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Parenting Adolescents and the Choice/Consequence Connection

How to help experience become a source of accountability and education.

Key points

  • Empowering one's life experience requires making the connection between choices made and consequences that follow.
  • Making this connection promotes accountability and responsibility, and provides instruction and education.
  • Because owning choices and facing outcomes can be painful to do, there can be resistance (like denial) to making this connection.
  • A teenager can get caught in a cycle of self-defeat, unable to stop choosing harmful consequences. At that point outside help is advised.
Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

During adolescence, the teenager gathers increased freedom of experience, becomes less dependent on parents, and learns to function more on her or his own terms. But what is the core “experience” that parents are working with here?

The choice/consequence connection

I believe it is the choice/consequence connection. What they must help the self-determined adolescent keep in mind is that every “free” choice she or he makes comes with baggage in the form of consequences, and thus is never entirely “free” at all.

This choice/consequence connection has two empowering aspects-it is done for responsibility and for instruction.

  • When a young person owns their share in the outcome of a personal choice, they accept some responsibility: “If I had chosen differently, none of this would have happened.” “To get what I wanted, I had to work very hard.”
  • When a young person’s choice is informed by the consequence that follows, then that outcome can have instructional value: “At least I know more now than I did before.” “Going through all this has taught me a lot.”

Ignoring the connection

Sometimes the young person may not feel inclined or able to link choice to consequence.

  • The adolescent may not see the connection. Ignorance: “I didn’t know unpaid parking tickets could lead to a warrant for my arrest.” Parent: “Obeying the law can be worth learning the hard way.”
  • The adolescent may not admit the connection. Denial: “Just because I lied is no reason for them not to trust me.” Parent: “Most people want truth and are put off by dishonesty.”
  • The adolescent may not care about the connection. Apathy: “So what if skipping homework lowers my grades?” Parent: “What feels like it doesn’t matter now can matter a lot to you later on.”
  • The adolescent may not feel able to stop the connection. Habit: “I can’t keep from doing this to myself!” Parent: “If you can’t quit on your own, maybe help is needed.”

Teenage statements that disown or discount the choice/consequence connection can be frustrating, even alarming for parents: “What is it going to take for you to learn from your mistakes and not keep repeating them?” “How can you not see what you are doing to yourself?”

Sometimes it can take repeat encounters with unhappy consequences to finally convince a young person to acknowledge the linkage and consider making different choices with better outcomes the next time around. “Lateness to work got me fired again. If I want to keep a job, I’ll have to get up and show up on time.” Unwanted consequences can be positively persuasive.

Parental consequences can sometimes help

At certain times, young people may believe that living with injurious consequences is okay. Consider the example of what I call “the early adolescent achievement drop,” often occurring in early middle school, when the importance of doing schoolwork is now supplanted by the importance of enjoying time with friends. Part of the early adolescent awakening can be that “freedom is for fun,” as I was once told on youthful authority.

When the existing choice/consequence connection produces a negative outcome that does not inspire reform but begets acceptance, then parents may choose to intercede with consequences of their own. I’m not talking about rewards or punishments here. I’m talking about providing supervision, in this case the parents saying something like this:

“We expect you to keep doing your classwork and homework even at a time when there are more pleasurable things you want to do. Therefore, until you can do this on your own, we will give you our support at school and at home.

For example, if you can’t remember to bring assignments home, one of us will meet you at the end of school and together we will walk the halls and meet with each of your teachers to make sure all homework is brought home. At home we will sit with you as long as it takes until all the work gets adequately completed.

If you can’t remember to turn it in, one of us will accompany you to school and walk the halls together to help you turn the homework in to each teacher. And if for some reason you cannot complete classwork, one of us will get permission from the teacher to sit with you and help you concentrate and get it done.”

Outraged at this proposal, the young person may object: “You can’t do any of that; you’ll embarrass me!” To which the parents can simply reply: “Part of our job is to help you keep performing up to operating capacity at school. We would not do this to embarrass you, only to help you take care of business for your sake now and later. If you would like to do without this support, just take charge of doing the work yourself.”

Self-defeating behavior

Parents need to pay attention when their teenager appears to be engaged in significant self-defeating behavior, times when hard consequences do not convince the teenager to change choices. Now the young person can get caught up in a cycle of self-defeat, repeatedly acting enemy to their best interests but now knowing how to stop.

Lying to get out of lies, procrastinating until it's too late, cutting on oneself to manage pain — these are all unhappy examples of repeated self-damaging behaviors that can feel hard to stop.

If they see this, they need to talk about it with their afflicted daughter or son – not with criticism, but with concern. “We think you may be hurting yourself by how you’re acting, and we’d like to share what we see going on.” And if the young person feels or appears stuck, they might consider getting some counseling help because left unattended, self-defeating behavior can do a lot of harm.

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