Teaching Teens Accountability and Responsibility

 "Being Sneaky"
By Julie Baumgardner

teen girl hiding behind treeA young lady told her parents she was going to the movies with friends. When asked what movie they were going to see, she promptly told her parents one title knowing that she intended to view an R rated movie, which would be unacceptable to her parents. She says she will never forget the moment when someone sat down next to her in the movie theater…it was her father!
Another teen’s parents specifically told her she could not have a space on facebook.com or myspace.com. Over time her parents suspected she had a space. After being confronted, she confessed, but felt justified in her actions because “everyone else is doing it.”
Some would say this is typical behavior for teens and just part of growing up. But in a world with so much uncertainty, how much room should parents give their children?
“Both of these examples are excellent reminders of why parents need to remain vigilant,” said Pam Johnson, local therapist. “These days, teens often come across as pseudo-sophisticated. If parents are not careful, they can make the mistake of falling into the illusion that they are just dealing with young adults when that is not the case.”
Research shows that the adolescent brain is still under development even into the early 20’s. An adolescent’s sense of right and wrong, of healthy appropriate boundaries, their sense of how to assess a situation – what is safe and what is not – are all still developing. While they do have a lot of knowledge, teens typically don’t accept the fact that bad things can happen to them.
“Regardless of whether a child believes he has the right to do something, it is the parent’s job to impress upon him that as long as you live in this house these are the expectations you will live by,” said Mrs. Johnson. “There have been times with my own children when I have made a decision based on existing information. Later on, I received more information and I changed my mind. This boils down to issues of personal respect, safety, truth and honesty. These are essential. I have to be able to trust my kids. If I can’t trust my children to do what I expect of them, whether in my presence or not, there is a cost that impacts our relationship and potentially every other relationship my child has.”
When teaching teens about accountability and responsibility Mrs. Johnson encourages parents to remember these things:

  • Start with the premise that adolescents are not finished developing yet. They are
    on a huge learning curve. If they were toddlers and just beginning to walk, would we turn them loose in a crowd and let people knock them all around or would we be there to provide safety and structure? As adolescents, they are toddlers entering the adult world. Letting them toddle into adulthood without a safety net could be very dangerous.
    Many teens try to justify their actions with statements like, “I wanted it so I should have it,” or “Everybody else is doing it therefore, I should be able to,” this is not uncommon. However, it is the parent’s job not to ignore this kind of faulty thinking. Part of the safety net is teaching them why this thinking will not get them where they want to be in life.
  • Open communication with your teen is critical. Expect your child to tell you the
    truth and understand that they probably will make mistakes in judgment. It is your job to stay one step ahead of them.
  • When teens are sneaky, appropriate consequences should follow. They need to
    understand what happens when trust is lost and what you have to do to rebuild that trust.
  • Be a savvy parent. Pay attention to their internet practices. Call other parents to
    confirm plans. The goal is to teach not breed contempt and hostility.
  • Be careful not to make decisions based on fear. Your goal is to constantly
    assess their ability to handle a situation and make decisions based on fact.

“I remember the first time my daughter wanted to go to Florida on spring break,” said Mrs. Johnson. “She was 18 and had never given us a reason not to trust her. I felt good about the people she was going with, but I had trouble swallowing the fact that three girls would be by themselves on the road. They had good track records and I realized she would be leaving for college in a few months. Even though I was concerned about the environment, we made the decision to let her go. I had to overcome my fear.
The ultimate goal is to raise responsible adults. Learning and applying these valuable lessons during the adolescent years can help them develop the critical thinking skills necessary to successfully meet life’s challenges. The next time you feel your teen wearing you down, hang in there and keep the big picture in mind.


Biography: Julie Baumgardner is the Executive Director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at julieb@firstthings.org.

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