQUENCE CONNECTION. When a positive consequence occurs, like practicing hard enough to succeed in making a team, the teenager can learn to take responsibility for putting in the work to get what they want. When a negative consequences occurs, like being arrested for driving under the influence and (among other legal fallout) having their license suspended, the teenager can learn to take responsibility for whether or not to mix drinking and driving. Responsibility for coping with consequences of decisions can teach power of self-management.

ASSIGNING MORE RESPONSIBILITY. With the summer after junior year in high school approaching, parents explain that they will be giving no allowance for those three months. If the young person needs spending money during this time, they don’t tell her to get a job, only that she will have to make her own financial arrangements, which she responsibly decides to do by finding employment. As the teenager grows through the short 48 months of high school parents are teaching, transferring, and assigning her many increased responsibilities (like budgeting, bill paying, and banking, for example) so that by graduation she will have the smallest next step into more independent functioning.

PARTIAL PARENTAL MANAGEMENT. The child comes to parents for all kinds of help (“Fix me,” “Show me how,” “Do for me,” for example) and parents usually comply. With the onset of adolescence, however, in middle school for example, parents start making their help more conditional. “First you do some work to help yourself, and then we will add help of our own.” For example, “Before we tell you what we think you might do about being teased, which sounds very painful, we’d like to hear your ideas first.” “Before I show you how to calculate that math problem, I’d like to see you give it a few different tries yourself.” “Before we buy you a smart phone, which is a big purchase with an ongoing expense, we’d like you to do some shopping around by comparing different phones, their buying price, features, warrantees, and contracts, and then give us your recommendation with reasons why.” Parents are no longer in the business of doing all of the work to manage young person’s life, but are increasingly making their contribution dependent on him taking some share of responsibility first.

SHARING PARENTAL SELF-MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES. Because parents have the advantage of a much longer life experience than their adolescent, they can share what self-management strategies have worked for them. For example, “That’s why I make lists all the time – so I don’t forget what I need to do.” “I’m hot tempered like you, so I’ve had to learn to count to ten when I’m angry before responding so I don’t pop off with something I regret afterwards.” “When I get down, sometimes taking an exercise break can perk me up. That might work for you.” What parents primarily give their adolescent is who and how they are, an adult model for operating in the world. By disclosing what works for them, they can provide personal information can be very useful for their teenager to know. By adult example and self-sharing, adolescent self-management strategies can be taught.

From what I have seen, the two most common stages in adolescence when the self-management challenge can be really daunting -- at the outset of Early Adolescence (ages 9 – 13) when separating from childhood, and at the outset of the last, Trial Independence (ages 18-23) when stepping more off on one’s own. In both cases, the young person is struggling to cope with a much more complicated stage of life. This is important for parents to remember: as the adolescent self grows more complex and their worldly experience grows more complex, self-management becomes more complex, at times too much so.

Now there are signs of over demand that that parents can notice: more disorganization, distractibility, lack of focus, forgetting, procrastinating, escaping work, breaking commitments, confusion, and lower esteem from failing to catch hold. At this juncture parents should not act inpatient, angry, or criticize. Instead they should offer to help coach the young person to reach the next, more challenging, self-management level.

So: teach the adolescent to understand and play the hand inheritance has dealt. If the hand is far from perfect, that’s not a problem. That’s a reality. They all are. As writer Alfred Henry Lewis succinctly put it at the turn of the 20th century: “Life ain’t in holding a good hand, but in playing a poor hand well.”

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: New Year’s Resolutions for Parents and Adolescents?