Helping teens learn independence and responsibility – part 2

Parents can help teens learn independence and responsibility through modeling, consistency and teaching decision making skills.

Michigan State University Extension offers a program called Building Strong Adolescents, which teaches ways to help teens learn independence and responsibility. Part one of this series is titled Helping teens learn independence and responsibility – part 1.

Parents who model responsible behavior provide a template for their teens to follow on their journey to independence. Parents who approach their own work, and social and family responsibilities with commitment provide the best unspoken lesson in responsible living. Parents should have a positive attitude when approaching their obligations and duties, even when the tasks are not always pleasant (paying taxes and bills, for example). Parents who show courage and care when facing their own decisions, try their best, fully utilize their strengths, acknowledge and correct their own mistakes, and continually try to improve themselves send an important message about responsibility to their teens.

Consistency is also important, meaning parents should "practice what they preach." Teens find it difficult to recognize the value of responsible behavior if their parents avoid responsibility. This should be enforced even if the youngest adolescents are able to detect hypocrisy and know when parents do not live by their words.

Teaching teens to make good decisions is key to helping them become responsible. As parents, our goal is to encourage kids to be thoughtful about their behavior BEFORE they act. The idea is that teens will first make a good decision, and then act on that decision in a responsible way, which will lead them to earn more responsibility toward independence.

So, when should teens be given freedom to buy all their own clothes? Get a part-time job? Buy a car? Go where they want on a date? Drive their friends to a game 30 miles away? The point at which teens are mature and responsible enough to make these types of independent choices is never easy to determine. Almost every parental decision about granting teens a new freedom is full of complicated questions and details. How do you decide when it is their choice to make, not yours? There are many areas where teens do and should have control over their choices. If the choice:

  • Involves primarily the teen and his or her world.
  • Does not involve the health or safety of the teen.
  • Allows the teen to explore his or her own interests, abilities or preferences.
  • Will not adversely affect others.

Then it probably is an area where the teen should and could make their own decisions.

Sometimes, it can be hard for parents to let teens make choices, even if they don't think their teen or others will necessarily be "hurt" by a poor decision. Often parents have difficulty letting kids make their own decisions because:

  • They feel they know what is best.
  • They want to spare their teen hurt or disappointment.
  • They are concerned that the decision that is made will not be the one they would have made for the teen.
  • They are concerned about the relations or responses of others to the decision.
  • They would like to maintain control over the teen's life.

However, teens cannot learn to be responsible without the chance to practice making decisions. Therefore, parents must work to encourage teens to approach decision making in a thoughtful manner. So what does that look like? Try teaching you teen the following six steps that are involved in good decision making.

Six Steps in Decision Making

  1. Look at the decision as it relates to your goals or to what you really want.
  2. Gather information.
  3. Consider the alternatives.
  4. Predict consequences.
  5. Go back and think about what you really want.
  6. Act and evaluate.

Start small and give teens some experience practicing decision making in some safe, appropriate ways. For example, plan a fishing trip with friends. Walk through the steps as they develop the plan, being a consultant, not a decision maker.

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