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Techniques to Develop Trust and Responsible Behaviors in Teens

Avoid Assuming Responsibility
You should not assume responsibility for the teenager or her behavior. Make her responsible. If you force her to do her homework every night or do it for her, you are more responsible for the work being completed than the child. If you have to tell your son 47 times to take out the garbage before he complies, you are more responsible for the task than the child is. And the next night you will probably have to do the same thing. The teenager completes the task, but he doesn't develop responsibility or independent behavior. You may have to act as his motivator until he gets married or leaves the house.

For days a parent tells her child to clean his room, but it never gets done. Eventually, she gets fed up, drags him to the room, stands over him, and makes him clean it. In several minutes the room is spotless, but who is responsible for the room being cleaned? The parent. A better way to get this room cleaned and encourage responsibility in the teenager would be to spell out expectations and consequences ahead of time. Put the responsibility on the adolescent. Avoid forcing him to do what he is supposed to do.

These same situations occur when parents allow a teenager to become dependent on them. Either the parents help the teenager excessively, or they do things for her. This may involve picking up after teens, keeping their rooms cleaned, waking them up for school, locating their keys. When parents act in this way, the adolescent finds it difficult to learn independent and responsible behaviors because it is easier to let someone else do things for her. Avoid allowing the teenager to become too dependent on you for performing tasks for her that she is physically capable of doing.

Children who are spoiled and often have their needs met for them, who are in more control than their parents, or who frequently get their own way also have a difficult time developing responsible behaviors. The same situation exists when parents "run interference" for the teenager and protect him from experiencing the consequences of his actions. This parent-child interaction should be avoided to establish self-discipline and responsibility.

Make the Consequences Different for Positive and for Negative Behaviors
Some teenagers do not develop responsible behaviors because the same thing happens to them whether they perform the required task or not. The adolescent thinks, "I'll be able to go out Friday night whether or not I cooperate around the house" or "I'll be able to use the computer whether or not I do my homework." If someone said to me, "You can go to work and I will pay you, or you can stay home and I will pay you," I certainly would be out fishing instead of working. In fact, I would have to be stupid to go to work. The same situation exists for children who feel that if they get into a jam, they will be able to manipulate their way out of the situation and again they will not experience the consequences. You have to make the consequences different for teenagers if you expect to change their behavior or develop an attitude of responsibility. In other words, one thing will happen if the adolescent cooperates around the house, and something entirely different will happen if he does not cooperate. Be sure the teenager is experiencing different consequences for different behaviors.

Win the War and Forget About the Battles
Sometimes it is better to lose a few battles, but win the war. It may be more important for your teenager to experience the consequences of his behavior than it would be for you to get the task accomplished. For example, you say, "You cannot leave the house today until you clean the fish tank." He comes back with, "I don't care. I didn't want to go anywhere. I'm going in the den to watch television." Now you think, "What am I going to do now?" The answer is "Nothing." The rule sticks. In this example, getting the fish tank cleaned should be actually the fourth thing you are trying to accomplish. The first thing is to make the teenager aware that there will be two different consequences to his behavior, positive and negative. The second thing you are trying to achieve is to teach the child that he is responsible for his behavior. In other words, "Whether you go out in two minutes, two hours, two days, or two weeks, there is only one person in the entire world who can determine that and that is you. You are responsible for what happens to you." The third thing is to teach him: "I am going to do what you tell me to do. I am going to consistently follow through with the consequences that you decide. The consequences that happen to you depend totally on your actions. If you do not clean the fish tank, you are telling me that you do not want to leave the house and I am going to be sure that this happens. If you clean the tank, you are telling me that you want to go outside and I will follow through with that."

Sometimes, parents continually battle with a teenager - about homework, cleaning up the bathroom, picking up clothes, cleaning up after herself. They try to win each battle by forcing the child to do what they request. Although they eventually win each battle, the teenager does not develop any independent or responsible behavior. Your daughter refuses to help in the kitchen and you tell her, "If you do not help me, I will not be able to pick up your boyfriend after school tomorrow and bring him to the house. If you help me, I will be able to bring him." Now perhaps the child will refuse to help you in the kitchen and not have you pick up her boyfriend. You may look at this as, "I lost. She won." However, it is more important that she experience the consequences of not cooperating than that you force her to help. After this happens a few times, she may be more responsive when you say, "Would you please help me in the kitchen?" For some behaviors, it may not be important to get the child to comply. When the teenager experiences the consequences of her behavior today, you may get more cooperation tomorrow. Most times you can forget about the battles and focus on the war.

Do not get into power struggles if the teenager refuses to cooperate. You are dealing with a young adult and must exert a different form of control than used with the younger child. A parent tells a teenager to do something, he refuses, then an argument starts and develops into a power struggle. Avoid this scenario whenever possible and deal with your teen calmly.

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From Keys to Parenting Your Teenager by Don Fontenelle, Ph.D. Copyright 2000 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

Buy the book at Barron's.


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