Responsibility for pre-teens and teenagers: what you need to know
To become capable adults, pre-teens and teenagers need to become responsible and make decisions on their own. This is an important part of their journey to young adulthood.
Helping your child learn to take responsibility and make decisions is an important job. You’ll need to think about when and in what areas to let your child start making decisions.
How quickly you hand over responsibility to your child is up to you and your child. It depends on things like your own comfort level, your family and cultural traditions, and your child’s maturity.
Ideally, you and your child should both feel comfortable with the shift of responsibility and the pace of change. Too much or too soon might leave you both feeling overwhelmed. Too little or too slow might end up with your child feeling impatient or rebellious.
How to start shifting responsibility: yes, no and maybe
Shifting responsibility to your child is a gradual process. It starts with letting your child make their own choices in some areas, or asking them to take on responsibility for certain things. You might not like all your child’s choices, but learning to be responsible helps your child develop skills for life.
When you’re thinking about whether to give your child more responsibility or ask them to take on more responsibility, you have three options – yes, no and maybe.
The ‘yes’ option
This is for issues or activities that you feel your child:
- is ready to take on – for example, walking or riding to school alone
- should be expected to take on – for example, cooking a family meal once a week or paying for their own clothes from pocket money
- should be deciding themselves – for example, choosing their own hairstyle or clothes.
When you put something in the ‘yes’ basket, you’re saying that you’ll accept your child’s decision, even if it’s not what you would prefer, or you’ll expect them to take on the task.
If your child handles the responsibility in a way you like, you can show your approval. If you don’t like the decision, stand back and try not to step in, unless you think your child is in danger. These are opportunities for your child to learn from experience. If things don’t work out the way your child wanted, you can talk with your child about what they could do differently next time.
The ‘no’ option
You might say ‘no’ to decisions that relate to potentially dangerous activities.
For example, these might involve things teenagers aren’t yet legally allowed to decide for themselves, like drinking alcohol. Or they might be things that could have a negative effect on other members of the family – for example, if your child’s decision would cost a lot of money.
Making the ‘no’ option work is about good communication and clear limits on behaviour. For example, the way you say ‘no’ matters. Rather than forbidding something, it might be better to say, ‘I am not going to agree to this at this stage because …’. Also, if you stay calm and explain why something isn’t OK just now, it’ll help your child accept the decision.
The ‘maybe’ option
This is the grey area. You and your child might be able to negotiate a way to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes,’ depending on the circumstances. This might involve letting your child try something new to see how it goes – for example, letting your child go to the skatepark with their friends one afternoon a week.
Negotiating a ‘yes’ gives your child the chance to show you that they’re ready for more responsibility.
Deciding when you and your child are ready to shift responsibility
You might need to experiment to work out when and in what areas your child is ready for more responsibility.
You could start by using family meetings to give your child a real voice in important decisions. This helps your child feel valued. It’s also a good way for you to learn more about how your child deals with choices.
Here are some other things to consider.
Level of maturity
Some teenagers are more mature than others, and their ability to act responsibly varies from situation to situation. Think about your child’s skills when deciding whether they’re ready for responsibility. For example, a teenage child who asks to go to the city with friends might be allowed to go if they’ve been responsible when going out with friends at other times.
Learning from experience
Teenagers need the opportunity to work out some things for themselves. If there’s no immediate danger, experience can be an effective teacher too. Experience gives your child the chance to show you how responsible they can be. It also gives them practice and confidence in making decisions.
Legal age is when you’re legally allowed to do things like leave school or home, get a job or licence, give medical or sexual consent, drink alcohol, and so on. Legal age means some things need to stay in the ‘no’ category, regardless of what other teenagers do and other parents allow.
Level of risk
Teenagers don’t always think about long-term consequences, and they sometimes want to do things that put their safety and wellbeing at risk. You might decide that going to an all-night party involves more risk than benefit, but going to a late movie screening might be fine.
Effects on others
If your child’s choices are unfair or hurtful to others, you might choose to keep some control. For example, if your child chooses to play loud music late at night, you might not let them make that decision if it disturbs other members of the family. Ground rules like ‘Music gets turned down after 9 pm’ also help when your child wants to make choices that affect others.
Your family values
Are you willing to let your child make decisions or behave in ways that clash with your values? For example, parents who believe kindness and tolerance are important probably won’t let their child behave disrespectfully towards others.
Looking after yourself
Setting boundaries is also about protecting your own rights and needs. You might say ‘no’ if your child’s request is unreasonable or places an unfair burden on you – for example, driving children around all day, or paying for a lot of expensive equipment.
Your ultimate aim is to give your child independence in more important areas, like going out unsupervised or making decisions about future study or employment.
Potential problems with shifting responsibility
If you don’t let your child have any responsibility, they have no chance to make decisions and learn through experience.
When responsibility comes too fast, teenagers might end up making bad decisions and undermining their confidence by doing things they’re not quite ready for. If you and your child aren’t sure about a new responsibility, you could use problem-solving to work out whether your child is ready for it. Sometimes it helps to talk with other parents to get a sense of what they think is reasonable at a particular age.
When rules are broken
Staying connected to your child is the best way to ensure that rules you’ve agreed on are respected. You might also want to decide and agree on consequences for when rules are broken.
When decisions go bad
Decision-making is a learning experience for your child. Not all of their decisions will be good ones. Problem-solving can help you work with your child to make better decisions and learn from mistakes.