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How Parents Can Teach Adolescents Responsibility

Encourage owning choices, following regulations, and meeting obligations.

Key points

  • Responsibility is learned by owning personal decisions, complying with social rules, and keeping promises and agreements.
  • Adolescents can resist responsibility when truth feels painful to tell, when compliance feels restrictive, and when promises are hard to keep.
  • Responsibility requires dealing with outcomes of choices which are sometimes welcome, and sometimes not.
  • For parents, teaching responsibility can require thankless education at the time, but is empowering in the years ahead.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

At any age, responsibility is very simple and very complicated to practice. You have to act in three challenging ways:

  • By owning decisions (the challenge of honesty)
  • By complying with rules (the challenge of obedience)
  • By keeping agreements (the challenge of commitment)

Responsibility empowers by assuming accountability, following requirements, and honoring promises.

Resisting Responsibility

For adolescents, who are developmentally driven by growing independence, responsibility can sometimes feel like the enemy of immediate self-interest in three common ways:

  • Truth may feel costly to admit (it can feel easier to lie).
  • Compliance may feel restrictive (it can limit what you can do).
  • Promises may feel burdensome to keep (they can feel tempting to break).

Parents can consider these three components of responsibility one at a time.

Responsibility as Accountability

There is no “free” human choice because every choice comes with consequences—sometimes unexpected and unwanted. “Good” decisions can have welcome outcomes; “bad” decisions can cause regret.

Adolescent: “It wasn’t my fault; I was just following along. And besides, I never meant for this to happen.”

But pleading peer pressure and ignorance does not excuse wrongdoing.

Parent: “You chose to go along and the unexpected occurred. You are accountable for where your actions led. Acting responsibly means dealing with unanticipated outcomes of your choices.”

Responsibility as Compliance

Because everyone lives within many societal systems—like governmental, educational, occupational, and legal—everyone’s life is bound by many rules and restrictions.

Adolescent: “It’s not fair I’m being punished for rule-breaking when most of the time I do what’s required.”

But good conduct does not excuse occasional bad behavior.

Parent: “Following rules is not a matter of convenience, but is a constant requirement. Committing violations can cost you freedom. Acting responsibly means following and obeying rules.”

Responsibility as Commitment

Human relationships are governed by a host of formal, and even more informal, contracts that allow people to trust each other, confident that assurances and agreements will be kept.

Adolescent: “Just because I didn’t keep my promise this time doesn’t mean I won’t keep it next time.”

But commitments are contractual and are meant to be kept.

Parent: “When you state you will do something, we rely upon what you say; break that pledge and we can’t trust your word. Acting responsible is doing what you said you would.”

The Task

For parents, teaching responsibility often requires thankless education. Unpopular at the time, these lessons can have enduring and empowering value over time as the adolescent practices telling the truth, following the rules, and keeping agreements.

Responsibility empowers independence.

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