Responsibility and teenagers: what you need to know
During the teenage years, children’s need for responsibility and autonomy gets stronger – it’s an important part of their path to young adulthood. To become capable adults, teenagers need to learn to make good decisions on their own.
The process of helping children take responsibility and make decisions is a key task for parents. You have an important role in training and supporting your child to be ready for more responsibility. This means you need to plan 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. 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 her own choices in some areas, or asking her 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 to ask him 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 by herself
- should be expected to take on – for example, cooking a family meal once a week or paying for her own clothes from her pocket money
- should be up to your child – choosing her own hair cut 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 him 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.
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 impact 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 setting clear limits on behaviour. For example, the way you say ‘no’ matters. Giving the impression you absolutely forbid something might not be as helpful as saying, ‘I am not going to agree to this at this stage because …’.
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 her friends one afternoon a week.
Deciding when you and your child are ready to shift responsibility
Everyone is different. You might need to experiment to work out when and in what areas your child is ready for more responsibility.
A good way to start is to use 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 she 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 he’s ready for responsibility. For example, a teenager who asks to go to the city with friends might be allowed to go if he has been responsible when going out with friends at other times.
Learning from experience
Teenagers need the opportunity to work some things out for themselves. If there is no immediate danger, life can be an effective teacher too. This approach also has the benefit of giving you more time to manage and enjoy your own life. It gives your child the chance to show you how responsible she can be too.
With drinking, smoking and education or employment, for example, there are legal issues to think about, as well as your child’s health and wellbeing:
- The legal drinking age in all Australia states and territories is 18 years. Australian guidelines say that young people under the age of 15 should have no alcohol at all, and health experts recommend waiting until 18 years.
- Until they’re 17, young people must be in full-time work, at school, in training or a combination of work and training.
- It’s illegal to buy cigarettes under the age of 18 years.
These 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.
Impact 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 him 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
Parents also set boundaries to protect their 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 lots of expensive equipment.
Potential problems with shifting responsibility
If you don’t let your child have any responsibility, she has 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 teenager aren’t sure about a new responsibility, you could use problem-solving to work out whether your child is ready for it.
When rules are broken
Staying connected to your child is the best way to ensure that rules you’ve agreed on are respected. But most teenagers will challenge the rules at some point. It’s one of the things that teenagers do as part of testing boundaries. You might 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 his decisions will be good ones. Problem-solving can help you work with your child to make better decisions and learn from mistakes.