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Techniques to Develop Trust and Responsible Behaviors in Teens

Avoid Giving Sentences
"Go to your room." "You're not allowed to watch television this weekend." "You can't use the phone for four weeks." "You will have to stay in after school for a week." These statements work well with some teenagers, but not with others. Some adolescents serve the sentence, then do the same thing again. Sentences are primarily given to change an attitude and to get a teenager to think differently. Sentences work with the "attitude kid," but not with some other personality types.

Some teenagers work better toward things when there are goals or incentives. If you do give these youngsters a sentence, you want to put a light at the end of the tunnel; that is, a way they can work toward something or get out of the sentence. For example, rather than say, "Because you have been doing poorly in school, you cannot use the phone for four weeks," it would be better to explain, "You are grounded from using the phone for four weeks because you are doing poorly in school. However, each evening that you do your homework and do not give me any trouble, you will be able to talk on the phone that night." For some teenagers, if all you give is a sentence, the only thing that you can be sure will happen is that they will not talk on the phone and will serve the sentence. Their attitude toward homework or schoolwork will probably not improve. However, if you give them a sentence with a light at the end of the tunnel (a way to work out of the sentence), you may get a better response regarding their homework and schoolwork.

Avoid Excessive Explaining, Lectures, and Reasoning
Teenagers look forward to lectures about as much as we do to a heart attack. Many parents talk, explain, reason, and lecture too much. For some adolescents, this approach will not benefit in developing a better understanding of the situation, nor will it help them to acquire responsible behaviors. Some teenagers will not accept explanations or reasons why they have to do something. One, five, fifty, or five hundred explanations will not satisfy them or make them understand. The only thing that will please them is what they want to hear. A teenager faced with a history test may ask, "Why do I have to study history? I'll never use it. It's dumb." After you offer numerous logical reasons and explanations of why history is an important subject, he is still objecting. The only thing that will satisfy him is for you to say, "Yes, you're right. History is dumb. Don't study for the test." However, you cannot respond in this fashion. Sometimes the only reason that it is necessary is "Because I said so."

Model Responsible Behaviors
We are very powerful models for our children. They learn both good and bad behaviors from watching us and seeing how we solve problems, deal with certain situations, or interact with people. If your teenager sees you acting in an irresponsible fashion or showing a lack of internal control, there is a strong probability that she will learn this type of behavior. Show her responsible actions.

Assign Chores
A large majority of parents feel that the performance of chores or duties around the house is a big part of developing responsibility. Giving a teenager duties around the house will not, by itself, develop responsibility, but it will help. When assigning tasks, you must state not only what you expect, but also what the consequences of failure to do the chores will be. There are several ways to do this.

An allowance may be based on chores. A teenager gets a certain amount of money for her allowance each week. Her jobs are to clean the cat's litter box every day and wash the dishes four times a week. Each time she does these chores without being told, she earns a portion of her allowance. If she does not do them without being told, she loses that portion of her allowance. Whether she gets the full allowance at the end of the week is totally her responsibility.

Another teenager's duty is to put his clothes away after they are placed on his bed. The rule might state, "I won't wash any more of your clothes until the clothes that have been placed on your bed are put away."

The adolescent's duty is to feed the dog, but she never does it without being told. Her mother might say, "You don't get your supper until the dog is fed." The natural consequence of not being responsible is that the teenager's supper is delayed and she may get hungry.

A youngster may be told, "If the bathroom is clean by noon, I'll drive you to your friend's house. If it is not clean by then, I'll have to clean it. Since that will give me more work and involve more of my time, I will not be able to drive you. You will have to walk to your friend's."

The use of logical or natural consequences can center around chores. You tell a child, "This is our house and we are all responsible for what has to be done in the house. Your father has certain responsibilities, your sister has chores, I have many things to do to keep the house running, and you also have certain jobs. If you do not hold up your end and do not do what you are supposed to do, that means someone else will have to do it. When this happens, the other person has to use his or her time and energy to complete your responsibilities and will have less time and energy to do things for you." In other words, if the teenager cannot perform duties and tasks around the house to help other family members and make things easier for all involved, then the rest of the family will not do things for the teenager that will help him out or make things run more smoothly for him.

Chores can help develop self-discipline and responsibility, but they can also teach the adolescent to manipulate her parents if the parents do not consistently monitor the behavior. A teenager's chore is to clean her room before she leaves the house on Saturday. However, even though she does not always perform the task, she is still allowed to leave. If this happens, the parents are encouraging inappropriate behaviors and a lack of responsibility in the child.

In assigning chores, you must be very specific and define exactly what you mean by a clean room or a straightened kitchen. You must also specify the consequences of this behavior ahead of time. Your teenager's definition of a clean room may be different from yours, so it has to be clearly defined.

Once the rule and consequences are clearly spelled out, you should deal with a lack of compliance in a very calm and matter-of-fact way. For example, you tell your teenager, "You have to take out the trash by seven every night. If it is not taken out by then, I will take it out and you will not receive a portion of your allowance that day." If the chore is not completed, you should follow through with the specific consequence rather than nag, remind, lecture, or shout.

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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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